Project is off to a great start, you have representation from all of your stakeholders and everyone is going to attend the first brainstorming session. Everything is going perfect until your boss says oh by the way I will be attending your workshop.
Even if you have a good relationship with your boss, running a brainstorming session with different levels of authority present can be at the least uncomfortable to a down right disaster. The challenge is usually ensuring that everyone has an equal say in the idea generating and that no one individual can dominate or push a specific agenda or even force a specific outcome.
I have been in many cross level sessions and in a well managed environment the facilitator will utilize a number of different techniques to discretely neutralize these potentially disruptive influences. But what if you don’t have a trained facilitator and perhaps you haven’t encounter this situation before ?
Here are a few variations on the idea generation process that can get even the most reticent person involved as well as creating a level field for the idea generation.
There are 2 prerequisites that must be in place:
1. The statement or issue to be brainstormed is clearly stated and understood by everyone
2. A set of rules is presented and agreed upon such as no criticism of ideas, the crazier the better, all ideas are documented and visible, build on the ideas and encourage participation.
The classic approach is to have each person state an idea that is recorded on a flip chart and in a structured environment each person has a turn building on or providing new or variations on the ideas. If no idea is presented then they pass. The session is over when everyone passes. In an unstructured environment ideas are voiced by anyone at anytime. The disadvantage of this is that a quiet person or one that is intimidated will not participate fully.
An alternative would be brainwriting, and this is more suitable to individual expression where individuals write down up to 4 ideas on a paper and then either pass it on to the next person (6-3-5 method) or select a previously completed paper to modify or add to those ideas. Eventually when no more ideas are being generated, the papers are gathered and ideas consolidated.
Using the traditional sticky paper where ideas are first noted down by each individual and then grouped and organized by the team. This approach has a tendency not to generate builds or go off on different directions.
The use of analogies / free word association can result in unusual connections by comparing the problem to seemingly unrelated objects, creatures and words. Similarly visual brainstorming makes use of the team producing a picture of how they see a situation or problem. These approaches are all participatory and can be dominated by the more vocal elements so a facilitator is necessary to ensure that all participate.
In a group where only advantages or disadvantages of a problem are identified, or when members fo the group are polarized and arguing, a method called Plus Minus, Interesting PMI, can be used. Clearly identify the subject of the PMI, then brainstorm the positive aspects of the idea, then the negative aspects finally the interesting points of the idea – neutral aspects, points to explore, or unusual features.
An important element in getting the ideas ranked is the multivoting approach, where each idea ( after consolidation) is ranked based on the groups opinion. This is another potential area for influencing the outcome if not handled properly. In an open voting system, each person selects one third of the items on the list and then the votes are tallied by a count of hands for each item. Then eliminate the items with the fewest votes and redo the voting until a manageable list is made. Note that this does not discard the idea or say that it is not important, just that in the context of the particular issue under discussion these items rank lower than the others, and they may be addressed later.
In lieu of public voting, each person has a set number of stars or check marks and then place them on the items they deem important, or they rank them and place a 1, 2, 3 etc on the top 5 ideas. This method encourages anonymity and identifies the sequence based on the majority. Thus one individual would not be able to easily influence the outcome.
A more formal method that combines and uses these techniques is referred to as the Nominal Group Technique (NGT) and many trained facilitators favour this approach.
The importance of any brainstorming session is the usable ideas and solutions that are generated by the group. The follow through of actually implementing or doing additional research is necessary to ensure that the time and resources have been well utilized. If no visible outcome is seen, it becomes harder and harder to get people involved on other projects.
The following references can provide more detail on these concepts:
The Team Handbook Peter Scholtes
The quality Toolbox Nancy R Tague
The Creativity Tools Memory Jogger Goal OPC