Brainstorming Rules

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How will you react the next time your boss throws you into an impromptu brainstorming session? Hopefully, in my past articles you’ve learned tools and techniques that will help you come up with creative ideas that wow your colleagues and boss, but first you have to establish the ground rules for the session so that your brilliant plan will not be ignored.

I know what you’re thinking; “Rules in a brainstorming session? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?”

Most people do not set brainstorming rules before a session, but I’ve found that laying out the guidelines before you begin really helps start – and keep – the creative juices flowing.

This list of rules is a result of trying many, many different rules and ideas from 100’s of web sites, authors, instructors, friends and colleges on the subject of brainstorming. I have added a strong dose of my own experience to solidify this list. These are the ones I found to be the most useful so far, but I am always trying new things as well. I encourage you to do the same, experiment and see what works best for you.

Rule Number One: Generate as Many Ideas as Possible.

Go for Quantity, not Quality.

The best way to get a great idea is to get a lot of ideas to choose from. Aim to write down four or five hundred ideas in your session. The list can always be cut down and prioritized later.

Another reason I emphasize quantity over quality is because quality doesn’t matter at this stage of the game. Have you ever been in a discussion where someone says something that’s crazy and someone else in the room stops and says, “That won’t work,” or “We don’t have the budget for that?” That type of judgment stops the momentum and drains brainstormers of their creativity.

Rule Number Two: Encourage Wild and Exaggerated Ideas, No Matter How Crazy, Ridiculous, or Farfetched the Idea Might Be.

Say, “OK guys, the person who comes up with most creative idea in the next hour wins.” Letting everyone know that craziness is OK for an hour, that craziness is, in fact, encouraged, will open the door to new ideas. You’d be surprised at the creativity that will flourish when you encourage crazy ideas.

Rule Number Three: There will be No Detailed Discussions about an Idea, Except to Provide Clarification.

When someone says something that’s really creative, many times the other people in the room will try and give a twenty-minute dissertation on why the idea isn’t completely nuts. Because the idea doesn’t fit the normal patterns of business conversation, the person feels responsible for defending the merit of their suggestion. Do not allow this to happen. Each person is allowed 10 to 15 seconds to explain the concept if it is really bizarre and unfamiliar to rest of the group, but they are not allowed to carry out a detailed conversation until the session is over.

Rule Number Four: Assign Someone as the Scribe.

The Scribe Should Write Down Every Idea – No Screening.

I have to emphasize the second part of this rule because screening happens all the time. Everyone’s shouting out ideas and somebody will say something really crazy, and the scribe won’t record their idea because they believe it’s too farfetched. Make certain that the scribe understands this rule.

Rule Number Five: Keep a Copy of the Rules in Plain View

The rules should be readily visible to everyone in the room. If anyone tries to overstep the boundaries and shoot down a rule, point to the list and politely tell the naysayer to shut up.

Rule Number Six: The Brainstorming List Must Be Visible to Everyone

Don’t let the scribe hide their list away out of sight. Everyone should be able to see the ideas that have already been generated. The list might provide the inspiration necessary for the next great idea, which brings me to my next point.

Rule Number Seven: Snowballing on Other Ideas is Encouraged

There is no such thing as a truly original idea. There I said it. If you think you have one, your arrogant and/or naive. Many of the greatest innovations of today are the result of someone piggy-backing on another person’s ideas. Even if an idea is only 10% different than another idea, say the new thought out loud and write it down. That 10% difference might be enough to make someone else think about the idea differently and allow them to expand upon the concept even further.

Rule Number Eight: Postpone and Withhold Judgment of Any Idea

Judgment is one of the biggest creative killers that exists. Judgment is even worse when it comes from a higher-up. Almost everyone has been in a situation where someone throws out a crazy idea and the most senior person in the room makes a face, raises an eyebrow, or makes a deprecating comment. Suddenly, there’s dead silence. I was once in a meeting when the Chairman of the Board stormed into the room and angrily demanded, “What ******* SOB came up with this ridiculous, stupid idea?” How many people would you guess raised their hand? What do you think that did to the team’s creativity?

Rule Number Nine: Leave Your Titles at the Door

This is the hardest rule for bosses. Whenever you do a brainstorming session, there is no vice president. There are no directors, bosses, or owners. I teach a lot of sessions in the military, and when I get to this rule I have to look at the highest ranking officer and say, “Is that crystal clear? Do you understand that you are not the boss for the next hour? I want you to be fully, totally, consciously aware that you are the person who is most likely to kill the creativity in this room.”

I almost have to embarrass the most senior person in this room so that I can make it clear that they’re probably going to mess the session up. To bring home this rule further, I sometimes set a camera up in the room from a distance and really zoom in the camera on the manager’s face without telling them. The camera records their facial expressions and body language in response to really creative ideas. I play the video back for them over lunch on the big screen and point out their expressions. I ask them, “Don’t you think your attitude hinders the creative process?”

Rule Number Ten: The Optimum Number of People is Between 8 And 12, with One-Third of the Group Being Outsiders

This one is the biggy and unfortunately the least practiced in business. The critical part of this rule is bringing in outsiders. Get people from outside your department, your company, or better yet, people from an entirely different industry to sit in on your session. Companies rarely ask outsiders to join them, but outsiders offer a unique View Point that insiders cannot see. Consider this: every company in the world has problems with cost, employee retention, and other common business issues. Your problems are not unique, everyone has very similar issues to deal with. An outsider might be able to shed some light on your company’s particular obstacle.

Most people think this rule won’t work because outsiders will not be interested in sitting in on a session, but the reality is that everyone wants to exchange ideas. Try implementing a “brainstorm exchange” program with another company. Both companies will benefit from the experience.

Setting rules for your brainstorming session will enable you to come up with more creative ideas and solutions for your business.

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