Seven steps to better brainstorming

Here is a brief excerpt from an article written by Kevin P. Coyne and Shawn T. Coyne for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company (2011). To read the complete article, check out other resources, learn more about the firm, obtain subscription information, and register to receive email alerts, please click here.

To learn more about the McKinsey Quarterly, please click here.

* * *

Most attempts at brainstorming are doomed.

To generate better ideas—and boost the odds that your organization will act on them—start by asking better questions.

Companies run on good ideas. From R&D groups seeking pipelines of innovative new products to ops teams probing for time-saving process improvements to CEOs searching for that next growth opportunity—all senior managers want to generate better and more creative ideas consistently in the teams they form, participate in, and manage.

Yet all senior managers, at some point, experience the pain of pursuing new ideas by way of traditional brainstorming sessions—still the most common method of using groups to generate ideas at companies around the world. The scene is familiar: a group of people, often chosen largely for political reasons, begins by listening passively as a moderator (often an outsider who knows little about your business) urges you to “Get creative!” and “Think outside the box!” and cheerfully reminds you that “There are no bad ideas!”

The result? Some attendees remain stone-faced throughout the day, others contribute sporadically, and a few loudly dominate the session with their pet ideas. Ideas pop up randomly—some intriguing, many preposterous—but because the session has no structure, little momentum builds around any of them. At session’s end, the group trundles off with a hazy idea of what, if anything, will happen next. “Now we can get back to real work,” some whisper.

It doesn’t have to be like this. We’ve led or observed 200 projects over the past decade at more than 150 companies in industries ranging from retailing and education to banking and communications. That experience has helped us develop a practical approach that captures the energy typically wasted in a traditional brainstorming session and steers it in a more productive direction. The trick is to leverage the way people actually think and work in creative problem-solving situations.

We call our approach “brainsteering,” and while it requires more preparation than traditional brainstorming, the results are worthwhile: better ideas in business situations as diverse as inventing new products and services, attracting new customers, designing more efficient business processes, or reducing costs, among others. The next time you assign one of your people to lead an idea generation effort—or decide to lead one yourself—you can significantly improve the odds of success by following the seven steps below.

1. Know your organization’s decision-making criteria

One reason good ideas hatched in corporate brainstorming sessions often go nowhere is that they are beyond the scope of what the organization would ever be willing to consider. “Think outside the box!” is an unhelpful exhortation if external circumstances or company policies create boxes that the organization truly must live within.

Managers hoping to spark creative thinking in their teams should therefore start by understanding (and in some cases shaping) the real criteria the company will use to make decisions about the resulting ideas. Are there any absolute restrictions or limitations, for example? A bank we know wasted a full day’s worth of brainstorming because the session’s best ideas all required changing IT systems. Yet senior management—unbeknownst to the workshop planners—had recently “locked down” the IT agenda for the next 18 months.

Likewise, what constitutes an acceptable idea? At a different, smarter bank, workshop planners collaborated with senior managers on a highly specific (and therefore highly valuable) definition tailored to meet immediate needs. Good ideas would require no more than $5,000 per branch in investment and would generate incremental profits quickly. Further, while three categories of ideas—new products, new sales approaches, and pricing changes—were welcome, senior management would balk at ideas that required new regulatory approvals. The result was a far more productive session delivering exactly what the company wanted: a fistful of ideas, in all three target categories, that were practical, affordable, and profitable within one fiscal year.

2. Ask the right questions

Decades of academic research shows that traditional, loosely structured brainstorming techniques (“Go for quantity—the greater the number of ideas, the greater the likelihood of winners!”) are inferior to approaches that provide more structure.1The best way we’ve found to provide it is to use questions as the platform for idea generation.

In practice, this means building your workshop around a series of “right questions” that your team will explore in small groups during a series of idea generation sessions (more about these later). The trick is to identify questions with two characteristics. First, they should force your participants to take a new and unfamiliar perspective. Why? Because whenever you look for new ways to attack an old problem—whether it’s lowering your company’s operating costs or buying your spouse a birthday gift—you naturally gravitate toward thinking patterns and ideas that worked in the past. Research shows that, over time, you’ll come up with fewer good ideas, despite increased effort. Changing your participants’ perspective will shake up their thinking. (For more on how to do this, see “Sparking creativity in teams: An executive’s guide.”) The second characteristic of a right question is that it limits the conceptual space your team will explore, without being so restrictive that it forces particular answers or outcomes.

It’s easier to show such questions in practice than to describe them in theory. A consumer electronics company looking to develop new products might start with questions such as “What’s the biggest avoidable hassle our customers endure?” and “Who uses our product in ways we never expected?” By contrast, a health insurance provider looking to cut costs might ask, “What complexity do we plan for daily that, if eliminated, would change the way we operate?” and “In which areas is the efficiency of a given department ‘trapped’ by outdated restrictions placed on it by company policies?”2

In our experience, it’s best to come up with 15 to 20 such questions for a typical workshop attended by about 20 people. Choose the questions carefully, as they will form the heart of your workshop—your participants will be discussing them intensively in small subgroups during a series of sessions.

* * *

Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Kevin P. Coyne and Shawn T. Coyne, both alumni of McKinsey’s Atlanta office, are cofounders and managing directors of the Coyne Partnership, a boutique strategy consulting firm. This article is adapted from their book, Brainsteering: A Better Approach to Breakthrough Ideas (HarperCollins, March 2011).

Posted in

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.