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Brainstorming: it is more than you think.

Ever run out of ideas? Having trouble figuring out how to reconfigure that complex network? Need a fresh approach to the maze of technology we call telecommunications?

This month's column offers a familiar, yet often overlooked, technique for obtaining effective results quickly: brainstorming. Chances are we've all participated in something called a "brainstorming" session at one time or another. What were the results? Was it worth the effort? More importantly, when was the session held?

Normally, our profession forces us to think linearly. For example, when we are faced with a problem, we normally use a more or less "standard" approach for solving it.

But suppose we could devise a highly innovative solution to a familiar problem. Accomplish the same goal but with a different approach. To the more conservative members of the audience, it might appear risky. Others might think it foolish and wasteful.

But suppose--just suppose--that different approach resulted in significant benefits to the company. And suppose it cost less than the more time-honored approach. Would the scoffers maintain their positions?

Here's what we're suggesting: Greater use of brainstorming could help eliminate a familiar statement in our business, "But it's the way we've always done it." Rarely does a day pass without someone making that statement, or one of its many clones.

So we're going to do some serious brainstorming. But it's more than gathering several people in a room, closing the door, and saying, "OK, let's brainstorm."

Success brainstorming needs someone to manage the session. Someone who knows how to get people to "open up" and let the creative juices flow. Someone who is ideally not a telecomm expert. Rather, the session leader should be able to motivate people to dig deep, deeper than they would normally do on their own.

One such organization that specializes in brainstorming is David Greenhouse & Associates, based in Mountain Lakes, N.J. For this column, not only did we interview David Greenhouse, the firm's principal, we also hired his company to conduct a live brainstorming session. In our case, the mission was to develop a name and marketing copy for a new software product.

The process works quite well.

Let's start off with a working definition of brainstorming. Greenhouse offers two. "Brainstorming is indeed an open-ended process. Solutions to a problem or the means toward a goal are found in a creative, non-threatening, judgment-free environment," he says. "Taking that idea one step further, brainstorming is, quite literally, thinking freely.

"We develop as many ideas as we can, such as a mission statement and short-range goals, right off the bat, so we've got variety of tools with which to work," he says.

"I am hired as a catalyst, not a guru. The agencies with which I've worked see me as a value-added player, since I create an environment where the agency can demonstrate--live--its creative talents."

But most times, Greenhouse gets the call when the client has become frustrated. "They may have tried everything else and feel they are spinning their wheels," he says. "They are bogged down by their own policies or practices and need a fresh approach."

The key is commitment. This means the client must first want to solve the problem but must also agree to be as open and candid as possible so the facilitator can do the best job.

Effective techniques

The typical approach is to get people together, create an environment where they can feel relaxed and productive, stimulate the generation of ideas, and then evaluate them afterwards.

But what other approaches improve the quality of the session? Greenhouse has three.

First, he spends time with his clients up front to determine their needs, before any sessions are scheduled. "Although it's not always practical, it's often in my client's best interests for me to be involved in each project from beginning to end," he says. "This helps my clients overcome barriers which make it difficult for them to figure out what to do with the ideas they generated."

During the pre-session meeting with a client, he often ends up with many specific criteria. These might include when to start the project, who should participate, and the importance of the company's cultural heritage.

"People often say to me, 'Aren't you painting yourself into a corner by being that specific?'", he says. "In fact, it actually makes the job easier because we can map the ideas to fit the client's criteria." And if the ideas satisfy the criteria, they have a much better chance of going forward.

Another important dimension of this is never to impose the criteria on the session participants. "No imposition is made on their creativity or any other psychological factors," according to Greenhouse. "I give them what looks like free reign, but I always have the client's predefined criteria firmly in mind. Those criteria represent my contract with the client," he adds.

The second approach is to carefully select the session participants. "We look for people from diverse backgrounds, people who we assume will work well together, and who will offer different opinions," he says.

"Frequently, in very technical, high-level issues, we'll bring in secretaries and administrative assistants. We even had a custodian participate in a session."

Greenhouse also brings in people from the outside with specific technical expertise. He has even found that members of his own family, such as his two children, have been very effective.

The third issue is to make sure everybody participating has a vested interest. It is not unusual for participants to have homework assignments.

"Everything we do in the session, including homework, encourages free thinking and association of seemingly different approaches into a solution," he says. Also, it is often useful to have the "best" ideas come directly from certain participants.

The stereotypes that come to mind when discussing technically oriented people are:

* They are conservative,

* They think using the logical hemisphere in their brains,

* They are rather dogmatic, and

* They take a workman-like approach to most anything.

Interestingly, Greenhouse has found the stereotypes are not usually reality. "A lot of assumptions are made about technical people," he says. "They are expected to act a certain way and they may, in fact, play that role."

Technical professionals are often in environments which encourage them to "connect the dots" in a linear fashion. Their approach is similar to solving a math problem: only one answer is possible.

Greenhouse notes, "Clearly, technology changes rapidly today. And when you see so many companies solving problems in unique, interesting, and effective ways, you realize there is no single answer to a problem."

The key is to encourage these individuals to accept the fact that more than one solution can be found. "You always need options, both now and later," he adds.

What are some processes that work especially well in a brainstorming activity? We'll summarize them as follows:

1. Understand the project's background.

2. Learn about the participant's language.

3. Determine which kinds of people will be the best participants.

4. Determine the session criteria.

5. Gather the participants, explain the mission.

6. Give participants their homework assignment.

7. Use flip charts for recording information.

8. Hang up completed sheets on the wall.

9. Encourage people to discuss situations and past experiences seemingly unrelated to the problem.

10. Assist participants in connecting their statements to the session's goals.

11. Use statements that stimulate thinking, such as "Tell us about your first date," or "What was the funniest movie you ever saw?".

12. Keep cycling the process so people relax and get more comfortable with the process.

13. Analyze the results carefully.

When do you know you've achieved your goals? According to Greenhouse, "It's when I hear a deep sigh and I see a big smile on my client's safe." It is very important for a session facilitator to watch the client carefully and check in frequently to see how things are going.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Communications Management
Author:Kirvan, Paul
Publication:Communications News
Article Type:column
Date:Jul 1, 1991
Previous Article:Dealing with non-linear loads and harmonic distortion.
Next Article:Ingersoll-Rand's software solution to telex and fax.

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