From Brainstorming to Ideation

Brainstorming, the darling strategic planning management tool that dates back to the late 1930's, oftentimes in today's world comes up short of producing new, exciting and workable ideas.
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Brainstorming, the darling strategic planning management tool that dates back to the late 1930's, oftentimes in today's world comes up short of producing new, exciting and workable ideas. The "tried and true" gold standard since its inception, brainstorming has been discovered to have developed a number of problems that have evolved over the past decades.

Research indicates that big groups actually experience worse results than smaller groups. Participants tend to forget their ideas when others have the floor. "Quiet" people (see Susan Cain's TED Talk) among us are also less likely to speak up and make their ideas heard. Others are reluctant to reveal a politically incorrect idea. Many find themselves unable to contradict the authority of more senior, tenured employees. Net result? Brainstorming sessions end without solving problems.

What's the solution? It's time for a fresh approach known as Ideation. A reinvention of traditional brainstorming, Ideation is a technique that involves both the left and right sides of the brain to allow breakthroughs from entrenched habits of thought and persistent difficult problems. It also helps participants avoid the circular thinking of channeling ideas along a constrained path that often occurs when individuals brainstorm together. The process of Ideation begins with individual ideas, more accountability, consensus building and ultimate involvement with participants "voting with their feet."

The solution, then, begins with the individual, or phrased differently, the "I" in Ideation. If each individual participant takes more responsibility by being a better participant in a problem solving-process, the results are likely to be better.

The next logical question, then, is "What can I do to be a better participant?" A simple question but one that is actually tougher than it seems. To be successful, participants need to be able to burst out of their comfort zones of complacent, conventional thinking to get to a place where big, bold, breakthrough ideas are possible. Everyone loves their comfort zones, however, and tend to become completely entrenched within these zones. That's why in meetings people are constantly admonished to "think outside the box." One problem: they are generally not told how to do this.

An answer to finding a path out of individuals' comfort zones into what may be called their "Inner Genius," subconscious, higher conscious, inner yoda, or even their inner five-year-old. This is the place where those creative, intuitive, innovate ideas dwell. A problem is that typically most people don't have a direct path to accessing that place. It's difficult to unlock those big ideas on demand.

The right hemisphere of the brain is the most reliable place to go hunting for these ideas. Scientists have discovered that the right hemisphere of the brain is independent from the left and is believed to be responsible for artistry, music, emotions, intuition and creative problem solving, while the left hemisphere performs the more traditional linear, logical, mathematical and analytical functions. Over the past 18 years I've learned to trust the right brain as the reliable "go to" place when I need to think differently, search for a big idea or solve a problem.

When individuals need solutions to tough problems, they can truly use both sides of their brains in an Ideation session. By activating the right side of the brain, they are able to pull in those insights that are typically missed. How can this happen? I recommend three resources: "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain," by Dr. Betty Edwards, particularly effective for artists; "Recovery of Your Inner Child" by Dr. Lucia Capacchione, effective for struggling with psychological issues; and Thought Revolution, my book written to help those interested in solving mainstream problems in their personal and business lives.

Combining right brain insights with conventional, logical ideas can produce new, fresh, and potentially "doable" ideas. Individuals who use this process become better participants in Ideation sessions if they arrive at the session by thinking about the topic or issue before the session, posing the question to themselves and then unleashing both sides of their brains.

Facilitators of Ideation sessions must consider allowing participants some quiet time to capture their best thinking before beginning the distracting and potentially diluting influence of everyone voicing their ideas. Then, consider building momentum for the ideas by dividing the participants into smaller groups of 4-8 people. Ask small group participants to vote on the ideas that will "make the cut" and are deserving of consideration by the bigger group.

Then facilitators may consider democratizing the strategic thinking or problem session by allowing participants to "vote with their feet" (like the Iowa caucuses), voting on the ideas they like the most. This process can immediately demonstrate where there is consensus and a more likely chance for internal acceptance and backing.

Sound interesting? Taking the above steps will boost the effectiveness of thinking sessions. Over the past 30 years as a participant, leader and facilitator of meeting and strategic planning processes, I have come to believe too much time is spent on planning and not enough on thinking. In a fast-changing, globally competitive world, if individuals, businesses and corporations are not thinking about better solutions, someone else is guaranteed to be doing just that.

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