Brainstorming with a Team

Rick Bohan

I’ve found that, perhaps, the most useful tool for teams isn’t used that much:  good ol’ brainstorming. I’m not sure why this is the case.  There’s no better tool for getting lots of ideas on the table in a short order.  (Actually, I do have a few hypotheses as to why teams don’t use brainstorming more, but I’ll save them for another post.)  With that in mind, I’m going to review some guidelines for team brainstorming.

Quantity NOT Quality

When the team is brainstorming, the idea is to come up with lots of ideas.  Lots and lots of ideas.  The goal (at this point) is quantity of ideas, not quality.  Quality will come later…right now: quantity.

I used to train and facilitate employee teams back at Jones and Laughlin Steel.  During the training, I’d have each team brainstorm problems in the department with the intention of picking one  of the problems to address as a team. I’d tell the team, “…and we’re not going to go to lunch until you have 150 ideas on these flip chart sheets.”  Invariably, the teams thought the task to be any easy one: “Only 150?  Heck, we got thousands of problems down there at the mill!”  Just as certainly, the teams would struggle once they got to twenty or so ideas.  Eventually, each team figured out that wild, crazy, nonsensical ideas were allowed, even encouraged:  a team member would brainstorm “Those damn Martians sneak in the plant at night and reset the equipment settings.”  That idea and others like it would get added to the list and we always got to 150 “ideas” by lunch.

I rarely set brainstorming targets as high as that.  In fact, never.  I do use techniques like asking, “What’s another idea?” and waiting until I get one.  Or saying something like, “Let’s get a few more ideas to fill up this page.”  (This assumes I’m writing the ideas on a flip chart, of course.)

Don’t quit brainstorming after the first few ideas are out there and the group pauses.  Keep pushing for a few more ideas.

Don’t Evaluate, Assess, or, even, Discuss the Ideas

Many discussions don’t go well because a “social barrier” to idea generation develops.  Here’s the way the “social barrier” works:  Jane comes with an idea and everyone else starts evaluating, analyzing, assessing, going over, under, and around it.  After twenty minutes of that, no decisions have been made and Bob comes up with a suggestion…which is followed by another half-hour or so of evaluation, analyzation, etc., etc.

Two things happen here:

  • A lot of time is used up discussing few ideas,
  • As team members see the gauntlet that ideas are run through, they become reluctant to participate by tossing out new ideas.

Neither of these dynamics are of much help. To overcome them, let everyone know that the most discussion that’s allowed is, maybe, a bit of clarification.  But let there be no, “How good, really, is this idea?” type discussion.  There will be time for that sort of conversation later.  Write the idea on a flipchart sheet and move on.

If It Comes to Mind, Say It

There’s another barrier to ideas that operates in groups…I call it the “individual team member barrier”.  Ann thinks of an idea but holds on to it:  “Naw, the team will never go for that.”  She thinks of another but hold onto it, too: “Seems like we tried that awhile back.”  She develops a third idea but is silent again:  “I better think that one through.  This team really puts new ideas through the mill.”

The team never gets to hear Ann’s ideas because she’s filtering them herself.  This guideline is meant to overcome that self-filtering.  Crazy idea? Get it up there.  Sounds a lot like something that was already mentioned?  No problem…write it down again.  Exceeds the laws of physics?  Who cares?

There are obvious boundaries to this guideline; personal attacks and so forth would, of course, be out of line.  But most groups understand that.  I’ve never had a team exploit this rule by going too far with it (not even a team back at Jones & Laughlin whose members told me that they had only volunteered in order to figure out a way to get revenge on their supervisor.)

Modify, Change, Tag On, Add to Ideas That Have Already Been Mentioned

Often, a team will become silent simply because everyone is trying to think of a brand new, fresh and novel idea that no one has come close to mentioning.  And that stifles brainstorming.  Members should keep reviewing the list and be willing to toss out variations of ideas already on it.  Arnold sees an idea on the list: “Cellphones provided by the company” and adds “Tablet computers provided by the company”.  Roger looks at the fishbone and sees: “High air temperature” as a cause of PVC pipe scrap and adds:  “Low air temperatures” and “High humidity”.  You get the idea, I’m sure.

The only problem with brainstorming is that it’s not used enough by teams.  You can overcome this by always having a flipchart easel an pad or dry erase board at all your meetings…then say, “Hey, let’s brainstorm this!”


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