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Best Practices for Brainstorming

In Recent Posts, Leadership, Execution by Steve Sliwa

Most people understand the concept of brainstorming, which is to get as many ideas as possible so that you have the best chance of finding the optimal solution. But it is hard to accomplish this in reality, especially with engineers who are skeptical by nature.

When I was working on stealth technology at NASA, I remember a meeting where we were asked to brainstorm on something like how to make an airplane the size of an F15 look like a robin on radar. The engineers in the room spent the next 15 minutes or so explaining why it couldn’t be done because of physics and the science behind it. They said it was impossible.

Then, they were told that it had already been accomplished on another aircraft. The conversation changed from “We could never do that!” to a rapid-fire discussion of “They probably did this or maybe changed that. They could’ve…” They started brainstorming only when told that it was achievable.

Brainstorming is the second step in the Consensus Decision Process, and it is critical to elicit as many ideas as possible. By following these four rules, you provide your team with an atmosphere where they feel comfortable sharing their ideas.

4 Rules for Brainstorming

No bad ideas

Think outside the box

Don’t criticize too early

Build on others’ ideas


  1. No bad ideas
    In the beginning, keep every idea, and put them on the whiteboard. Encourage quantity over quality in the early stages of brainstorming. With continued discussion, the better ideas will bubble up. The goal is to get everything on the table.

  2. Think outside the box
    Be creative when suggesting ideas. If the problem seems impossible, assume that someone has solved the situation already. If they did, how would they have done it? Don’t be shy when offering ideas that might initially seem out of left field.
  3. Don’t criticize too early
    In my experience, this is the hardest rule to follow. It is difficult for most people, particularly engineers, not to critique new ideas as soon as they are brought up, particularly when it comes to new technology. It’s easier and faster to outright reject an idea than it is to take the time to fully understand it. There will be time later in the process to discuss the ideas in more detail.

  4. Build on others’ ideas
    One of the best people I know for drawing others out during brainstorming sessions is my friend, Dr. Andreas von Flotow, the Founder and President of Hood Technology. Andy earned his Ph.D. alongside me at Stanford, became a professor at MIT, and founded his company in 1993. He is very bright and creative besides being a terrific entrepreneur.

    Frequently during brainstorming when someone proposes an interesting idea, Andy goes to the whiteboard and attempts to diagram a summary until the proposer is satisfied that Andy fully understands it. Then, he puts his considerable talent and creativity to work, trying to make the proposed idea successful. He will fully develop the proposal and then put it into the queue for future processing.

    I remember one time when we were brainstorming about the best way to mechanize a certain device. I blurted out a half-baked idea, and Andy took it up and wrestled with it for about 10 minutes trying to find a way to make my input useful and relevant. Ultimately, I suggested – begged him – to put it in the discard pile. However, I never once thought that Andy, or anyone in the brainstorming group, wasn’t taking the input seriously and fully considering it without judgment. It encouraged me and others to keep noodling, rather than shutting down. Actually, an idea I proposed about 30 minutes later was instrumental in helping Andy find a solution. The power of positive reinforcement during brainstorming was thereby fully illustrated. I always left those meetings energized.

Summary

The best solutions do not always come easily. And as a leader, it is your responsibility to draw out enough ideas and build on them in order to find the most advantageous answers. Creating an environment where your employees and colleagues are free to express their ideas makes this possible.

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