We’ve all been there. You conduct a lively group brainstorming session, during which your team members contribute a bunch of interesting, creative solutions or ideas… but nothing actually comes of it. Instead, the results merely stagnate on a photo you took of the whiteboard with your phone, or on a piece of flipchart paper tucked behind a door. It never feels great—especially the next time a symptom of the problem you “solved” that day re-emerges:
“Didn’t we already discuss that?” Yes, but we never did anything about it.
“Why not?” Well, we thought of a bunch of ideas for how to solve that problem, but then we got busy with something else. Or, we tired ourselves out in the meeting coming up with all sorts of concepts and assignments but never decided what to actually do, or who will do it.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that that hour (or more) spent brainstorming was nothing other than a waste of everyone’s time.
It doesn’t have to be. In fact, there’s a simple method to avoid this frustrating waste of time and creative intelligence: before you go into your next brainstorming or idea generation meeting, ask yourself, “Is this a problem that we need to solve, now?”
If not, save your team the time. On the other hand, if it is an important problem, make sure you consider the following steps to ensure your freeform brainstorming transforms into structured action:
- Define the problem statement. Albert Einstein once said that if he had one hour to save the world, he would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution. Determining how to conceptualize a problem is a complex topic beyond the scope of this single article, and there are all sorts of techniques that help. One technique I find simple and highly useful is to define two factors: 1) the situation “as-is,” and 2) the desired future state of being; then, state the problem as “How do we get from where we are today to where we want to be?”
- Involve the right people. Beyond the ability to get the job done, your team also needs motivation. Make sure that both the people impacted by the problem and those responsible for solving it are the ones who get involved.
- Ask everyone to independently generate ideas. Have each member of your brainstorming session quietly spend some amount of time on their own coming up with ideas. I suggest starting with this before jumping too quickly into group brainstorming, as individual creativity may be impeded by responses to others’ ideas. You may even want to give participants a day or two before the team meets so that everyone has the time to develop their work. Set a minimum number of ideas: something like five sticky notes per person.
- Share and group ideas. I like to have everyone take turns, with each team member reading their idea to the group as they put their sticky notes on the board. When someone has an idea that is more or less identical to something shared previously, ask them to put their sticky note next to it.
- Agree on your decision criteria. Once each member of the team has shared all of their ideas, the next step is to rank or categorize those ideas based on some kind of criteria. (Make sure to agree upon this criteria prior to starting the process). This is the time to list any constraints the team faces in implementing a solution, such as a limited budget or deadline. At this moment, you will also need to decide if what you’re looking for is a single solution or multiple testing approaches. For example, if you need a new product to sell next Christmas, but have only one current product offering, you would need to select one idea, which would have to be achievable before December 25th. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for new potential markets for an existing product, you may determine that your resources allow you to test up to three markets at a time. It’s often useful to define every parameter that may impact the decision and rank these different elements, as well—e.g. is low cost more important than time to market?
- Categorize and group the ideas. This is another complex topic in itself, and I could (and may) write several blog posts on the various techniques for categorizing and evaluating different options. The main point, however, is to agree on a method. That method should be informed by the decision criteria as well as the ideas for solutions themselves. Below is a brief description of several tools that could be used discretely or in conjunction with one another:
- Group complementary ideas. With complex problems especially, your team may come up with complementary partial solutions. You may find that you have two halves of the perfect whole, or three things that when done together would form an ideal solution.
- Categorize by resources required. If some of the ideas are development-heavy and others are marketing-heavy, it makes sense to categorize each into different subsets.
- Categorize by risk. See if you can do a quick analysis on each option to determine how much risk you can anticipate now. Risk is a useful factor by which to judge ideas, particularly when intersected by another attribute like value or cost. (See f. below for a tip on categorizing by two dimensions.)
- Categorize by cost or size. You may notice some of the ideas are quick wins while others would involve greater effort. Often, I find myself rapidly categorizing things into two buckets: “Big” and “Small.”
- Categorize by value. This can get tricky, as value is subjective—who’s to say what’s valuable and what isn’t? Nonetheless, group consensus can help, as can certain team members with high-quality information. For instance, a product manager might have good user data, or an advanced intuition around what consumers care about. When you can, categorize your ideas into low, medium, and high value; or using some other category structure like a 1-to-5 scale.
Use a combination of cost and value. This is a hybrid of c. and d. above, and one of my favorite techniques for certain types of decisions, such as deciding which features to add or which marketing campaigns to try next. Determine each idea’s value from 1 to 5, or a similar scale. Ideally, those closest to the customer mindset or market forces should be the ones to decide this value. Whomever will be responsible for delivering the solution should then assign each idea a cost on the same kind of scale.
Next, you can plot the sticky notes in a grid, where the x-axis is value and the y-axis is effort or cost. If you draw a line from the lower left corner to the upper right corner of your grid, you’ll see that anything underneath the line is the low hanging fruit—or ideas that should likely be high priority. I’ve highlighted two cards in green in the sample Cardsmith Grid below as an example:
- Decide. Sometimes categorizing the ideas leads to quick answers. But there may be other criteria you haven’t yet discussed, in which case process of elimination may be best.For example, if you know that an idea is high risk, you might remove the option—even though it’s high value and medium effort. If you know you only have resources to execute on one idea, and you have 8 ideas that are equally valuable, you may need to rank them from highest to lowest priority based on some other criteria, such as the group’s level of enthusiasm for each idea. It may be impossible to exactly verbalize that kind of criteria, in which case I suggest a swap-sort exercise. A swap-sort allows you to compare only two ideas at a time: “Of these two things, which is better?” It’s an easier question for the brain to handle than “which of these 8 things is the best?” After you decide which of the two ideas is better, keep the better idea, and compare it to one of the remaining ideas, tournament-style, until only one idea remains standing.Here’s a quick tip: as the group decides which of two ideas is best, ask them to verbalize why. Decisions can be emotional and full of personal biases, but if you slow down and ask why one solution is preferable to another with each step in your swap sort, you can identify biases in your team (and perhaps yourself). This can inform and refine your criteria not only for this decision but for future discussions.
- Plan. Once you have a decision on what you’re going to do, take at least a little time to plan next action steps. At this point, you may lack the energy to embark on a full project plan, but you need to keep momentum going. At minimum, decide on the very next step, even if it’s simply to meet tomorrow and put your action plan together.
- Assign action steps to members of your team. As you do, ask them to commit to a certain date and time. Any action steps agreed to in step 8 above need to be assigned to a specific individual, and that individual should commit to when they will deliver on that step.
Here is a video showing how any team can use Cardsmith to brainstorm solutions and quickly create an action plan.