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OWNER'S MANUAL

Why Brainstorming Sucks—and How to Fix It

Asking employees to dream up innovative ideas on demand never works. Here's a much easier way to get them to be creative.
If this is what your brainstorming sessions look like, you're doing it all wrong.
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I hate brainstorming sessions.

Brainstorming sessions not only feel forced, they can quickly become competitive as everyone tries to be the smartest guy or gal in the room. Plus, telling me to come up with five new ideas is like telling me to go to sleep—right now.

If you’re like me, there’s hope. I’m definitely not an innovator, but I can be reasonably creative when I need to solve a problem.

Dream up incredible innovations? Impossible. Think of creative ways to solve a problem? That’s much easier.

For most of us, the easiest way to flip our internal innovation switch is to think of ways to solve a problem—an imaginary problem: 

Create a barrier. The “What if?” game works really well: What if you lose power for a day? What if your email server goes down? What if all shipments get delayed by two days? What if a key vendor goes out of business? Don’t just create contingency plans; see if interim solutions should become long-term improvements. A CEO friend’s favorite artificial barrier is, “What if a major competitor enters our market?” How would you respond: different products, different services, or different pricing structures? Chances are some creative responses make sense to implement now.

Lose a key driver. Many professional photographers jealously guard the copyright to their photographs. Absent a separate agreement, a photographer legally owns the rights even though another party has paid the photographer to take those images. Why? They hope for additional sales: “Give away” the rights, lose the potential for follow-on sales. Your key driver may be your mailing list, or services provided after a sale, or maintenance and upgrades. Whatever it is, pretend you’ve lost that key driver. What will you do? Thinking of other sources of revenue may help differentiate your business and create a competitive advantage.

Break even on all initial sales. Every sale should generate a profit, right? But what if, due to customer acquisition costs, you only broke even—or even lost money—on your first sale to every customer? What could you do to generate reliable, profitable subsequent sales? And should that become a sales strategy? I know a HVAC contractor who intentionally loses money on equipment sales in order to be the low-cost provider; he recovers that “investment” on preventive maintenance, repairs, and component upgrades. Every business wants long-term customers—if the only way to survive is to ensure you create long-term customers, what steps should you take?

Lose your leadership team. Managers and supervisors can add unnecessary delays to decisions and processes. Still, you need them—but what if they disappeared for a day or week? How would that impact operations? What processes would grind to a halt? By deciding how decisions would get made in the absence of formal leaders you may determine the best place for those decisions to be made. Hint: Decisions should always be made at a lower level than you assume.

Fall in the lava. When I was a kid we built obstacle courses and pretended the ground was lava; if we fell off, we “died.” Extend that premise to your business: What if every mistake was a fatal mistake? If every shipment had to be perfect, what would you need to do? Pick any process and assume perfection, not incremental gains, is a requirement. It’s amazing how creative you can be when there are no “outs” to fall back on.

Don’t have all the answers. Your employees are really smart—especially when you let them show how smart they are. In a group setting ask for ways to solve problem and then sit quietly. At first, employees may tentatively offer suggestions and then quickly glance at you, expecting feedback. Don’t say anything. Just look at other people to show you really want to hear their input, too. Soon the conversation will take on a life of its own and you’ll get more creative ideas than you can possibly implement.

 

IMAGE: iStock
Last updated: Nov 30, 2011

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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