“Companies love to talk about the voice-of-the-customer, but most simply listen to themselves while creating ‘conference room’ products,” says Dan Adams, founder and President of The AIM Institute (Advanced Innovation & Marketing for B2B).
Avoiding such outcomes through divergent thinking has been a component of the training workshops AIM has been conducting for B2B corporations over the past 12 years. Adams’ article below describes the brainstorming practices they use to stimulate divergent thinking among new-product developers.
Brainstorming holds a special place in the collection of business practices. After all, how many other business methods are still going strong after 75 years? I suspect the Buffalo, NY advertising executive, Alex Osborn, would be pleased with the many ways his approach — first published in 1942 — is used today.
Let’s focus on a popular application: new-product development. At the AIM Institute, we’ve trained thousands of teams globally to use divergent thinking in two ways. First, they learn a form of brainstorming they can conduct with customers to uncover their unarticulated outcomes (desired end results). We call these “Discovery interviews.”
Second, suppliers brainstorm internally to generate solutions to key customer outcomes. Think of this brainstorming as the interface between technology development and product development. They are quite different. Technology development is science-facing, and transforms money into knowledge. Product development is market-facing and transforms knowledge back into money.
We’ll concentrate on brainstorming to generate new-product solutions in this article. Here are 14 suggestions to get the most out of your next session:
- Focus on a single customer outcome. Imagine you are a resin producer and your customer interviews showed you paint customers want better hiding power, improved stain resistance, and better scrub resistance. This calls for three separate brainstorming sessions, perhaps with different attendees.
- Invite the right people to your session — many science-facing, but also some market-facing. When it comes to technology experts, don’t just invite the “usual suspects” from within your company. Include top external experts as well — generally under non-disclosure agreements. A group of 6-to-10 attendees works well.
- Invite “wild cards.” These are people known to be innovative in completely different technology realms. I once heard Dean Kamen — inventor of the Segway — say invention was the art of concealing your sources. He understood the value of borrowing heavily from “other worlds.”
- Go digital. Want to bring in some top-flight technology experts for a few hours of brainstorming… without breaking the bank on travel expenses and full-day consulting fees? Use a web-conference service. Be sure to use software that lets you visually display the ideas being generated so participants can build off others’ ideas.
- Prepare your invitees. Send a background sheet to participants well ahead of the session. Explain why customers want this outcome (e.g., better paint hiding power), the level of performance they now get, and so on. Tell a story… so they can provide a happy ending.
- Give ‘em Alex’s rules. At the onset of your meeting, review Alex Osborn’s four original rules of brainstorming: 1) Don’t criticize others’ ideas, 2) wild ideas are welcome, 3) the more ideas, the better, and 4) build on others’ ideas.
- Most everyone has heard the above rules, but it’s easy to slip into bad habits… especially critiquing others’ ideas. The facilitator should say, “Feel free to ask questions about others’ ideas but only for clarification, not judging.”
- Start with private idea generation. Research shows you’ll have better results if you give everyone 15 minutes of initial quiet time to create their own private list of ideas. Idea generation goes in more diverse paths when participants aren’t influenced by the direction of the initial ideas.
- Go around the room. Have the first person give an idea, and record it for all to see — preferably with digital software projected onscreen in a large font. Then capture the second person’s idea, and so on. Nobody wants to be the first to run out of ideas, so they’ll listen hard and “springboard” to fresh, new ideas of their own based on others’ ideas.
- Brainstorm to exhaustion. Keep going around the room until everyone has run out of ideas. Give them five more minutes to think of any last ideas before moving on. Don’t end your session yet: There are plenty more ideas in those brains, so move on to the next step.
- Break old thinking patterns with trigger methods. One of my favorites is called reversing hidden assumptions. Have the group generate a list of assumptions, e.g., “a thicker coating of paint hides better.” Then reverse these assumptions, e.g., “a thinner coating of paint hides better.” Let everyone spend 15 minutes in this “alternate reality,” generating any new ideas they can think of. In this example, someone might say, “investigate the hiding power of a thin layer of nanoparticles.”
- Converge to the best ideas… in two stages. First, print out all ideas and have each person silently “vote” on their ten favorites. Tally up the scores to get the top dozen ideas. Don’t be too rigid: It’s OK for someone to make a passionate appeal to have their favorite idea included. Converge further by placing each idea on a sorting matrix. Make your horizontal and vertical axes, “ease of implementation” and “likelihood of delivering the outcome.” Give a high priority to the “doable” ideas most likely to work.
- Don’t rush this. Depending on the topic, it’s common to generate over 100 ideas. You should plan on at least two hours of diverging (brainstorming), followed by at least one hour of converging.
- Provide feedback to your participants. Brainstorming sometimes gets a bad rap because there’s no closure: We have fun generating ideas, but nothing seems to come of it. Break that cycle by giving periodic feedback to participants on your post-brainstorming journey. You’ll have eager participants next time around.
We’ve discussed brainstorming for new product development, but these tips apply more broadly. I once passed a client’s conference room and noticed our brainstorming software was being used. When I asked about their project, I was told they were planning the company picnic. Bet it was a great picnic.
One last thought: Beyond group brainstorming, you’ll find that separating your divergent thinking from convergent thinking makes you a better thinker. Divergent thinking avoids errors of omission (failing to uncover ideas), and convergent thinking avoids errors of commission (selecting the wrong idea). Since the brain is used very differently for each, try not to mingle the two when making important decisions. Learn to do both well and you’ll make Alex proud.
Dan Adams; firstname.lastname@example.org