The Big Idea: The Brainstorm

In the first of six articles looking at tools and techniques for innovation, Brian Campbell explains how to go about that most used method of finding new ideas – the brainstorm.

This is the first of six articles which will look at innovation techniques. First I will look at “conventional” techniques and, in the months to come, how these methods can be enhanced by using systematic innovation. Systematic innovation has been developed from TRIZ; a technical problem solving tool which has been adapted to tackle business and management issues.

Brainstorming is probably the most widely known innovation technique and so let’s look at the rules:

* Define the problem or issue to be addressed: It is important to describe the issue or problem in advance of the session so that the participants know why they are there.

* Aim for a multi-disciplined team: Limit the numbers to a maximum of 10 people. Ideally you would have around three people who are the owners of the problem, ie the problem lies in their department, their area of responsibility or expertise. The other members of the team need have no knowledge of the problem to be addressed as their role is to ask the embarrassingly obvious questions that sometimes lead to solutions. These non-experts will look at the problem in a completely new light. They will also ask seemingly obvious question which occasionally make the experts realise their understanding of the problem was not complete.

* Accept all ideas: It is important initially to accept all ideas without judgement. It is a case of quantity not quality, and no idea should be criticised at this stage. As ideas are written down on a flip chart or onto post it notes, other members of the team can use these ideas for triggers to generate other possibilities.

* Introduce new techniques when the ideas start to dry up: After 10 minutes or so it is likely that the ideas will dry up. At this point it is worthwhile asking how “person X” might solve this problem. Person X might be a pop star, politician, historical figure or person in the news. This approach can lighten the atmosphere and produce a new batch of ideas.

Then try provocation analysis. Rather than trying to improve the problem, consider how you might make the problem even worse. List the ideas in a column on one side of a flip chart. Once you have a list of ideas look at each in turn and decide what action you would then take. You may have suggested increasing the temperature, rather than merely saying lets drop the temperature again, consider what you might do differently because the temperature is higher. The list generated will also help to reveal all the aspects to the problem.

* Other techniques: pick a word at random from the dictionary and use that as a trigger or use a picture or photo in a similar way.

Only when you have generated a large number of ideas should you begin evaluation. Initially try and group similar ideas together. Consider such a group of ideas and discuss which seems the best. Could some of the ideas be combined?

At the end of the process there should a number of possible of solutions. A further brainstorm might be then carried out to consider how each idea might be implemented.

* About the author: Brian Campbell has been working with systematic innovation for five years. He has a degree in physics and initially came across the techniques whilst working in research and development at Pilkington. He is currently working on an EU funded project to produce a CDROM to help SMEs become more innovative. He has applied TRIZ techniques to the glass industry, water industry, electronics industry and the photographic film business and is keen to see systematic innovation more widely adopted in the UK. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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