Every year, the CBL sets aside time for day-long mid-year retreat. This year, we were so inspired by our June meeting topic of making changes when you hit a wall in your business that we decided to dedicate half of our retreat to a massive group brainstorming session. Our focus was on generating creative solutions to common business problems, without falling back on the typical small-business advice out there. The session was incredibly productive and we ended up generating a ton of out-of-the-box ideas the help move past those pesky walls in our businesses.
A brainstorming session can be a powerful tool and constructive activity for your own business group. In order to stay focused and be successful, there are a few guidelines to follow that will help you have a productive session.
Designate a captain.
Have one person lead the group in the session. This captain will be responsible for keeping the conversation moving, and digging in deeper to fruitful ideas.
Create a clearly defined prompt.
This isn’t the time to just “Come up with 50 business ideas.” The focus should be more on identifying an issue and creating a clear prompt. The ones we had were: How could a business increase their retail sales? How does a business or person increase engagement with the public? and How can you gain publicity?
Stick to “might”, as in “how might we…” and banish should, could, and would.
As soon as people start to think about “should,” the switch from a generative state into one of judgement. Now’s not the time to think about which ideas are best, nor is it the time to think about how the idea might be practically implemented. Keep those thoughts in the back of your mind right next to all of the other dark secrets that you’d never dream of telling people. Thinking in terms of “how might we” puts you in the right frame of mind.
Lots and lots of post its.
Provide each participant their own pack of post its. This allows everyone to write down their ideas, instead of leaning on the captain to record everything. This keeps the conversation fast, and the ideas flowing.
Much like physical exercise, it is important to warm up before brainstorming. There are tons of ideas for brainstorming warmups online. The one we used to great effect is a simple one: Take 5 minutes and write down as many ways you can think of to use a pencil. This exercise starts the creative juices flowing, creates the opportunity for silly wacky ideas, and gives introverts a chance to think their own independent thoughts before starting to share with the group.
After the warm up, take a couple of minutes to share out fun ideas, and debrief the flow of the activity. Notice that there will be peaks and valleys in idea production, and that often when you slow down, it doesn’t mean you are out of ideas. Often the weirdest and most interesting ideas come afterwards.
Rules of Brainstorming
When you start your session, have the captain write down and explain the following guidelines to the group.
1. Don’t Judge Ideas
Yep, #1 rule is that there are no bad ideas in brainstorming. Marking an idea as “bad” shuts down the conversation, stops flow, and eliminates a potential opportunity to turn that “bad” idea into something great.
2. Encourage Wild, Impractical Ideas
Piggybacking on the first rule, be sure to get kind of crazy in the session. For example, one of our prompts was “How could we get attention?” Some of the off the wall ideas were “Be a hero” “commit a crime” and “streak at a baseball game.” Obviously, those ideas themselves aren’t going to fly in your business, but they do get you thinking on different tracks. Like maybe instead of saving a life, you could get involved with a charity in a major way. If you are the captain, you might even want to throw in some crazy impractical ideas here and there to get people going in a different way. Oftentimes, the strongest ideas at the end were developed or sparked from an impractical idea.
3. Write it Down
Every idea goes on a post it. When you share out your idea, hand the post it to the captain to put on the board or wall.
Tip: If you have a group with some introverts, it sometimes helps to give 2 minutes at the start of a session for people to write down some ideas on their own to get things started.
4. Build On Each Other’s Ideas
Hear something interesting from someone else? Be sure to build upon it, expand it, put it in a different context, whatever. If you’ve ever done improv, this is the lauded “yes, and” rule. Accept the idea and its reality and build upon it.
The captain plays a big role in this rule, especially when things start to lag. It’s a good idea to have some prompts in your back pocket to help idea expansion. Think about putting limits on the idea (like what if you had only 10 days to execute it? Or only a budget of $1?) or expanding it (you now have a budget of $1M). Putting an idea into an analogous context helps too. Say someone puts out a broad idea, like “have great customer service.” Expand that by putting the idea in a different context: How does Zappos have great customer service? What about a political organization? What about a coffee shop? Thinking of different industries can spark ideas that you may have never considered.
5. Be Present
Once the session starts, everyone should be present in the conversation. Each person has their own post it where they can quickly jot down an idea as it comes to them. Otherwise, they should be actively involved in the ideas flowing around them so that they can build upon them, and come up with even more ideas. Also, maybe leave the cell phones in another location (gasp!)
6. One Conversation at a Time
This one’s easy. Stay focused on the session, and don’t get distracted into side convos, especially those about practicality or irrelevant factors.
7. Go for Quantity.
And finally, the goal here isn’t quality, but quantity. Get as many ideas out as possible in the course of the session. This gives everyone a lot more to work with once they start fleshing out some of these ideas for their own business.
Optional Part 2
After the brainstorm ends, your group should have a ton of ideas, just ready to be fleshed out. You can either choose to snap a pic and flesh out these ideas on your own, or if you have the time, work on the most promising ideas together as a group.
At our mid-year retreat, we chose the latter. Each of us placed stickers on our favorite ideas, and then the ideas with the most stickers got a little more focus. We fleshed out ideas such as "Connect to Memories," "Have Clear Values," and " Create Limited Editions." For each of our favorite ideas, we thought about how they might work. What were examples of other people doing something similar? What would be ways of executing these ideas cheaply? What are some potential hold ups with execution, and how could we get around them? Working through the bigger picture concepts helped us come up with even more specific ideas like ways to remind customers to repurchase consumables, ways to build excitement for upcoming product launches, and how to streamline emails to improve customer service. Although we got more specific here, it is again important not to judge and keep an open mind.
At the end we had a ton of great ideas for breaking through some of the walls that grow when you own a business of many years, all of which we likely would never have come up with on our own.