Brainstorming Part 1 – The Rules of Engagement

I’m putting together a 3-day brainstorming offsite for a group of IBM’s top execs. Having run hundreds of these over the years, I’ve learned a few things that I plan to apply to the upcoming session:

  • Invite a diverse set of people – the more diverse the team, the more “out of the box” the ideas will become. When I worked as a venture capitalist at Greylock, I was amazed at how differently each person thought about potential investments and how powerful it was when all those perspectives collaborated to analyze potential deals.
  • Leave judgments at the door – the best ideas are usually the ones that are half-formed, sitting in the back of someone’s mind. These ideas will only get shared if the group believes that there are no repercussions and that there are no judgments. Tip: if your brainstorming includes some people’s bosses, tell the bosses to go out of their way to remind everyone that everyone’s ideas are equal during the session.
  • Try the HMW method – rather than say, “how can we” or “should we” use the less judgmental phrase, “how might we…?” Simple changes in language can materially impact the tone of a brainstorming session.
  • Build on ideas – the best insights often come from building on ideas that have already bubbled up
  • Write down ideas and move on – make sure to write it all down and try to avoid going into too much detail on any specific idea
  • Everyone should contribute – don’t let the extroverts dominate the meeting and make sure that you actively encourage the quiet members to contribute

When you boil it down, brainstorming isn’t just about creativity, it’s just as much about trust. Getting the team members to commit to breaking boundaries and truly exploring new ideas requires everyone to put aside hierarchies, judgments, and personal biases.

Here are all the parts in my brainstorming series: Part 1: Rules of Engagement, Part 1B: Five Rules, Part 2: Organizing CreativityPart 3: Rev up the Creativity Engine and Part 4: Tools and Techniques.

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