How to make Brainstorming more Effective

You are facing a big decision. Maybe you need to decide how to cut costs in your company. Or you need to find a better marketing strategy. Or you need to increase company morale. So what do you do?

In such circumstances, many of us would organize a brainstorming session with people we trust. We’d sit around a table with coffee and throw out ideas that may or may not work.

However, Professor Ralph Keeney of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business says we could likely create more and better alternatives by better focusing on the problem being addressed when brainstorming.

“Traditional brainstorming sessions don’t always yield the most effective ideas. In fact, they can do just the opposite,” says Keeney, who specializes in decision and risk analysis.

In the paper “Value-Focused Brainstorming,” published in the journal Decision Analysis last December, Keeney describes a better method for finding a great solution to a problem. He suggests four steps in brainstorming.

1. State the problem to be solved.

“Most people don’t state the problem with enough clarity or specificity,” Keeney says.

For example, don’t just say you want ideas “to have your division communicate more effectively with corporate headquarters.” Instead, clarify which communication processes you want to communicate more effectively, why, and to and from whom.

“If you are specific in defining the problem it will yield better solutions,” Keeney says.

2. Identify objectives of a problem solution.

“You need to identify the means objectives that will focus creative thought on generating better ideas to solve the problem,” Keeney says.

For example, in picking the title for an article that you have written objectives might include things like be short, be understandable, be clever and communicate what the article is about.

This step is also a good opportunity to get others involved in suggesting important objectives that you haven’t considered.

3. Individually generate alternative solutions

Brainstorm participants should create a list of alternatives prior to having a group discussion.

“Most brainstorming sessions skip this step. Instead, the group comes up with solutions. The danger is that having everyone together during the initial brainstorm can result in a sort of ‘group think’ instead of individual ideas,” Keeney says.

Individuals should consider each objective outlined in the prior step when coming up with their list of potential solutions.

4. Collectively generate alternative solutions

“Everyone brings their individual thoughts and solutions to the table for a group discussion. This is particularly useful in having participants drawing on a wide range of expertise to solve a problem,” Keeney says.

Keeney applied this strategy in helping generate solutions for better ways to evacuate large buildings after the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.

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