Hollinden Marketers + Strategists

7 Ways to Use Brainstorming for Better Results

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You’ve risen to a leadership position in your firm in part because of your innate problem-solving skills.  You can quickly diagnose the issue and come up with the solution.  You know what to do based on your experience.  However, it's impossible to be a subject matter expert on everything.  Sometimes you need to gather your team and attack problems together – to brainstorm ideas and solutions.

These seven strategies will help ensure your brainstorming sessions lead to stronger teams and better teamwork.

1. Define the Whole Issue

We are all limited by our individual perspectives.  Too often, we only see part of the problem based on our experiences, knowledge, and even biases.  It's tempting to jump right into the discussion and idea phase, but a badly framed problem often leads to poor results.  

"It’s hard to see the picture while inside the frame," says John Maxwell, leadership trainer and author of How Successful People Think. "Big-picture thinkers realize there is a world out there besides their own, and they make an effort to get outside of themselves and see other people’s worlds through their eyes."

Before we can create new insights, we have to first create new perspectives. Begin by asking the question, "What challenge or issue are we trying to solve?" Followed by, "Why is this the challenge or issue?" and "Are we asking the right question?"

2. Define the Right Issue 

“Managers tend to quickly switch into solution mode without checking whether they really understand the problem,” according to Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg, co-author of Innovation as Usual.  It is so tempting, particularly when we are busy, to jump into action or problem-solving mode instead of taking the time to clearly define the right issue.

Wedell-Wedellsborg gives the example of tenants complaining about slow elevators in their building. To solve the problem, most people would immediately think of things like installing a newer elevator or upgrading the motor – expensive fixes.  What happens if we define the issue on a personal level? The complaints about slow elevators may be an annoyance with idle wait time.  Solutions to this problem might include mirrors in the waiting area, playing music, installing hand sanitizers, or installing a monitor with news to engage people while they wait – inexpensive fixes.  Another solution might be probing to see if the long wait times are universal or during specific time periods.  The solution might be as simple as staggering lunch breaks to avoid backups at peak times.

Ask your team questions like: "Why is this a challenge or problem?" "Are there external factors that impact this issue (cyclical, seasonal, time of day)?"

3. Reframe the Issue

Adam Galinsky, Professor of Business and Chair of the Management Division at the Columbia School of Business, suggests reframing the issue. When you get stuck, it’s time to change perspective.  By looking at the issue from a different angle, you can change the conversation.  For example, taking a stereotype or negative association and reframing it as a positive attribute may allow you to see things differently. 

Identify all stakeholders involved or impacted by an issue or challenge. Turn the tables by identifying how this problem benefits each stakeholder. Then, ask how each is impeded by the issue. Explore how all involved see the issue.  

4. Ask for Questions, Rather Than Solutions

Instead of brainstorming IDEAS, brainstorm a list of questions you need to answer in order to move forward.

Hal Gregerson, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center, says people need to build their questioning muscle in order to change the status quo.  By doing so, he says you can get past cognitive biases and explore new lines of thinking.

“Brainstorming questions makes it easier to venture into uncharted territory,” Gregerson said.

5. Avoid Quick Solutions

In addition to making sure everyone has a full understanding of the problem, it’s important to define what’s missing from the conversation.  Groups will often identify a problem quickly – and come up with solutions quickly - without taking the time to probe other significant items.

Let’s take the problem of long work hours during busy season.  Team members get frustrated and burned out due to the hours and clients get upset when returns are extended. The easy solution may be seen as hiring extra staff to alleviate the workload during busy season.  However, this might not be practical for the firm because of the economics, the training time involved, or the lack of qualified resources. Redefining the issue as “how to reduce long work hours during busy season without hiring temporary staff” creates a different dynamic.  It may lead the group to identify communication methods to encourage clients to submit information earlier, schedule differently or cross-train other employees to input data. Eliminate the obvious solution and brainstorm other ideas.

6. Broaden Your Circle

The burden of leadership can be lonely.  “Never worry alone,” Ned Hallowell, author of Driven to Distraction says.  “Worry feasts on a solitary victim.” By sharing the problem with others, you open yourself up.  It helps to bring in people outside your normal circle of influence.  By including others, you increase the combined brainpower while opening yourself up to new ideas.  By soliciting – and listening – to the ideas of people outside your core advisers, you empower employees.  By showing you value their input, you are more likely to have more engaged team members.

Michael Tushman, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, says that often the most useful insights come from people who understand your world but are not fully part of it. Seek the input of those not directly involved with the issue or client. A fresh perspective may be what's needed to shed light on a challenge.

7. Share the Burden

Admitting you need help creates empathy in the group.  This empathy can be a powerful motivator in a group dynamic in two specific ways.  First, it shows a vulnerability on your part.  You need the group’s help in solving a problem.  Most people are predisposed to help. University of Virginia Psychologist James Coan says “If a friend is under threat, it becomes the same as if we ourselves are under threat.”

Secondly, we’ve learned from the study of Design Thinking that it is critical to put aside preconceived notions and view things through the eyes of the end user.  In cultivating new ideas, try empathizing with the people affected by the end result of the problem. Try exploring the emotional impact of the issue at hand from each stakeholder's point of view – particularly important when your first thought is the impacted party is making a mountain out of a mole hill. Allow yourself to empathize.

Life Moves Fast

Life moves at the speed of light, particularly in today's digitally-connected world. Consequently, it's easy to feel overwhelmed with the tasks at hand and the thoughts of what’s coming next.  This fast-paced world can put pressure on leaders to offer quick solutions without ever taking the time to identify the root cause.

It’s critical, however, to take the time to define the right issue, ask the right questions, actively seek others points of view, and examine problems from different perspectives. It’s only then that the best solutions can emerge.

If you or your team could use some help getting back on track, consider coaching or participating in a Kolbe TeamSuccess® Seminar.

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