Brainstorming for Innovation

In conducting and participating in brainstorming sessions for innovation, I have found the critical requirements, judged empirically, to be:

  1. A limited number of participants (about 20 in my experience is a practical limit and 5 is too few),
  2. A minimum level of intellectual ability (and I have seen sessions ruined because “political correctness” or misguided notions of “fairness” have led to the inclusion of incompetent participants),
  3. Sufficiently long but not too long sessions (with each session never less than one whole day and never more than 3 days is my rule of thumb),
  4. Well prepared participants who have spent sufficient time in individual contemplation of the matter at hand (and since participants tend to come to such sessions unprepared it has always been worthwhile to allocate time – perhaps half a day for a two-day session – at the beginning of the session for individual contemplation),
  5. A clearly prepared initial “problem statement” even if the group may itself later modify the problem statement,
  6. A moderator capable of cutting across hierarchical boundaries, avoiding negative comments during any idea-generation phase, of enforcing the grounding of statements during the assessment of ideas and unafraid of puncturing “noise” and “stories”, and
  7. A clearly communicated post-session process.

In Idea Generation and the Quality of the Best Idea Prof. Girotra of INSEAD and Professors Terwiesch and Ulrich of Wharton examined the effectiveness of group dynamics and the innovation process. Their experiments show  that a hybrid process – in which people are given time for individual contemplation on their own before discussing ideas with their peers resulted in the generation of more ideas and of a higher quality than a purely team-oriented process. In a conventional team process concepts of “fairness” and hierarchical inhibitions were not conducive to innovation.

In my experience, the initial contemplation and role of the moderator and his ability are crucial.

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