I’ve only been actively involved in brainstorming sessions twice in my professional life, and twice it didn’t really go to plan, for different reasons and with differing outcomes.
First of all, the way understood brainstorming, it has to follow a number of steps :
1. set the topic or question for which you want to generate ideas
2. generate ideas without evaluating them at the time
3. evaluate the list, i.e. how well do they address your question or topic
4. set criteria to rank the remaining ideas
5. rank your ideas, and decide which of your top x number you want to proceed with
The first time was in Iscor, and to be honest, I have trouble remembering the details of what we were trying to address, except that it had something to do with some quality issue. Step 2, the generating of ideas went quite well, but for some reason or another we skipped step 3 and did not exclude ideas that had nothing whatsoever to do with the initial problem setting. The result : we ended up with a number of projects, and although they were worthwhile projects in their own right, none of them did anything to solve the quality issue that had started off the brainstorming session.
The second time was in Tinplate R&D, and we were trying to find new applications that would drag tinplate away from its commodity usage image of food and drinks cans, and possibly lead to applications where the product had a higher margin of profit – and thus where we could possibly get more for our own tinplate feedstock. Here we stumbled at step 2, since a large number of the participants either had no ideas to bring to the table, or did not take the process seriously. It basically fizzled out, and nothing more was heard from it.
So I must say that I didn’t cover myself in glory during my two attempts at getting value out of brainstorming sessions. Was it because I was a mere amateur who didn’t know how to get the best out the tool, or was the tool inherently flawed ? Maybe a bit of both – all I can say is that I haven’t seen brainstorming sessions being used in the last 20 years of my career. Somehow I didn’t come across any situation where brainstorming appeared suitable – or maybe the negative outcome from previous experience did not predispose me well to it, and I dismissed it without giving it much more thought ?