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We start the Brainstorming segment of our productivity training with a seemingly ridiculous proposition. We ask the participating managers to imagine that they have just been shipwrecked on a South Seas island with nothing in their possession but a size 38 leather belt with a conventional metal buckle. Their task is to come up with as many different uses for this object as they can in a ten-minute "brainstorm."
Try it yourself. Take ten minutes right now to list the uses you might make in that situation for a buckle and belt. Hold off glancing down at the list below, and just list whatever uses occur to you. I mean any uses. Not just your "good" ideas, or "inventive" ideas, or "appropriate" ideas, or the ideas that will get you off the island. List everything that comes to your mind.
All right. I'll assume that you've played fair at this little game, and have come up with a list of your own. Now look at the list below. It's a typical list created by managers like yourself from one of our recent seminars:
buckle garter belt
signal mirror bikini
knife fishing line
food clam digger
notepad meat hook
tie noise maker
Now, I know what your reaction to some of these items is likely to be. You're probably going to be saying, "Even if you could hang pictures from a belt, there aren't any pictures on the island." Or, "Who needs a clothesline without any clothes?" We hear those kinds of reactions all the time in our seminars. They're natural, logical reactions. And, when we're running these Brainstorming sessions, we always tell the people who have these negative, critical responses that what they're saying is true, but irrelevant. Because Brainstorming is not an exercise in finding the best solutions; it's an exercise in generating possibilities. The more the better.
It's essential to remember this if you're running a Brainstorming session to attack a company problem. Let's say you've got ten or twelve people gathered together in a team meeting, and you're faced with the task of discovering a way of reducing spoilage in a given line operation. Consider two scenarios.
In Scenario One, you're a typical vertical-thinking leader, and you want to be sure that the ideas your people come up with are basically "on the right track." So when somebody comes up with an offbeat or "frivolous" suggestion, you just ignore it. Or, even worse, you tell him, "Let's get serious, Bobby." What reaction do you suppose that's going to elicit from Bobby? Most likely, he's going to stop giving you suggestions, because you will have demotivated him: you will have let him know that, unless he "follows the rules," the Consequences he can expect will be disapproval from you.
Scenario Two: You run an absolutely open, freewheeling Brainstorm. You sit your ten or twelve people around a table, bring out a chart and grease pencil, and say, "Let's roll. Whatever you say I'm going to write down." And when they start throwing out the ideas, you do just that. You don't judge and you don't stop writing for ten minutes. No matter how "ridiculous" the idea for reducing spoilage may seem to you, you put it down. What are you going to develop in that kind of a scenario? A lot of dumb ideas, sure, I don't dispute that. But you're also going to develop two things that you simply cannot develop if you second-guess your people as they go. If you nod positively to every suggestion, and encourage your people to keep coming with them, you are going to develop:
1. a much longer list of "possibles" than otherwise would be possible; and
2. a highly motivated atmosphere in which your team members want to keep talking
These two things work together, of course. And together they produce what you want: the generation of new ideas, not just the ideas you've all heard before, and rejected because they don't work.
In a Brainstorming session like the one I'm describing here, where a group of about a dozen managers addresses a problem, typically they generate sixty or seventy ideas in a ten- or fifteen-minute session! A lot of them are old, a lot are recycled, and some just tell them what they already "knew." But I'll tell you one thing. At the end of that session, they've got more going for them than just a list of solutions. They've got an energy going between them that no amount of good clean vertical thinking could ever generate. They've had some laughs and they've loosened up and they're up for solving that problem.
"Having some laughs" may not seem like your idea of a motivating experience, but don't you believe it. Never underestimate the power of humor to generate new ideas. A lot of times people will come into a problem-solving session tight-assed and tight-lipped, and the only thing that gets their creative juices flowing—the only thing that gets them up for thinking out a solution—is for somebody to crack a joke. Every after-dinner speaker knows the value of joke-cracking as a way of getting people's attention, and it's equally useful in a team meeting format.
The humor associated with "stupid" ideas, moreover, isn't just a way of diverting attention from the hard business at hand. Often it's a way of focusing that attention in a different, and creative, direction. Set breaking again. You don't expect Rachel's off-the-wall suggestion, but it gets you thinking about another suggestion that might not be so off-the-wall. Dumb ideas, in other words, just because they help you form new mental associations, can lead to good ideas.
In our seminars, we talk about "saving the good half" of a half-assed, or half-good, idea. No idea is completely idiotic, after all, and you can get good results by grafting the useful "half" of a mostly useless idea onto the useful half of another idea. An example from the Brainstorming list I gave above. You'll see that two of the items are "noose" and "meat hook." I remember how they came out in the team context. There was a crusty production manager involved who thought the whole idea of thinking up uses for a belt and buckle was pretty pointless, and he threw out "noose" to suggest that, if he ever got caught on a desert island, he'd end the game right away. The other managers in the group laughed, wrote down the "ridiculous" suggestion, and kept thinking. The very next suggestion thrown out was "meat hook"—a suggestion that had clear survival value. It came from an earnest young accountant who later told me, "You know, I don't do any hunting and I know I would never have thought of using a belt to hang game if it hadn't been for Larry's joke about the noose. I just thought, if you could hang yourself with a belt, what else could you hang?"
What had happened here was that the older manager's dumb idea had generated a line of thought in a team member that eventually led to a good idea. It happens all the time in team settings. When you utilize Brainstorming in a highly reinforcing atmosphere, you constantly find this kind of cross-fertilization happening, you constantly generate hybrid ideas (ideas that are two "good halves" put together) that are better than individual ideas. You constantly witness the Synergy Effect in action.
In order to get this kind of a productive effect, you as a manager have to observe that basic "no judgment" rule for as long as the ideas keep coming. You also have to be enough of a director of the interchange to be able to prevent other people from making judgments. To run an effective Brainstorming session, you should always start by laying out the ground rules, and those rules capsulize what I've been saying. Once you sit your people down and identify the problem you're going to be addressing, make these points crystal clear:
1. The point of this exercise is to generate as many ideas as possible.
2. Everyone should participate; we want to have everyone's contribution; no matter what
3. No judgments!
If those ideas are understood and accepted by all your team members, I guarantee you you're going to have a session full of ideas. The key to keeping them coming is momentum. And the key to maintaining that momentum is for you, the team leader, to give immediate and positive Consequences—a nod, a "Thanks," a smile—to every person who says anything at any point along the way.
This goes back to what I said in the last chapter about the team leader's role as a "facilitator." In leading a Brainstorming session—as in leading any kind of team endeavor—you'll get the highest degree of drive-and participation from your people if you refrain from "directing" them where you think they should go, and instead create the kind of consistently reinforcing atmosphere that makes it easy for them to problem solve. A "facilitator," remember, makes things easier: that's what your role should be. I don't mean you shouldn't contribute yourself. You should. But your judgment of where it's all going, at this point, should be confined to telling someone who has jumped on another person's idea, "We said no judgment, OK?" From what I've said about the limitations of cash as a reward, you know that I'm not generally an advocate of a "more is better" philosophy in business. Except when it comes to Brainstorming. In this one formal exercise, the highest degree of motivation, and the highest level of good "possibles," always comes from an emphasis on quantity.
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