An electric utility in the northwestern United States had problems with ice building up on its power transmission lines during the winter. The company had to send linemen out to climb the pylons that held the lines to clear off the ice and snow. It was difficult and dangerous work, especially as bears sometimes wandered close to the pylons as the linemen were working.
One day a group of linemen got together for a brainstorming session, hoping to find a better and safer way to clear away the ice. One lineman mentioned that a bear had actually climbed a pylon after him once. That led to a humorous suggestion of placing honey pots at the top of the pylons to attract the bears. Then, as they tried to get to the honey, they would knock free the snow and ice. Then an administrative assistant said, "But we'd need to use helicopters to place the pots at the top of the pylons, and the vibrations would frighten the bears and chase them away."
Eureka! The answer was right in front of them. Soon afterward, the company began sending helicopters up into the air — without honey pots — and using the vibrations and wind created by their motors and rotors to knock the ice down. A casual comment had solved the problem. And that's the beauty of brainstorming.
Brainstorming is defined as a group problem-solving technique that involves the spontaneous contribution of ideas from an individual or all members of the group. The term was popularized by Alex Faickney Osborn in the 1953 book "Applied Imagination." Brainstorming began when Osborn, who was presumably searching for an idea, decided to ask a few of his colleagues for input. He set out five core principles upon that all brainstorming is built to this day:
1. Gather together a group of people into a room with plenty of easels and whiteboards.
2. Capture all ideas that come to mind, even if they sound crazy — especially if they sound crazy.
3. The more ideas, the better. Your initial goal is quantity, not quality.
4. Do not apply critical thinking. There's no such thing as a bad idea — the evaluation process comes later.
5. All ideas belong to the group, so people should be encouraged to build on each other's ideas.
These rules are probably very familiar to you; however, chances are you are even more familiar with the reality of most brainstorming sessions. They can devolve into meaningless time traps if at least some semblance of organization isn't present.
These are some of my favorite brainstorming techniques:
Swap problems. Sometimes, the longer and harder you look for a solution, the more elusive it becomes. A fresh set of eyes can make a big difference. Have people write down their most difficult problem, and drop them all in a hat. Then have everyone pick a problem from the hat and try to solve it. Encourage people from different areas to get together and learn something about each other's problems and skills.
Form a dream team. Ask a small group of people to meet once a week. Include creative types as well as technical experts, and at least a couple of people who are unfamiliar with the problem. Limit attendance so everyone can contribute. Their only job is to generate, share and discuss ideas for innovation.
Keep an open mind. Don't set limits on what kinds of ideas are acceptable. If you're leading, be careful not to dominate the session. Halfway through the session, vote on the ideas. Throw out the bad ones and seek ways to improve the good ones.
Look for bad ideas. Hold a "dump the ideas" meeting with colleagues. One topic: "What should we stop doing so we have more time and energy for innovation?" Eliminating the clutter makes room for fresh approaches.
Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.