Solving problems requires both a left-brain analysis and right-brain creativity.
The analysis part comes into play as you define the problem, analyze how the problem developed, evaluate the benefit of solving the problem relative to the cost of fixing it and select the best solution to pursue. The creative part comes just before that final step, where we brainstorm the many possible solutions.
I recently sat in on a brainstorming discussion at Ruckus Marketing, a website design company that prides itself on creating “Expertly Crafted Disruption.” First impressions are important. Most businesses know that their website is the first impression they make on a potential customer or client. Therefore, they need to make sure the website conveys not only information, but the spirit of the company itself. Companies need to refresh or completely overhaul their website every few years to reflect their evolving offerings and emphasize their continually developing core ethos.
Seven senior leaders of a mid-sized training and development company sat in Ruckus’ midtown Manhattan offices, which oozed an understated ultra-cool vibe. They were joined by five creative types from Ruckus, including one of the company’s founders, Alex Freidman, and Madelene Eng, the chief website architect.
The Ruckus team challenged the client team with core questions about how the website should function and what the users’ experience of the company would be based on how they would maneuver through the website. While the discussion was ostensibly about a technology-based experience, because of the open brainstorming process, it morphed quickly to a discussion of the essence of the client itself – how it views itself, how that self-image translates to someone browsing the internet and how information in the form of text and images makes someone feel about the company.
Having taught brainstorming techniques to audiences as diverse as law students, marketing professionals, technology teams and internal auditors, I was impressed to see the skills in action in a real-life problem-solving context. What did the team from Ruckus do?
1. Set the ground rules.
Madelene gave the client clear direction as to the question they were addressing at any one time. If they got off track, she reiterated the focus. Alex set the rules regarding how much time would be allowed for each question, set his alarm to go off on time, and then allowed the discussion to go just long enough afterward to create energy and enthusiasm but allow the discussion to move to the next point.
2. Make everything public.
While the client group wrote their responses to the questions on extra-large post-it notes, they also called out what they were writing, which created a spirit of freedom for each person to offer additional thoughts, an essential element of effective brainstorming. The Ruckus team then put all the ideas on the wall and culled out repeats.
3. Keep the atmosphere free of criticism.
Brainstorming has a creative phase and an evaluative phase. In the creative phase, participants don’t comment on each other’s ideas other than to build on the idea. You can build an idea by starting with, “And….” Our inclination is to start with, “But…,” which is usually followed by why the idea someone just offered was off track, or just won’t work. Using “and” is a classic element of improvisational comedy, and it works just as well in a business meeting. The leader in any brainstorming session is in charge of nixing any comments that begin with the top three idea-generating killers: “We tried that before,” “That costs too much,” and “Management will never go for that.”
4. Start evaluating.
Once the ideas are up on the wall, the sorting and evaluation steps come into play. The Alex and Madelene led the client through a discussion of what ideas fell into which buckets, which were redundant and which ideas were really subsets of other ideas. The meatier discussion happens when the group has to discuss which buckets were the most important to the group. However, as happens in an effective brainstorming session, the group had adopted such an open-discussion format, that conflicting ideas on priorities were approached with openness and trust rather than hesitance and defensiveness.
5. Share the results quickly.
At the end of a brainstorming session, teams are simultaneously tired and energized. They will need to revisit their ideas in the very near future or the process stalls. The leaders should gather the info and distribute it as soon as possible after the meeting. One of the Ruckus team members was entering the data into a spreadsheet during the process, and by the end of the session, the team gave the client access to a file that contained all of the ideas that had been generated. The client’s team is now able to reflect further on what was gathered and where to go from there.
One additional challenge when brainstorming is recognizing our strengths and weaknesses in the process. Because brainstorming requires elements of both the left-brain and right-brain, we can all contribute. Because we all are inclined to leverage one side of the brain over the other, we tend to want to stay in the part of the brainstorming process that comes naturally and is easiest for us. Understanding the importance of both contributions is important to having a successful problem-solving conversation.
Originally published on Forbes.com.