So what can project managers do to encourage innovation on project teams? Surely, the moral of the story is not that brainstorming should be completely abandoned? Certainly not. Brainstorming can be a valuable tool for group collaboration and innovation, so long as a few additional guidelines are followed:
Give the brain time to think alone.
To make the most of a brainstorming session, the brain first needs time to think alone. One way to accomplish this is to provide pre-work for participants prior to the session. A pre-work assignment should first describe the problem that needs to be solved, as simply as possible. It should also identify any non-negotiable constraints. Upon receipt of these guidelines, participants should be given time (either during or prior to the session) to provide answers the following: 1) What are two things you believe the group should know before solving this problem? 2) What are your best two ideas for solving this problem? This allows participants to engage with the problem ahead of time and reduces the “blank stare” phenomenon that haunts even the most skilled brainstorming facilitator.
Try come-and-go brainstorming.
Come-and-go brainstorming is a hybrid of individual ideation and group brainstorming. It allows participants the opportunity to informally contribute thoughts, insights, and ideas over a period of time. This technique can be employed using a physical whiteboard in a public space, or a virtual tool. Come-and-go brainstorming is a way that the power of the individual can be balanced with the creative energy of a team. When time is on your side, this tool can be of great value.
Encourage discussion and dissent.
No matter the format, a good brainstorming session will welcome dissenting opinions and discussion. This means that the standard one-hour meeting duration is usually not sufficient for a productive brainstorming session. The facilitator should help set a tone of constructive exploration of ideas, allowing for both depth and breadth of discussion.
Brainwriting is an alternative method to traditional brainstorming that encourages a more uniform participation within a group. It is one of the only methods that is effective at combating production blocking within a team. It is designed to generate a volume of ideas from the entire group (not just the two most dominant personalities in the room) in a brief amount of time. This is a useful technique for capturing new ideas, adapting existing ideas into new areas, and modifying ideas into alternative approaches.