The Secrets of Successful Brainstorming
by Dean Rieck
Every now and then, a situation arises that makes even the most seasoned guru doff his sorcerer's cap and scratch his noggin. Case in point: a business called me recently wanting advice on raising response or cutting costs on their direct mail package. They sent some samples for me to look at along with testing results and, frankly, I was stumped.
The cheapest package was dead cheap. It also boasted the highest response, significantly higher than more elaborate packages with all the bells and whistles. To make matters more frustrating, because of their aggressive testing policy, everything I suggested had already been tried at some point.
What's a guru to do?
There's nothing more difficult or humbling than having to admit you don't have a ready answer. But for those honest enough to admit their uncertainty, there's also nothing more exhilarating, since that is invariably the first step toward discovering new ideas.
The answer? Hold a brainstorming session.
Brainstorming the Big Idea
Brainstorming is one of the most widespread and powerful creative techniques ever devised. When used properly, it can produce more and better ideas than any other process. It is based on the concept that two heads (or three, or four, or more) are better than one.
Now, many would argue that you can't create by committee. I agree. Writing, designing, and other creative acts are best performed by individuals. Creative execution by committee invariably regresses to the mean. The results are weak and watered-down.
However, brainstorming is not about creative execution. It's about idea creation. And it is almost always more productive as a group activity. The result of a brainstorming session is or should be a long list of potential ideas which can be evaluated, the best chosen for creative execution at a later time. Sure, you'll come up with a ton of dumb ideas, but so what? Once you get the ideas flowing, the great ideas will float to the top. And some of those ideas that seem dumb end up being pretty smart once you test them and see the results.
This is not only a great way to solve seemingly insoluble problems, but also an effective means for generating new ideas to keep your testing program fresh. If you've had bad luck with brainstorming, you're just not doing it right. Because in my experience, conducting a brainstorming session is like throwing a match into a room full of firecrackers. There's a sudden and powerful chain reaction.
Here are a few suggestions for creating some fireworks of your own:
Before Your Session ...
- Select a leader. When I conduct a session, I often serve as both leader and participant. It works for me, but you may want to select a leader who will remain realistic and low-key while the others let their imagination go wild. The leader also must keep the group on track and on a time schedule, stifle negative statements, help the group develop ideas fully, and assure that each member contributes.
- Define your problem. The leader should write a clear definition for the problem the group will address. If you're working with an outside consultant, this is a team effort. But all you need is a sentence or two that clearly outlines the situation.
- Create an agenda. Outline what topics you want to cover. List specific brainstorming techniques you want to try. Prepare a few ideas in advance to serve as a starter and be prepared to suggest questions to help the ideas flow.
- Set time limits. How much time you spend depends on the group's endurance and everyone's schedule, but it's usually best to keep it short 15 to 45 minutes. If you go longer, take breaks every hour to keep people fresh.
- Set quotas. The idea is to work fast and produce lots of ideas which will be evaluated at another time. Therefore, you should set quotas, such as a minimum of 100 ideas. This isn't as hard as it sounds. If you come up with just two ideas a minute, you'll have 120 in an hour. You can set an overall quota or individual quotas for each topic.
- Select your group and announce a session. Choose a mixed group of the same general rank to participate. When you talk to these people, don't call it a "meeting." That conjures images of big oak tables and necktie formality. Call it a "session."
- Circulate background information. Prime session participants with a simple statement of the problem, background information, and examples of the kind of ideas you're looking for.
During Your Session ...
- Review the problem and background information. Don't put people to sleep, just quickly go over the problem, background data, and what you hope to accomplish. If there are questions, answer them before you begin.
- Establish the ground rules. The rules must be followed strictly. Read them to the group and emphasize that the success of the session depends on cooperation. Here they are:
- Each session participant must contribute ideas, accept ideas of others, or improve on ideas.
- No one may criticize or evaluate any idea. Alex F. Osborn in Applied Imagination said it best: "Think up or shut up."
- No one will hold back ideas. When something comes to mind, say it.
- The group will encourage wild, out-of-the box thinking.
- The goal of the session is quantity, not quality. Quality will be evaluated later.
- Ideas will be developed fully. Participants should hitchhike ideas on the ideas of others to produce more and better ideas. When an idea is developed, the group will move on.
- Take detailed notes. Whether written or typed, someone must rapidly capture the flow of ideas as they occur. An option is to record the session and transcribe notes from the recording. (I've found that a combination of note taking and recording works best. The notes serve as an outline of the major topics covered and the recording in the details.)
After Your Session ...
- Allow time for the incubation of further ideas. If you've had a productive session, ideas will continue to occur to people for hours or days after the session. Ask everyone to write down these ideas and submit them later to accompany the main session notes.
- Type up and circulate ALL the ideas generated. The final product of a session will be a multi-page document that lists every single idea created. Nothing should be edited. Organize or classify these ideas in some fashion for later evaluation. Don't be surprised if you have literally hundreds of ideas.
- Evaluate your ideas and choose the best. The same group can evaluate the ideas or another group can. It's often best for those responsible for the problem to evaluate the ideas, but you can run into "idea ownership" problems. On the other hand, another group may not be able to grasp the significance of many of the ideas generated. You'll have to experiment. Either way, I suggest a smaller evaluation group fewer than 6. Use a checklist or specific criteria to evaluate the ideas. Don't rule out crazy ideas too quickly. Allow yourselves to continue to develop the ideas as needed.
When the dust settles, you should find yourself with some surprisingly good ideas. And the whole process often energizes your staff and improves morale as well. But don't get discouraged if it doesn't work perfectly the first time. Assembling the right group, creating an open atmosphere, and producing the best results often takes time. As with so many other things in life, practice makes perfect.
And there you have it, the complete summit on creativity in direct marketing. We've covered a lot of ground, but don't worry if you don't remember everything. What's most important is that you start to be more aware of how you approach marketing problems and that you take control of the creative process.
Improving your creative powers and operating at the third level of creative mastery is not so much a destination as a journey. Always remember you ARE creative. And the more you exercise your creative muscles, the more creative you will be.
Copyright © 1999 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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