Brainstorming sessions are common in business -- meetings where thoughts fly, all ideas are "good ideas," and the loudest person in the room often rules the show. But is this system effective?
"Important ideas rarely result from traditional brainstorming sessions," says business author Kevin Maney, who recently wrote the ebook The New Art of Brainswarming, available as a free download from IdeaPaint, a company that offers paint that turns walls into white boards. Interviewing leaders from companies such as online payment processor PayPal and New York-based strategy consultant SYPartners, Maney found that innovators continually generate new ideas through a more continuous and dynamic process.
"It looks more like swarming than storming," he says. Individuals come together to work on a problem. Instead of a single session, the swarm shifts and changes and keeps working until the problem is solved. Then it gets to work on the next problem.
Maney says "brainswarming" is an easy process to implement. He offers six steps for entrepreneurs who are looking to generate more ideas.
1. Start with the right team.
A study of Broadway musicals from 1945 to 1989 found that a reliable predictor of a show's success was the relationship among its collaborators, says Maney. "If they were relatively unfamiliar with each other, their shows tended to flop," he says. "But if the bulk of the team had connections and a fluency with each other, the show's probability of success shot up."
Connection tends to spur creative shorthand and an ability to discuss ideas freely, however, the Broadway teams that stayed together too long got stale and their shows flopped. Before trying brainswarming, entrepreneurs should work to cultivate a tight-knit swarm. Later invite a colleague or friend or hire a consultant to add new energy.
2. Get "swarmers" to pre-think.
Don't just pull everyone into a room and press the start button, says Maney. Instead, share the problem beforehand and give participants time to think it over. In addition to making the best use of time, this step brings the most ideas to the table. Once all ideas are presented, let the swarm identify the best and then get to work.
3. Create the right setting.
The worst place to generate new ideas is the place where most businesses probably congregate -- a stuffy conference room, says Maney. Instead, design spaces in your company where ideas can flow. Add sofas to your office design to encourage conversations. Include tools for writing and drawing. Throughout PayPal's Boston offices, for example, walls are white boards, allowing for spontaneous brainswarming. And if your company has telecommuters, Maney suggests using Google Hangouts where up to 10 people can participate in free video conferences.
4. Set rules and allow criticism.
Often brainstorming sessions start with a rule that there are no rules and that all ideas are good ideas, but setting no boundaries can hinder creativity instead of foster it. Instead, add some structure such as offering a starting point or a time limit. "A swarm isn't a swarm if it's spread all over, put it in a box," says Maney.
Also, allow swarmers to voice concerns or criticisms. Bad ideas can lead to good debates that then lead to better ideas. "If you have something critical to say about an idea, speak up, but not in a destructive way," says Maney.
5. Capture the best ideas.
Ideas can get lost in a swarm. Assign someone who will write up and share the best ideas. If you've done this with a well-equipped room, the ideas might be all over the walls. Take photos and add the images into Evernote, which can be searched. Maney says if at all possible, leave the drawings and scribbles on the wall, so swarmers can come back to them, talk about the ideas, touch them up, draw new connections.
6. Don't stop.
The biggest difference between brainstorming and brainswarming is continuity and momentum, says Maney. Problems don't go away after the meeting breaks up.
"When one objective is met, keep a good swarm together and send it after the next one," says Maney. "If the conditions are right, it will never end, and the innovative ideas will keep coming."