Brainstorming for the Corporate

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Everyone reading this knows what a brainstorm is (I hope). I want to review a bit about the process I’ve used to find success in brainstorms, why they are helpful, and how they can be more successful in a corporate environment. If you work in an agency, this may not be as helpful, but might offer an interesting perspective. For those in the corporate environment, I hope this will help give you new ideas and erode old beliefs.

At a basic level, if done well, running brainstorms can show leadership and faster ROI for a team. If you can help the team create and develop ideas in a short session instead of weeks sitting alone, it makes you pretty valuable asset. Brainstorming is also great for engaging the full team and solicit their ideas. By “the full team”, I don’t just mean Design or UX, it’s also development, test (or QA), Project Managers… everyone. It’s important that designers get rid of the idea that we’re the only creative people on a team. Everyone is creative, some people are simply more creative, and others show it in different ways. People think in all different ways, but a good idea is the same no matter who says it.

Win them over

After accepting the fact that everyone can be creative, you can start to collaborate with people more productively. In addition to the great ideas you can get, you’ll also win over people. Many times developers or QA aren’t asked for their ideas, so the simple act of asking can get them excited and involved. Plus they will most likely be more dedicated and work harder when they’ve got the feeling they were involved in the early proces of the product.

Many times developers or QA aren’t asked for their ideas, so the simple act of asking can get them excited and involved

Let me assure everyone reading that I’m not telling you to allow a developer or someone else to make a design decision, but to simply get their ideas. In the corporate environment, another fallacy to wear away is that the designer always has to come up with the idea. This puts a lot of pressure on designers, but if you believe good and great ideas are hidden anywhere on the team, all you need to do is find them. Once you find all the ideas, the job of a designer is to tell a great story, make it simple, usable, and culturally relevant. That process and thinking is where the real design work comes in. Good ideas can be cheap, telling a great story takes a lot of time and thinking… but let’s get back to the ideas.

Involve people who want to be involved

When you do brainstorms, don’t involve people who don’t want to be involved. I’ve run a few sessions where people didn’t want to be involved or didn’t think they could contribute and sit quietly. Since I’m not in an agency, it’s not on my shoulders to try and make everyone look good in a meeting. So when someone isn’t interested, I leave them out, but let them know as an FYI in case they change their mind. A session with one negative person can quickly take the whole session down and drain the energy in the room.

It’s also important to get people to feel inspired. On the last project I worked on, we all went to see Wall-e to kick off the project. In addition to that we reviewed sites, objects, or products we all enjoyed and thought were cool. Somewhat of a warm up exercise to get us thinking broad so we didn’t stay in a software mindset. I’ve seen IDEO, Frog, and a few other companies put toys and object on the table during the brainstorm. Whatever the team finds helpful; if it works, go for it!

On the last project I worked on, we all went to see Wall-e to kick off the project.

Types of brainstorming

There are two style of brainstorming I most often use for corporate teams. One is what I call Improv Brainstorming, and it pulls from… Improv comedy. The second is a simple round robin approach, which I’ve seen many times. For any brainstorm, these are general rules of engagement I have. Several are pulled from IDEO.

  • Be visual
  • Defer judgment
  • Stay focused
  • One person talking at a time (I’ve heard people dispute this, but it works for me)
  • Defined agenda

For improv brainstorming I use these rules and processes:

  • Start with a single idea
  • Build on that idea
  • Offshoot other ideas or just start with a new concept
  • Use a moderator to help guide ideas and conversation
  • Have ideas in your back pocket to restart things in case they get stalled

For round robin brainstorming I set it up in the following way:

  • Everyone has N minutes to sketch a few ideas on their own
  • Everyone presents their ideas
  • Team votes on a few core ideas
  • Another individual round for N minutes dedicated to those ideas
  • Present again / repeat

Hopefully all of that will give you one idea to use in your work place. I’m simple, so if you walk away with just a single idea, that’s enough for me. Someone once told me that it’s not what you know that’s important, it’s what you don’t. If that’s true, brainstorming certainly is a way to get to the important stuff fast.

Image by Jakob Botter

Joe Fletcher

Joe Fletcher is currently an associate creative director at frog, and previously a design lead at Microsoft. After graduating college in 2001 with a degree in Communication Design, he taught school before moving back into the design field.

6 comments on this article

  1. Joe – good stuff and good to keep reminding people about approaches to take. “don’t involve people who don’t want to be involved.” is brilliant because it’s obvious when you read it but it takes an article like this to really make it feel obvious. It’s NOT obvious. So thanks.

    Also, I like the phrase “round-robin” – I think we tend to run sessions that combine breakouts, but into small groups, where the improv principles are still used, and then using prioritizing and voting and presenting back to move things to another level. i.e., Generate 20 ideas in 3 groups, each group picks 2 to pitch back, the larger group builds and reactions on those 6 ideas. Then you can do things like another round where each group takes a different topic, or each group takes someone else’s ideas and evolves, them.

    A terminology quibble: improv is not improv comedy. That’s just one of the topics (if I remember correctly) I covered with Chris Miller in this podcast: http://www.core77.com/blog/broadcasts/core77_broadcast_chris_miller_of_lifeplays_interviewed_by_steve_portigal_5959.asp

    And a typo alert: “improv” vs. “improve” – I do this all the time..

  2. Joe on

    Thanks Steve! Yes, I do see a typo there. I’ll correct that.
    Are you referring to the terminology quibble that it’s actually improv theater, and not “comedy”? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Improvisational_theatre

    I’ll check out the podcast this weekend.

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  4. Joe – yeah, that’s my quibble. I think “improv” =/= “improv comedy” – it’s a process and it can be very entertaining to do and to watch; I’m much more interested in the process of doing it, I find that very satisfying and stimulating and so on, creative flow states, what-have-you. And that is often hilarious, but different than comedy, where you want to make someone else laugh. I think most people have experienced “improv comedy” either on TV or at a club or something but I fear that adding the comedy word to the term increases the intimidation factor. I’ve always had people tell me “Oh, I couldn’t do improv because I’m not funny.” Of course that’s not what it’s about, it’s about this collaborative process (see the bit about improv in my recent Johnny Holland piece http://johnnyholland.org/magazine/2009/06/lets-embrace-open-mindedness/).

    I’ll be leading a session at IDSA in Miami in November called Improv Infusion: “Yes, and” For Better Design/Design Research

  5. Joe Fletcher on

    Steve – excellent point and feedback! I never thought about the word “comedy” alienating people, but I can totally understand the comment “I’m not funny”. My goal is precisely that “Yes and” attitude. I say comedy only because the improv groups I’ve seen focus on comedy, so that’s where I’ve pulled it from. However it’s more about the principles. Throw out an idea, build on the idea, and keep the ‘yes and’ focus, and never ‘no but’. Those are the key points I share with the team when I brainstorm.

    I’ll work on tailoring my language. You should come out to Seattle! I look forward to meeting you one day :D

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