Innovation Brainstorming

Recently, we helped a consulting client put together a new web-tech-based strategy for growth. We used a combination of tried-and-true innovation techniques and industry- and company-specific stuff that seems to have worked very well, so thought I’d quickly share what we did:

  1. Define the problem(s) (Drucker Methodology: Define the Central Problem)
    Drucker makes a big point of isolating ONE problem. While I appreciate the reasons for doing this, in practice, making a point of stating the “one problem” to your client can be stating the obvious, and also is sometimes not the best starting point for solutioning. On the other hand, when a client hands you a set of challenges it is definitely helpful to assess whether there is an overarching theme that ties them all together. In this case, the “one problem” was that the industry’s value chain had evolved and was out of sync with company strategy. Stemming from this unstated “one problem” were aset of problem statements involving various aspects of the company’s operations and marketing. So, whether one tells the client to start with the “one problem” or accepts their thematically-unified framing of the problem and just keeps the “one problem” in mind while in process, it is key to understand the problem(s) thoroughly and ensure all involved in brainstorming understand them as well. If there is more than one problem and there is no thematic linkage between them, they should be handled separately.
  2. Develop a solution ideation plan
    Leadership already had a general idea of how they wanted to work on solutions, so the consulting challenge was to help flesh out a plan and it was executed efficiently. We gathered a diverse team of experts for a closed-door, one-day ideation session. Some participants had deep expertise in the company, others had expertise in potential markets and technologies that leadership identified as likely fertile ground for innovation and growth. Outside participants were to be compensated and non-disclosure agreements signed. As an outside consultant and a solution space expert, my role was to gather key information from internal and external sources, develop written guidance to prepare participants in advance of the meeting, moderate the meeting itself, and create final written recommendations including next steps and mid- and long-term goals.
  3. Gather information and create a narrative for participants to absorb in advance
    I gathered background information to understand the problem/solution universe in a series of meetings with key management. Initially, I met with four of their management team; once I understood better the dynamics of the team, I homed in on one or two team members to get deeper-dive answers. I did this to minimizeinvolvement of team members and to encourage in-depth conversation, asking specific questions about market conditions, operations, marketing resources and capabilities, etc. In this case, that person was the Marketing lead, because marketing was the central to the challenges at hand. As I gathered information, I put together a narrative of the situation complete with supporting company and industry data. The final narrative was a combination of information authored by myself and management. I also included a description of the purpose of the session and the agenda. Overall, this document was critical: by developing a shareable narrative of the company and the relevant problem/solution space, I could be confident that all participants would start from a baseline understanding and that I could effectively guide the session, fading back or directing as needed.
  4. Conduct the brainstorming session
    The session itself was comparatively easy and enjoyable. I emphasized informality but strove to enforce a policy of respect for everyone’s point of view (e.g., no squelching!). In this case, the group was comprised of respectful but strong-willed people, so there was little need to suppress dominant participants or encourage shy ones. While it can be a risk to use a group for ideation (groupthink, for example, is one cause for concern) I believe that the combination of independent preparation combined wit the group working session can be optimally effective. By engaging several well-prepared knowledge experts in a controlled working session, we were able to develop solutions on one day that might have taken weeks for a single consultant to identify and elaborate alone. With this approach, keeping the session on task and on-time was relatively easy. I took copious notes, both personal, in a notebook, and for the group on a whiteboard, and engaged a second note-taker as well to help ensure the outcome was balanced. This was also worth doing because, after all, note-taking had to take a back seat to mediation at times.
  5. Summarize findings and make recommendations
    The big payoff! This task was time-consuming, yet pleasant. I gathered up all the notes, which I was careful to record in such a way as to make this part easier, and wrote the final document. The task involves: restating the problem(s); listing relevant decision factors; delineating the solutions (or ideas) developed; explicitly stating how they will address the problems; and finally, creating plans to pursue each solution, broken out into immediate, mid, and long term goals.

This approach worked well for two reasons: First, we did enough research and shared it with participants to ensure everyone was empowered to provide maximum value in the session itself. Second, we kept the endgame – a series of actionable, rationalized recommendations – in mind both for myself and for all participants.