Brainstorming with Teams

It's been a month since I launched this website and I as I build my blog post collection, a theme emerging is "tools". Between my two major sections (lean six sigma and productivity), I've been mostly writing about tools. Not the handheld kind, but the conceptual kind. The tools that I've been sharing are techniques or tactics that we could all use a little more knowledge so we can simply be better.

For this post, I'll share background on idea generation and organization techniques, that you as a process improver can use in guiding your teams. After all of my work experience in leading teams, I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't know about two of the techniques below: nominal brainstorming and multivoting. As we lead our teams, all five of the methods in this blog post will be useful tools in our respective toolkits to get many (and great) ideas from our teams.

Brainstorming Methods

Here are two methods to generating many ideas quickly: brainstorming and the nominal group technique. If you have good team dynamics and energy, brainstorming is good to use; if, however, there's a need for anonymity or you need to bring out certain voices in the group, the nominal group technique might be helpful.

Brainstorming

Brainstorming is simple and generates as many ideas as possible quickly. As a facilitator, your job is to capture these ideas. Enlist the help of one or to other volunteers as scribes for the ideas called out. Also, these rules to the team will encourage the most ideas quickly:

  • Quantity of ideas is the name of the game
  • No judging
  • Wild and ridiculous ideas are welcome
  • Piggyback off of previous ideas by building and combining

Finally, a timer helps encourage rapid idea generation. Keep the brainstorming session short (10 minutes) to create and sustain the group's energy during the exercise.

Nominal Group Technique

This is also called the "nominal brainstorming" as nominal means "in name only". Rather than the highly interactive and energetic  environment of regular brainstorming, the nominal group technique limits team interaction. Use this method when the team has one or two (or a small group) of dominant voices drowning out others in the group.

As a facilitator, it's important to be able to assess team dynamics and knowing multiple methods. Without these two skills, you'll encounter lots of missed opportunities in getting the most and best out of your teams.

Just like traditional brainstorming, the objective is to generate as many ideas as the group can, but the following rules apply:

  • No talking
  • Write ideas down (ideally on sticky notes)
  • Collect and post ideas at the end of the time
  • Expand and explain ideas after collecting

The nominal group technique can also be used for sensitive or controversial issues, when team member's anonymity is important. Keep in mind, even with anonymity, the group will still be able to expand or explain an idea by interpreting what was written.

Organizing

After you've taken the team through idea generation, the next step is to organize the ideas. Whereas you want to go fast with idea generation which encourages creativity, you'll want to take a more deliberate approach to organizing the ideas. Working here with teams will still require creative energy, but now it's creativity infused with logic.

Mindmapping

Mindmapping is the least structured of the three organizing methods in this post. As a facilitator, you could choose to mindmap and brainstorm at the same time, but the chart might get a little messy. If you choose to mindmap with your group, a dry erase board or chalk board where you can erase lines easily will be your best bet in facilitating this kind of work.

Here's an example of a mindmap -- it's of this blog post.

I like to work from the central idea and work out to the smaller, supporting ideas. For group work, the same concept of working out applies. Ask the group what they think the central theme is for the issue at hand and work from there. With a list of ideas from the brainstorming session, the group already has starting points to build from. Creating combinations and connections is easy, and don't be afraid to allow new ideas to be added. The unstructured nature of mindmapping allows for the group to continue with creativity and energy from the idea generation step.

Affinity diagrams

Affinity diagramming adds structure to organizing ideas.  Like mindmapping, this method connects ideas together but does so through grouping. Instead of lines to connect topics, lead the team by grouping similar ideas together and then finding some name or theme for the group. Where a whiteboard or chalkboard was the right tool for mindmapping, sticky notes and a table top or wall are the right tools for affinity diagrams.

Moving ideas around when grouping helps spur conversation among the team and clarify thinking about the groups. As the facilitator, ask questions about why the ideas have been grouped, what information or ideas the groupings uncover, or if anyone can see themes emerging.

Multivoting

Finally, multivoting is the most structured of the three grouping methods discussed here. As implied in the name, each member gets a vote on the top ideas created.

Step one is to allow the group to decide the top ideas to pursue. You want to limit the voting to a manageable set (5 to 7 issues) because the brainstorming sessions can often lead to dozens of ideas. Voting on such a large number is tedious and time consuming; limiting the multivoting will ensure that the exercise can be finished in a reasonable amount of time.

In the graphic below, I outline the steps to multivoting. It's two part process that first culls down the original list to the final number of ideas. (It does not have to be 5 to 7, you and the team can choose more or fewer to vote on.) The second part rank orders the ideas and there are two choices.

You can choose to use "strict" rank ordering. Here, each idea is ranked from highest to lowest by each member. Each idea's ranks are summed and these totals give the final list of ideas in priority order.

The other choice is "apportionment" ordering. Here everyone is given the same number of points to allocate or apportion to each idea. It can be any amount of points, just as long as everyone uses the same number. A useful tactic is to tell the team that they have $100 to distribute among the ideas. The best ideas get the most points (or money), but each voter is limited to the same number of points. The example below uses 100 points. Once everyone has apportioned their points, these are tallied and again these totals give the final list of ideas in priority order.

So there you have it. Five methods to use in leading teams through idea generation and then organizing those ideas. One important aspect that I don't discuss here is analysis methods of the results. The results of the group analysis will help the team either reach some decision or shed more light on the issue at hand.

Resources

As always, here are several of the best resources that I've found in the process of researching this blog post.

  • Detailed article on the nominal group techique (asq.org article)
  • Mindmapping software. Simplemind offers software for Mac, Windows, iOS, and Android.
  • A multivoting job tool aid on Youtube.

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