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Breakthrough thinking from inside the box

Imagine attending a meeting at which you and your colleagues have to invent an idea for a new business. The only instruction you're given is to "think outside the box." The task is so vague that you'd promptly give up.

There is a better approach: structured brainstorming. Through this process, you pose concrete questions that focus people's thinking in ways that spark fresh ideas. For example: "What businesses could we invent if we reproduced something children love in an extreme form for adults?" This notion has catalyzed creation of 25+ new product categories, including gourmet jelly beans, Spider-Man movies, and paintball. You also orchestrate the brainstorming process to help people work effectively together; for example, sequestering all the pushy people in one group so they can't dominate the others.

Structure your brainstorming, and you get a shower of great ideas you can transform into profitable reality.

The Idea in Practice
Coyne, Clifford, and Dye offer these suggestions for using structured brainstorming:

Ask the Right Questions
The best questions guide people to valuable--and overlooked--corners of the universe of possible new ideas. The authors recommend asking six types of focusing questions:

Question Type
Examples unexpected successes - Who uses our product in ways we never expected or intended?

Examines binding constraints - What’s the biggest hassle of purchasing or using our product?

Imagines perfection - How would our product change if it were customized for every customer?

“De-averages” buyers and users - Who spends 50+% of our product’s cost to adapt it to their specific needs?

Revises assumptions about your processes and products - Which technologies embedded in our product have changed the most since the product was last redesigned?

Looks beyond your business’s boundaries - What breakthroughs in efficiency or effectiveness have we made that could be applied in another industry?

To develop your own list of questions, notice whenever you come across a new business idea that you consider really clever. Ask, "What question would have caused me to see this opportunity first?"

Orchestrate the Process
Design brainstorming sessions to be consistent with how human beings actually think and work together. For instance:

Clarify what constitutes a good idea in your particular case. Discuss constraints such as how much money your company can spend to implement an idea, what level of staffing the company can commit, and when you need a payback.

Select participants who can produce original insights. Include people who will have answers to your questions through firsthand knowledge. You may need to bring in people from outside your immediate staff, such as customers and salespeople who have direct experience with what's going on in the market.

Make social norms work for you. In meetings of 10+ people, the social norm is that most people speak only a minimum amount while a few dominate. Break large groups into groups of four, where the norm is for everyone to participate. Put pushy people into one group so they won't silence those in the other groups.

Don't rely solely on one brainstorming session. Sometimes ideas keep improving over time. To capture all the good ones, consider scheduling a follow-up meeting or two, or gather additional thoughts from individuals after the session.

Copyright 2007 HBS Publishing, authored by Kevin P. Coyne Patricia Gorman Clifford Renée Dye; courtesy of the Young Entrepreneurs Association of Jamaica;
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