Being creative to grow when brainstorms fail

I have attended far too many brainstorming sessions which have not been framed to make them useful. The science is in. Brainstorming doesn’t work.

When and why you need ideas

In sales, we will want to come up with creative ideas to grow our accounts, penetrate new ones, grow the business, invent new offerings and so on. In fact, if you want growth for a company, you should you use the Alchemy of Growth (1999, p52) framework from Mehrdad Baghai to do a comprehensive search for opportunities.

For an individual sales person this model is not as useful. Instead, read on about brainstorming.

Basically, the first place to look for growth is at the bottom of the stack. It’s the closest to what you are currently doing. He offers seven degrees away from the current state, each of which is a perspective which could identify growth.

Baghai’s model predates the excellent work from the Business Model Generation team, and does not have anywhere near its robustness, but I still find it useful for its simplicity. If you have exhausted growth in degrees 4 through 7, you should consider more drastic reinvention and for that purpose read up on the #bmgen model.

On better brainstorming

Two common situations for a sales person to want effective “brainstorming” are account planning and business-unit planning (such as during a sales off-site meeting).

One key point to avoid:

  • traditional brainstorming, where everyone gets in a room and is told to come up with whatever ideas they can, no matter how crazy, and that no-one should criticise one another, does not work.

McKinsey suggest you use a facilitated structure, which I agree with, where you define specific limits and constraints on the participants. This is so important. Otherwise, you get ideas which simply cannot be implemented within the realistic parameters of the company.

The seven steps to better idea generation are:

  1. Know your organization’s decision-making criteria and do not deny them
  2. Provide focused questions to consider
  3. Choose a mix of people and consider group dynamics
  4. Conduct multiple, discrete, highly focused idea generation sessions in small groups
  5. Frame the exercise properly and have them focus on a single idea for 30 minutes
  6. Wrap up by highlighting a few of the best ideas but do not discard the rest
  7. Follow up with participants quickly afterwards

The long reads about why, and what works, are well chronicled in a superb essay from the New Yorker. The McKinsey article is shorter and pragmatic.

By using these seven steps for your next planning session, you will definitely get a better outcome.

For example, if you cannot normally sell a particular service offering in certain countries because your firm does not have a legal entity those countries within which you would want to sell it, that becomes a constraint which any brainstorming should propose solutions for. This is as opposed to denying the reality and not working through the issue, and creating impractical solutions. It might seem obvious but the point is that traditional brainstorming generates ideas which are not actionable. By requiring that constraints are considered, you may analyse alternative commercial paths to market such as partners, licensing, export and so on.

The first two steps are particularly important because they frame the idea generation session, and are notable departures from the traditional brainstorming methods which we know do not work.