There are numerous reasons why a brainstorm session can produce few great ideas or none at all. Gijs van Wulfen gives us his suggestions for the perfect brainstorm.

The fuzzy front end of innovation confronts you with a lot of questions. In my new book ‘Creating innovative Products and Services’ I try to solve them with the FORTH innovation method.

Every one of us has experienced failed brainstorms. Because 300 ideas hung on a wall and nobody knew how to go on. Or one of your vice-presidents disapproved of every idea so after a short while everybody kept his mouth shut. Or because at the end of a long day at the office you could only recycle old ideas and there was nothing new under the sun. But do not get discouraged. The perfect brainstorm exists. I have experienced several in practice. And was in the position of facilitating some of them.

So, what finally gives that WOW feeling? I’ve discovered that this simple question cannot be easily answered. I do not think there is one dominant success factor. It is much more the right interplay of many small factors. It is all in the details I experience. Perhaps the metaphor of a puzzle is most striking. There are many small pieces needed, and if you lose one, the puzzle is worthless. In my practice as facilitator I have found twenty-five pieces contributing to the perfect brainstorm, which I like to share with you.

Highly relevant

1. Define a relevant subject, which is a challenge for the organisation and the people you invite.

2. Create with the sponsor a concrete and s.m.a.r.t. brainstorm or innovation assignment.

3. Create momentum for the brainstorm. Something important must happen now!

Diverse group of participants

4. Invite people for whom the assignment is personally relevant.

5. Invite both people for content as for decision-making reasons.

6. Invite also a couple of outsiders as outside-the-box thinkers.

7. Get a good mix between men and women, young & old, et cetera.

8. Let the internal top problem-owner (vice-president) participate.

Special setting

9. Look for a peaceful and special environment (special place, special music, special food et cetera).

10. Create an (emotional) safe environment where you can be yourself.

11. Do not allow ringing and flashing iPhones and Blackberry’s.

12. Never, I really mean never, brainstorm at the office.

Effectively structured process

13. Take at least two days for an effective brainstorm for concrete new concepts.

14. Spend twice as much time on the convergence process as on the divergence process.

15. Plan and prepare an effective combination of idea generation techniques.

16. Be open to suggestions from the group to adapt the process. Do not always try to stick to the programme you have set.

17. Make sure it is enjoyable. Fun promotes good results.

18. Time box. Make sure everybody knows what the time limits are for the different assignments. And stick to the time.

19. Hire visualisers or cartoonist to visualise the results

20. Keep the pace going; otherwise it becomes long-winded and boring.

Facilitated by a professional

21. Hire an (internal) expert facilitator, hardly noticeable, with light controls.

22. Gives the opposite energy to the group. If the group is too active: be calm. If the group is too calm: be more energetic.

23. Don’t lose sight of sub groups, constantly check how they progress.

Concrete output

24. Make the output very concrete and clear to anybody. Also to those who did not participate.

25. Creating the new concepts with your own colleagues generates maximum internal support.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating of course. Try to deploy the 25 rules, and you will notice that the participants will share the WOW-feeling and support the outcome. So when you organise or lead a brainstorm, check out if you’ve complete the puzzle.

In the FORTH innovation method, a two-day brainstorm is planned in the third step: Raise Ideas. You can download the brainstorm programme here, to help you get started.

I wish you lots of success organising your own perfect brainstorm!

About the author:

Gijs van Wulfen (The Netherlands, 1960) is the founder of the FORTH innovation method. FORTH is an effective and structured method for ideating innovative products and services. The method is published in his inspiring and practical book Creating Innovative Products and Services’ (Gower, 2011).

He helps organisations to kick start innovation by facilitating the FORTH innovation method and advising companies on their innovation strategy, process and organisation. His clients are international companies in industry and services, as well as non-profit organisations in government and health. Gijs also trains facilitators in his method. His dream is to make FORTH the most used method for the front end of innovation around the world.

Gijs is a both presenter and chairman at several (international) innovation conferences, like the ISPIM Conferences and the European Conference on Creativity and Innovation. He is also founder of the yearly Dutch Innovation Conference on creating new products: ‘Nieuwe Producten Bedenken’.