Marlow reviews the prep work with a long time client who’s energy and enthusiasm inspires her entire company. His client decides to leave the scope rather broad in order to find disruptive opportunities that they were not seeing because of the ‘business as usual’ mindset.

While we were planning for Meredith’s arrival and jockeying with Accipiter’s skunkworks design, Matt and I had real client work to deliver the following day.  We were facilitating a two day brainstorming session with Levantine, a longtime client that used us on a regular basis to conduct brainstorming and scenario planning workshops.  Over the last two weeks we’d worked with Marge Belinski, our primary contact, to identify the opportunity that her team would use to brainstorm against.  Luckily, Marge knew our approach and how important we felt it was to do adequate prep work.  In our experience, most brainstorming and idea generation sessions fail based on just a few reasons:

  1. The issue or challenge is unclear or unimportant
  2. The people who attend the brainstorm are inadequately prepared
  3. The facilitation is poor or has an obvious bias
  4. There’s no plan to act on the ideas after the session

Clearly, none of these challenges is insurmountable if your client is willing to invest some time to address each of them.  In Marge we had a long time partner who understood the value of the prep work.

I called Marge to discuss the preparation of the brainstorming participants.

“Hi Marge, it’s Sam.”

“Hi Sam.  Calling right on time.  You ready to review the prep work and our goals for the brainstorming tomorrow?”

“Yes” I said.  “Let’s review the framing first.  What is the opportunity or challenge you’ve defined and communicated to the team?”  In the past, we would have worked with Marge to develop a clear, definitive purpose for the brainstorm, a newly identified opportunity or an impending challenge.  Marge had been through the drill so frequently that she knew how to develop it on her own.

“I’ve sent the team a framing statement that reads ‘Levantine is a leader in extruded plastics for the automotive industry.  Given the decline in the US automotive sales, Levantine must identify new clients or new prospects for its extruded plastics.  In this session, we’ll generate ideas about potential prospects for extruded plastic.  You should come to the meeting having considered this need.  Any relevant idea that identifies a new market opportunity or a new industry that could become a viable prospect is welcome, as is new business opportunities that Levantine can create in the wholesale or direct to consumer markets.  We’ll focus our efforts on US based customers to control timelines and shipping costs’.  What do you think?”

“I like the definition and especially some of the scoping statements about considering opportunities only in the US.  However, haven’t you left the scope a bit broad?  Should you rule in, or rule out, certain industries?”

“At this point, we are genuinely interested in any idea, in any industry.  There may be some disruptive opportunities that we’re not seeing because of the ‘business as usual’ mindset.  So, for now, we are intentionally leaving the scoping fairly broad.”

“OK.  I don’t see any significant issues otherwise.”

“Great” She beamed through the phone.  She was one of our first clients once we set up shop, and had been resistant to our approach at first, leading to one poorly prepared brainstorming session that almost meant the end of the relationship between Marlowe and Levantine.  However, we were able to convince her to try it our way, spending the time clarifying the issue and preparing the attendees, and the results had been obvious to her, and to Levantine.  Now she was crafting the problem statements and preparing the brainstorming teams on her own.

“So, we’re conducting the standard two day event with you” I said, just getting it out there so there were no misunderstandings.  “We’ll lead the brainstorming session Wednesday morning, and you’ve got an activity for the team in the afternoon.  We’ll return to brainstorming on Thursday morning, and wrap the session Thursday afternoon by ranking the ideas and assigning responsibility for followup.  Correct?”

“That’s the agenda.  You’ll like the activity we’ve designed for the group.”

Whenever possible we break up our sessions in two day increments, doing brainstorming in the morning when people are fresh, and conducting an activity or exercise in the afternoon to get them ‘hands on’ with the problem or product in the afternoon.  What still amazes us to this day is how little people in a firm actually interact with their own products and services, or assume an outsider’s perspective.  We’ve sent people from credit card companies off to shop with credit cards, but making them note how and why they used the card.  We’ve had agricultural equipment makers out on tractors, thinking about the challenges and issues of the maintenance of their products.  Inevitably these excursions create entirely new vistas of ideas that simply won’t be generated sitting in a conference room.

“Surprise me” I said.

“We’re taking the team to a series of stores that offer extruded plastics, including an auto parts store, a LEGO store and other stores in a shopping strip.  Basically it’s a scavenger hunt in the mall to find various extruded plastic products.  We need to open the eyes of the team to the range of possibilities for our extruded plastics.  And, we are asking them to buy one product from each store that is extruded plastic, and one product that isn’t extruded plastic but could be if it was re-engineered.”

“I do like it” I said, not just shining her on.  “It’s good because they are confronted with the range of possibilities for extruded plastic, and are forced to think about other possibilities for the technology and your capabilities.”

“I think it will be a good session” she said “We’ve got a good range of people who are really engaged in this problem, and I think they are well prepared.  I think I’ve earned the reputation as someone who will take the ideas and ensure they get a fair hearing in the product management council.”

That was the case.  Marge, whatever our early stumbles had been with her, was definitely one to champion good ideas and seek out sponsors and product managers who would work with her.  She had several new products out in market pilots due to her sheer energy and enthusiasm, and had a great reputation in Levantine as a one-woman innovation program.

“Marge, we’re good to go tomorrow.  For grins, I am going to run the brainstorm in the same manner as always, with a statement of the rules of brainstorming and an ice breaker to get the team started.  Could you fax over your agenda so we can review it?”

“No problem.  I’ll send it over in just a few.  Anything else we need to cover?”

I didn’t need to ask but I did anyway.

“Just checking – the room where we’ll work has plenty of wall space, and we’ll have flip charts and markers?  We’ll bring along some other manipulatives and the rules.”

“You’re bringing the toys?  Don’t forget the Etch-A-Sketch.  That one is always a favorite.  The room is perfect for brainstorming – in fact I’m trying to take it over as a permanent brainstorming space.”

“Then we’re all set” I said.  “See you tomorrow.”

“Great.  Take care.”

I love it when a plan comes together.

About the author:

Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is VP Marketing and a lead consultant for OVO Innovation. Jeffrey has led innovation projects for Fortune 5000 firms, academic institutions and not-for=profits based on OVO Innovation’s Innovate on Purpose™ methodology. The Innovate on Purpose methodology encourages organizations to consider innovation as a sustainable, repeatable business process, rather than a discrete project.

Jeffrey is the author of “Make Us More Innovative,” a book that encompasses much of the OVO Innovation methodology, and blogs about innovation at Innovate On Purpose. He is a sought after speaker and has presented to corporations, innovation oriented conferences, and at a number of universities. In 2010 he chaired the Innovate North Carolina conference and was a keynote speaker at Queen’s University, University of the Pacific, UNC and several other colleges and conferences. Jeffrey has an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin and an undergraduate degree in engineering from the University of Virginia.