Adventure Lab, part 3: 5 lessons learned on brainstorming

This is part 3 of the Adventure Lab series documenting the Technology Entrepreneurship course at Stanford. For more information about the series please see the introduction. For a list of all articles in this series please see the Adventure Lab collection.

With teams formed and pressing ahead with the first assignment one of the first tasks on the list is idea generation. I'm sure some folks came to the course with a great idea, but what if you could increase your chances to find the right idea and get the opportunity to fully explore your team's potential?

If you're reading this, chances are you've been involved in a brainstorming session before even if you didn't realise it was one. If it was any close to traditional brainstorming you were probably in a room with a few friends or colleagues, most likely in front of a whiteboard and one of you was frantically scribbling down as the rest of the team was blurting stuff out. This sounds all fine and dandy, except that it's not. There are three main problems with a situation like that:

  1. Bias: if I say X you're likely to be influenced by that and your following thoughts will be shaped by it. While this could be ok in some occasions it most definitely i not when you're trying to generate as many ideas as possible looking for a great, possibly unique, one. Bias kills creativity and innovation with it.
  2. Criticism: nobody likes to be criticised so good chances are you won't be as honest about what's on your mind as you'd be if you were just by yourself. For fear of being picked on you'll keep to yourself some of the more bizarre ideas, again possibly losing a chance to innovate. You'll also think more and longer about your idea to make sure you won't say anything stupid, potentially losing your train of thoughts of rat-holing into idea analysis, which does not belong to a brainstorming session
  3. Tyranny of the pen: if you found yourself in a situation like the one described above you know there's this one person holding the marker and writing down whatever everybody else comes up with. This means that the group is gated on the writing speed of this person_ and individuals need to _queue for their turn or engage in an attention grabbing match. This will make the process slower, reduce the amount of ideas generated and possibly cause friction among people.

5 lessons learned on brainstorming

After having gone through many brainstorming sessions and talked to other people on the course here's what you should really know in order to maximise your chances to find the best idea possible (mind you, ideas still need to be tested against the market, but it's important to start on the right foot).

  1. Work individually and merge. If you're gonna retain only one thing from this post make it this. It's not about being physically located together or working remotely, it's about giving the individual the freedom to create while leveraging the power of the group. You can achieve this by splitting your brainstorming process in phases that include both individual and group time. For example if you're together in a room take each one a piece of paper and a pen and come up with ideas individually instead of huddling around a whiteboard. Remote folks can do the same with Google Docs for example. Put a time limit on the exercise and when you're done come together and discuss the ideas you jotted down (probably worth to have an individual review step before).
  2. Your passions and wants are your best chance to make it. Startups are tough and you'll need everything you have if you want to make it through. Working on an idea that you are passionate about is critical to find the drive and energies necessary to execute well, but in a lot of cases those will be lost when brainstorming, especially if you're the victim of the bias problem. A much better approach is to begin listing your passions, likes and wants. That will work as a bias, but skew you in the right direction. Combined to the point above about working individually it's guaranteed to help you generate ideas that you will be more likely to succeed at delivering.
  3. Get in the flow. Early on in the idea generation process trust your subconscious and intuition rather than your rationality. In that sense it's important to get in a flow. One way to do that is to move really fast so isolate yourself at your best, eliminate all distractions like email, IM and phones, and start writing down ideas at a rate close to 1/minute. This sounds a lot, but you can do it, just push yourself, stop analysing, just put on paper what your brain thinks, braindump.
  4. Build a common set of criteria. When it comes to group discussion it's important to agree on a set of criteria that the group feels matter the most in evaluating ideas or there's a good chance people will take comments personally and animosity will build up. If you agree on what makes a good idea then the process will be quicker and you will have automatic buy-in from the group as they participated in creating those criteria.
  5. Ranking deadlock. Whenever you have a  list from which to pick you have voting. The most common approach people will employ when voting is to pick a number from 1 to 10 for each idea and then pick the best. Unfortunately more often than not, especially when votes are aggregated across a group, winners are hard to find. The best two tricks are to use non contiguous series, so instead of 1,2,3,4,5… use 1, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21… and to limit the number of votes instead of voting for all ideas. So for example, if you need to pick 5 ideas out of 20, instead of ranking them all you just get 5 votes and those 5 numbers are incrementally apart one from the other. This will force you to express a preference and there won't be any doubts how much you preferred one idea to the other.

Bonus: Ideption, a blue print for idea generation

Brainstorming is hard. Even with those 5 lessons there's a ton more to know in order to kick ass at idea generation. If you want to increase your chances to work on the right idea, Ideption is a free workbook bringing together the best lessons from the Adventure Lab's experience.

When we first met, we had four ideas that a few of us had come up with either through the previous assignment or before the course started. Practicing our Ideption methodology, we zoomed in on a set of core values, skills and markets, generated roughly 300 ideas, narrowed it down to a pool of 60 with a potentially viable market and needs associated with each idea, pitched them to each other, ranked them, and made time and financial commitments to them–all over the course of two days. On the third day we had five great ideas that aligned with our vision and projected on markets that we knew were going to be around for a long time.

Isn't that something? Check out the free workbook now and join the groups at Venture Lab that are already using Ideption: http://www.spikelab.org/ideption/

What's your top 1 lesson on brainstorming?

What is the one thing you learned from brainstorming with your team that others could benefit from knowing? Share it in the comments!

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