Seven steps to better brainstorming from two McK alumni has a similar approach to the one I’ve found myself using when trying to capture ideas from disparate groups.

Their seven-point plan (with my comments) is as follows:

  1. Know your organization’s decision-making criteria. Spot on: you are always working within a framework and need to ensure your ideas are not outside that box.
  2. Ask the right questions. Definitely ask the questions in such a way that the answers can be rapidly implemented. I also find that getting two or three sub-groups to work on the same questions (but not at the same time) can also help – you get the first group to “pass the baton” to the second group, often by moving the facilitator around.
  3. Choose the right people. The mix of levels is very important for delivering the best ideas.
  4. Divide and conquer. Absolutely have sub-groups, but my experience has been that moving people between groups a few times in a day is valuable. Many groups converge on a shared set of values relatively quickly in discussions and find it difficult to break out. Changing the makeup of the groups can help with this (of course, with an eye to maintaining the right people answering the right questions).
  5. On your mark, get set, go! Silly item title, but the expectation management and framing of the session is important: you aren’t expected to save the world today, just get a little nearer. Amazing how effective a “we have a lot of great minds in the room today, let’s capture some of that quality” is in teeing up the discussion to be a good one. I often talk about taking away three nuggets from a session: one to use tomorrow, one for next week and one for next month. This helps focus people on the nearer-term.
  6. Wrap it up. I agree with the “don’t pick a winner” approach, and like to have a rapporteur from each group (preferably not the facilitator – a real person) share the top three ideas from the discussion. Then an open Q&A can highlight any additional thinking that the wider group can bring.
  7. Follow up quickly. The framing of the discussion and the focus on the nearer-term should allow rapid implementation of any reasonable ideas. The team needs to get a summary and write-up no longer than one week after the session. I often use a web-based follow up to ensure that ideas (especially the top threes) are in people’s heads.

Critical additional requirements, for me, are:

  • Engineer the session carefully – have timings and questions ready well in advance (at least a few days) to allow everyone to consider.
  • Use small sub-groups (three feels a bit too small, five is about right). Make sure you know exactly who is coming and minimise your likelihood to be affected by acts of work / laziness.
  • Move people (facilitators and participants) around groups to ensure continued consensus-breaking.
  • Capture people’s ideas using some form of post-it board or white boards so that in- or out-of-spec thinking is brought out and dealt with effectively.