Why would a law firm want to hold a brainstorming session? Believe it or not, there are a variety of reasons. You're looking for greater input from a broad range of people in your firm. You feel as if your marketing ideas are stale. Or you're trying to rethink what you're currently doing in any number of areas.
The process of brainstorming is simply listing all ideas put forth by a group in response to a given problem or question. To encourage creativity and foster new ideas, though, you must follow a cardinal rule: In the idea generation process, prohibit evaluating or altering an idea until everyone has contributed to the greatest extent possible. All suggestions are to be considered legitimate—in fact, the most far-fetched could be the most beneficial. According to Alex F. Osborn, the advertising executive who coined the term brainstorming in the 1930s, “It is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one.”
Done right, brainstorming helps interrupt the general risk aversion and feasibility critiques that are part of how lawyers have been trained to think. But to get the most from your session, make sure you follow these general guidelines.
■ Limit the number of participants. When brainstorming groups have more than 10 or 12 people, it’s more difficult for everyone to participate. If you want to generate ideas from a large number of people, run separate groups to allow for broader participation.
■ Engage a diagonal slice. To get the greatest range of ideas, ask a diagonal slice of employees to take part, from the most junior to senior levels. Getting participants from every level of the organization that would be affected by an idea, or be implementing it, will help create buy-in once you’ve settled on a course.
■ Create an agenda and some guidelines. Let participants know the meeting’s content and purpose in advance. Some people are better at generating ideas in advance while others prefer the spontaneity of doing it on the fly. Both approaches are viable.
Also, place a set length of time on the session—and begin and end on time. Even if you aren’t finished, it will help create structural integrity for the process and participants will know that future sessions are also likely to run according to plan. Anything longer than 90 minutes is too long.
Ban cell phones, BlackBerrys and other electronic devices from the room. Everyone’s attention to the matter at hand is critical to building on the ideas being generated and sparking more ideas.
■ Select a facilitator who has no stake in the outcome. If you’re brainstorming about a practice area’s content, do not ask the department chair to run the session. He or she needs to be an equal participant with the other members of the team to generate the best ideas.
Likewise, do not have “in-house subject experts” be the facilitator on their topics of expertise. For instance, if you’re brainstorming about marketing, do not ask the marketing director to be in charge. Because these people have more knowledge about what may or may not work, they are more likely to censor ideas. However, their input is important so make sure that, whatever your topic, your resident expert is at the table. To keep the process impartial, consider hiring an outside facilitator.
■ Preserve the idea generation . Writing down ideas as they are being generated helps spark ideas in others. Let people know that ideas will be written on a white board or flip chart as they are being put forth, but without attribution. People are more likely to speak up if they know their ideas will be part of an anonymous list.
■ Ask for more ideas . The process often starts slowly because people are reluctant to think out of the box and are wary of risking criticism. Allow time for silence as participants grant themselves permission to be more far-flung in their thinking. Reluctant individuals will warm to the process as you continue to ask the room for more ideas.
■ Create a “parking lot” for unrelated concepts. People often generate excellent but off-topic ideas during a brainstorming session. Rather than dismissing a good thought, or allowing the group to head off into a tangential area, use a special notepad or white board to write down and “park” these good ideas until a future meeting or a later time in the same meeting.
■ Schedule a break between generation and selection. When you’ve generated a broad range of ideas, schedule a break before discussing which ones are feasible. You may even want to have the idea generation and selection processes on different days. It will give participants more time to think about the ideas presented and consider adjustments to their ideas or those of others.
Once you’ve held a meeting to discuss feasibility and the best options, proceed to translate those ideas into actions. Nothing is worse than having a brainstorming session and not acting on the information generated. After you’ve identified the best strategy, create a timeline, assign accountabilities and implement your plan. If you’ve created a good process, everyone should be on board.
Wendy L. Werner is the principal of Werner Associates, specializing in career management, coaching, and lawyer and business practice management. She is also Editor-in-Chief of the ABA’s Law Practice Today webzine.