Brainstorming for the Startup or Small Company

Big Red Car here.  Cold day in the ATX and I am wondering why?  It’s time for the azaleas and many azaleas have bloomed and gone back into hiding but what’s going on.  Mother Nature what is up with you today?

Maybe I need to do some brainstorming — haha, great idea, Big Red Car.

But, what the Hell is brainstorming all about you ask the Big Red Car.  And, as always, the Big Red Car steals a few ideas from The Boss and adds a bit of research on the web — the world wide web that is — and then provides you, my dear observers, with a bit of wisdom.  Well, I hope it is wise but we shall see.


The Boss is always pontificating that folks do not do enough thinking as a general proposition.  Businessmen just don’t spend enough time thinking, documenting their thoughts and converting those thoughts into plans, communicating those plans and then executing those plans.

He says it is criminal how few companies — at the CEO level, mind you — have any real written plans.  The Boss says a well run company should have a quarterly review of all of its plans — strategic plan and annual business plan in particular.

Plans require thinking.  Thinking requires time and space to think.  Thinking is hard work.  Most folks have more than enough to do and therefore are not looking for any more hard work.  As a result, not much thinking and planning is really taking place.

Look at your startup or small company and be honest with yourself — when was the last time that you just did some quality thinking?  Yeah, I thought so.  Big Red Car likes making a good point from time to time.

Brainstorming is not thinking

Well, if you don’t have time enough to do any real deep thinking, then you really don’t have enough time to do any brainstorming because brainstorming is not thinking.

Brainstorming also requires time, space and a methodology — process really — which will increase the likelihood of actually stumbling on a good idea or two.

The Big Red Car sees brainstorming as having two distinct different spheres of influence:

1.  Individual brainstorming; and,

2.  Group brainstorming.

This blog post will focus solely on group brainstorming and we will discuss individual brainstorming some other time.  Like after the Final Four next week?  Which by the way is going to be won by Syracuse.

Group brainstorming

Group brainstorming is an effort to identify good ideas through the use of spontaneous ideation — blurting out ideas — in a group.

[“Ideation”, really, Big Red Car?  Ideation?  WTF, Big Red Car?  Remember when I put words in brackets […] nobody but us can see them, wink!]

Brainstorming protocol

To be successful some basic protocols must be observed.  These are all completely flexible and you should not be afraid to tinker with them a bit to suit your own purposes.  [The IRS will not be auditing you.  Big Red Car, you crack me up.]

1.  You must have a well constructed group with a balanced mix of ages, work experience and skills.  If you are brainstorming about social media do not have only seasoned 50-65 year old CFOs and Controllers as they know next to nothing about social media.  No more than a dozen folks.

2.  Have a clearly identified group facilitator and a scrivener.

3.  Do not include folks whose position within the company will influence the outcome of things.  If you have a strong CEO, then perhaps he should not be the group facilitator.  Or, alternatively, perhaps his no nonsense approach will ensure that the exercise is executed with some real discipline and purpose.  Or, maybe, she does not even attend.  Like focus groups, sometimes it is better to not have management in attendance.

4.  You must have a clearly articulated topic or a completely open forum.  It is perfectly fine to closely focus the exercise on a single important subject or to initiate an intellectual free for all.  Do one of the other and know which one before you start.

5.  Have a comfortable room and chairs.

6.  Have a whiteboard, yellow sticky Post It notes and ample writing materials.

7.  Make sure nobody is hungry or thirsty.

8.  No cell phones, tablets, laptops — none.  No exceptions.

Brainstorming tools

You will need the following tools to facilitate the process:

1.  A huge whiteboard to put Post It note ideas on and to write on with dry erase markers.

2.  A huge supply of Post It notes in different colors.

3.  A large newsprint pad — 3′ x 4′ if possible to write down the final ideas.

4.  A digital camera to take pictures of the whiteboard.

5.  A tabloid (11 x 17) booklet for brainstorming folded in half to make a 4-page booklet of 8 1/2 x 11 sheets.  You may want to make a couple of these and staple them in the middle thereby making a series of pages in units of four.  Keep these booklets for subsequent brainstorming sessions.

Brainstorming process

The process for brainstorming can be as follows — again, put your own fingerprints on this element of the process as well.

1.  Park your critical judgment at the door.  There are NO bad ideas just some are more immediately actionable than others.

2.  Introduce everyone by name, job description and experience.  Ask them if they have ever been involved in a similar brainstorming session before.  Do not allow them to speak further particularly if they have had a bad experience with brainstorming.

3.  Introduce the topic — if a single topic — and then go around the room and ask everyone’s opinion of how effective that area of the company currently is and whether it requires some improvement.  If everyone thinks it is hunky-dory, then do not force the issue, move on to the next issue.

4.  If you are going to brainstorm about multiple topics, then solicit the list of topics and stop when you have ten.  More than ten is not realistic to deal with in a single session.

5.  Understand that you are looking initially for quantity rather than quality — get as many ideas as possible and you can focus on quality thereafter.  You are looking for that one gem which may be otherwise hidden amongst the dross.  Quantity not quality.

6.  Go around the room and get each person to answer the question — what can we do improve “the topic under consideration”?  Go around the room twice and write each idea on a yellow Post It note and group similar ideas.  Do this by posting the Post It notes on the whiteboard.

Alternatively, you can pass out index cards and ask each person to write down their personal brainstorms.  Then collect them and discuss each one.  Group them.  This anonymity may be a powerful tool to get things started.

7.  Combine ideas to create stronger and more effective ideas.

8.  When you have exhausted the number of ideas — remember initially quantity not quality — conduct a quick secret ballot to identify the three best ideas that are on the board.  If the votes are close in number, then expand it to five.  Now you are starting the qualitative part of the exercise.

9.  Take each idea and discuss its originality, strengths, weaknesses and other characteristics.  Remember that when ideas wrestle, better and stronger ideas are the result.

Quit when you can sense a palpable level of fatigue and when you think you have 1-3 good ideas to work on.

Now what?

Now, you have spent a couple of hours brainstorming and you have probably arrived at 1-3 good ideas — maybe one or two of them are a “mash up” of more than one idea mixed together like a cocktail.

Document the ideas and act upon them.  The productivity of future brainstorming sessions will be held hostage to what you actually do.  Actions speak louder than words, right?

When you do finally implement one of these ideas, throw a party to celebrate it.  Give credit to the entire brainstorming team and to the individual who came up with the core idea in particular.

These follow on actions will determine whether folks are excited about future brainstorming sessions.

Do this about twice a year and no more.  It can be exhausting but very rewarding work.

But, hey, what the Hell do I know anyway?  I’m just a Big Red Car.

Take care of yourselves, it’s a dangerous world out there.  Call a loved one or your parents this weekend and speak to them for at least a half hour.