When you hear the word “brainstorming,” what comes to mind? People in a room yelling out random thoughts? Chaos? An exercise for designers and creative types? In other words, something OPD (other people do—not you). Maybe it’s time to give it a second look.
Brainstorming is a business technique that can work for any department, in any type of business, including HR. It’s merely another way to approach a problem that needs a solution. If you haven’t tried it, we encourage you to do so.
In our experience, benefits-related conundrums are well-served by brainstorming sessions. For example, these two problems would be well-served by brainstorming.
- Let’s say you have a recognized problem with really stellar employees who go out on maternity leave, with every intention of returning, but, when that time rolls around, many of them decide not to. This is a huge issue for many organizations. You elicit feedback from these employees and learn there are several reasons for their decisions, including no clear direction about how they return and re-engage with their jobs and a lack of support balancing their expanded family responsibilities with their work.
- Another problem for your organization might be getting younger new hires who are new to the workforce to think about their financial future and engage with the benefits you offer to help prepare for it.
Both problems need solutions and would be well-served by brainstorming sessions to find them. The next time you find yourself in search of the perfect answer to an HR challenge, use our tips below to initiate a brainstorming session.
Problem-solving with brainstorming
Brainstorming is not about winning the wacky prize; it’s about getting ideas to flow freely and creatively. Now, don’t get me wrong. You want participants to put all their crazy—and not-so-crazy—ideas on the table. What’s important is that you set things up to be conducive to generating at least a few great ideas. You need a good setup for your session, with the right room, a good session leader, and a plan for how to follow through on what comes out of the session. All these things show that you respect people’s time and investment, and it helps them feel creative.
From the outside looking in, brainstorming sessions may appear chaotic, but done correctly, they follow a strict set of ground rules, and a good amount of brain power goes into framing the sessions to ensure productive output.
These ground rules rule
- Quantity counts. Invite enough participants to generate ideas and get everyone’s creative juices flowing, but not so many that everyone can’t be heard, or the session devolves into chaos.
- Mix it up. Invite participants who typically wouldn’t be involved in your work. For a benefits-related brainstorming session, for example, these folks might include your accountant or office manager, or an engineer on staff—people in departments not usually thought of as “creative.” I can promise you’ll be surprised. Here at Benz, one of our most creative brainstormers is our senior accountant.
- Set the stage. Make sure the room where you meet is comfortable—airy and spacious, with snacks and water available so that people relax and enjoy themselves.
- Make participation easy. Be sure to have plenty of surfaces on which to write the ideas being generated so that everyone can see them as they’re captured on white boards or poster paper.
Tip: To help engage introverts, consider circulating the question for the brainstorm in advance. Some people like to think things through beforehand; they’ll still be spontaneous and productive—but more so if they’ve had a chance to think about it.
Framing matters—a lot!
For brainstorming to work successfully, your session needs to be framed correctly. Start by developing a challenge statement. At Benz, we follow the IDEO framework for solving a problem:
- Frame the challenge you are facing as a problem statement—in words that are inspiring and ambitious, yet actionable. Be sure you don’t put solutions in your challenge. For example, you might frame it in the form of a question, “How might we …?” The more inspiring your statement, the more likely it will generate ideas.
- Include the user you’re trying to solve for in the statement (e.g., mothers returning from maternity leave, people near retirement, new hires) to help everyone visualize who you’re trying to help. By doing this, it makes it easier to narrow the question.
- Get specific about what you are solving for in your challenge statement. For example, instead of asking how to get people to save for their retirement, ask how you can get them to make catch-up contributions to their 401(k) if they’re over age 55.
Here are two examples of well-framed challenge statements, ready for brainstorming:
- How might we make mothers who are returning from maternity leave feel they made the right decision to come back to work, and ensure that they feel comfortable and safe around balancing their work and family responsibilities?
- How might we help new hires—who are also new to the workforce—pay attention to their financial future so that they engage correctly with the benefits we offer that help them get situated and prepared?
Choose your brainstorming facilitator wisely
There’s one more “must have” for a successful brainstorm: the right leader. First and foremost, the facilitator needs to have a strong personality. At the same time, it’s critical that he or she:
- Is neutral and open minded.
- Ensures that everyone gets a chance to speak up, and is attentive to non-verbal cues, such as people moving in their seats or looking up from the table and looking back down quickly—and calls on them for input.
- Makes sure naysayers aren't taking over and, in a friendly but firm way, responds to negative comments with replies that keep ideas flowing, such as, “Thanks for your input. Now, let’s put that concern on the reality checklist for later.”
- Builds on ideas in creative, sometimes offbeat, ways to help move things along. This could include taking an idea to the extreme to provoke laughter and disbelief—and result in new ideas.
- Knows when to stop the session.
This is one of the few times anyone will hear me say that something is about quantity, not quality. The objective in brainstorming is to get a boatload of ideas. Some will be actionable, and some not. Then it’s your job to narrow things down as you review what was generated. Once you have amazing ideas that might be a bit over the top, you can look at them with a smaller group to find their essence, and then come up with a solution to your original problem.
For example, if you brainstorm about the mother returning from maternity leave, maybe someone offers up these ideas: “Let them only work two hours a day,” or “Have them bring their kids to work.” Obviously, neither option is realistic. But, looking deeper into those ideas, you might come up with others that are actionable, such as allowing for a flexible work schedule or offering on-site childcare. My point is that crazy, out-there ideas often have, at their core, very actionable solutions. The key is getting to the intent behind that crazy idea.
Start by warming up
Before you get started on the brainstorm session, do a fun warm-up exercise for 3-5 minutes about nothing important and completely unrelated to the real brainstorm topic. To find an exercise that works for your temperament and your company culture, check out these online resources:
Remember: Warming up is all about having fun!
After your warm-up, don’t take a break. Instead, jump right into your “real” brainstorm. Begin by sharing with the group the inspiring and ambitious—yet actionable—challenge you’ve framed in advance (even if you shared it before the meeting).
In a nutshell
Now that you understand the rationale and rules for brainstorming, here’s a condensed version you can tack on your bulletin board for easy reference, or pass along to colleagues:
Brainstorming rules for engagement
- Determine the problem; frame it for finding a solution.
- Prep for brainstorm.
- Conduct an inspired, enthusiastic brainstorm session.
- Narrow ideas to find a solution.
- Repeat with the next challenge.
If we can help you communicate those new solutions for a more effective outcome, let us know.