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Need a good idea? Brainstorming won't help

Anthony Balderrama, CareerBuilder Writer

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Creativity can breed revolutionary inventions, such as the airplane or even the iPod. Other times creativity is less bold but just as exciting. The chip clip. Earmuffs that wrap around the back of your head, thus keeping your hair unscathed. The spork. All inventions that you use and think, "How did it take someone so long to think of this?"

Such innovation is expected from technology experts. Artists, such as painters, writers and musicians, are also expected to be creative. The rest of the world, however, doesn't have the same obvious pressure to be imaginative every day of the week. Yet, most workers do have that kind of expectation to fulfill, they just don't realize it.

Brainstorming needs to be revisited
Managers often throw around the phrase "think outside the box" when they want their employees to come up with a new idea. This often leads to a brainstorming session where workers huddle and throw out ideas, often resulting in a whiteboard full of half-baked concepts that they hope will impress the boss. This approach isn't necessarily the most effective, say brothers Kevin Coyne and Shawn Coyne, authors of "Brainsteering: A better approach to breakthrough ideas."

Brainstorming is great in theory, but in reality it doesn't always produce the best ideas, if any at all.

"[Decades] of studies have shown that, if the leader of a traditional brainstorming session wanted to generate more and better ideas, they would actually be better off gathering their team members together, telling them their objectives, and then sending them all off to work alone in separate rooms," the Coynes explain.

Instead, focus on asking the right questions.

Ask the right questions
Many times, brainstorming begins with a desire to find something new or different. Whether you're trying to compete with another organization or just improve an existing idea, your focus is often nothing more than improvement. The Coynes suggest issuing a concrete challenge to yourself.

In "Brainsteering," the Coyne brothers highlight different companies who found success in a new product based on a single question. For example, the creators of Compaq computers wanted to create a portable computer, so they asked, "How could we design an IBM-compatible computer that would fit into the overhead bin of an airplane?"

These focused questions result in unique answers because you're forced to respond to a particular issue. Even if that question has been posed before, your approach will be different than someone else's, so don't worry about being original. The Coynes point out that "What's the biggest hassle a customer has to deal with [in my area of interest]?" has been the basis of several strong ideas. Yet, no two businesses are identical and no two answers will be, either.

If you're not finding the perfect answer, consider variations on the question, as suggested in "Brainsteering." Look beyond where your customers have hassles and think about what got them there. "Where have changes in the competitive landscape left some customers poorly served, relative to the past?" is a specific but creative way of looking at the same problem. Suddenly the answer might be more obvious.

Your teachers lied to you
Remember in grade school when you were told that there are no dumb questions and there are no bad ideas? That's not exactly true.

"The fact is, there are lots of bad ideas -- including any idea that doesn't acknowledge the legitimate constraints you face (whether they involve time, money, organizational assets and skills, or anything else) -- and you shouldn't waste your time on them," the Coynes say. In other words, the iPod is great idea, but if you have no technology skills and no access to anyone who does, then it doesn't do you much good.

Instead, see if your new idea satisfies these questions that "Brainsteering" deems fundamental:

1. Is it demonstrably different from current ideas?

2. Is it highly valuable in a way that you can clearly articulate (and preferably measure)?

3. Is there a sizeable sub-segment of the population who should immediately find it virtually irresistible?

If you can answer yes to all three, then you have an excellent idea. One of the best examples discussed in the book comes from the U.S. Postal Service. When they realized that their customers were beleaguered by steadily increasing prices for stamps, they created the Forever Stamp. There was nothing like it on the market, it was a valuable product to add to their offerings, and it appealed to any customer who often found himself or herself with outdated stamps. A simple but effective solution.

Now, more than ever, that kind of thinking is what workers need to bring to their bosses. These ideas help you stand out and they help the company bring in revenue, which is often what makes people listen to you.

"In today's business environment, where competition continues to become more global, product life cycles continue to get shorter by the minute, and old-fashioned sources of structural advantage (such as sheer scale or access to natural resources) continue to erode, the most powerful and sustainable source of future prosperity is having more and better ideas," the Coynes say.

Anthony Balderrama is a writer and blogger for and its job blog, The Work Buzz. He researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues.

Last Updated: 10/05/2011 - 5:23 PM

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