Sunday, October 29, 2006

Leveraging Diversity-Use Brainstorming Session

Every company, every manager needs to do some brainstorming - to get ideas to overcome new challenges. Tough new problems need to be addressed via creative solutions. A common technique to deal with such situations has been "brainstorming". Brainstroming is a very old technique of collecting all possible ideas to solve the problem and then choose a set or solutions or create a hybrid solution to tackle the problem.

In today’s global marketplace, cultural diversity becomes a valuable asset to be used during brainstorming session. Cultural diversity helps an organization look at the problem statement in different ways and comeup with different solutions. Cultural diversity also prevents ‘group think’ and help develop better solutions.

How to start

Multicultural organizations do not find it difficult to collect people with diverse backgrounds in one place. But for organizations with a lower level of diversity, getting diverse people in one place can be a challenge. If that were to be the case, one needs to take extra effort to get the right kind of people in one place. The size of the group also has a huge impact. Typically the group size should not exceed ten people. Ideally the group size should be between 6 to 10.

Recently, I had to run a brainstorming session - on how we could develop and sell a unique sales proposition to a British customer. Unfortunately, my current organization is totally dominated by Indians and in the room there were only Indians trying to brainstorm on developing new sales techniques to sell to a British customer!! In such situations, having a diverse workforce is invaluable.

Running the session

Person who runs this brainstorming session must not be a manager or a person of very high authority in the organization who can override the others in the brainstorming session.

Typically, all members in the sessions must be equals or peers - or atleast they must treat all members in the session as equal. If the person who runs the session has a good sense of humor and is sociable it will be better. The person who runs the session must be an excellent communicator and have a very good command over the language.

Given the global nature of the business, it is often difficult to bring the right people into one room, so one needs to use other communication tools. The only method to get people in remote sites involved in a brainstorming session is to use video conferencing. Although this is not the best method, but among all the communication tools available, video conferencing offers the best alternative to meeting face to face. Note that for best results, all members must meet face-to-face.

Set the right environment

A brainstorming session must be conducted in a relaxed environment. Members at the session must be able to dedicate all their time and thoughts to this session without disturbance of phone calls, emails etc. For that reason, companies often choose a neutral venue such as a hotel room. I recall that once, we had a brainstorming session in the conference room of another company - so that members will not be disturbed.

Define a problem

The session should start with one person defining the problem, defining the objectives of the organization and the objectives of the session. The quality of the session is highly dependent on the accuracy of the problem definition - but avoid defining the problem too narrowly. Once a problem statement is defined, objectives are set, allow other members of the group to define their own version of the problem & objectives. People with diverse backgrounds always happen to have a different definition of the problem/objectives. Encourage all members to take a shot at defining the problem. Once everyone agrees with the problem statement and objectives, write it down on a board or on paper so that everyone can see it.

Make everyone contribute

The central idea of a brainstorming session is to get different opinions/ideas to solve the existing problem. It is therefore imperative that all members must contribute. If there are members who are not speaking up, encourage them to speak: "Do you have an opinion on this Clayton?"
While it is important to encourage others to speak, it is equally important not to discourage anyone by ridiculing their opinions/thoughts. All thoughts/ideas must be considered. Any criticism by the participants must be strongly discouraged.

Record all thoughts

During a session there will be lots of thoughts. It is a good idea to record all the ideas/solutions/suggestions put forth by the members. Having flip charts, printable white boards are useful to capture the written ideas. But for verbal ideas, it will be better to record all the conversations in audio format (tape or MP3) and circulate these among the members after the session. If possible, create a video of the session also. (Till date I have not see a video recording of a session, but with the increasing prevalence of video cell phones, this may become a common practice in the future)

Plan for Post Session Analysis

The biggest problem associated with a brainstorming session is that people come out of the session and the person who called for the session does not follow-up on the ideas generated during the session. Thus wasting all the efforts. Best way to tackle this problem is to form a 2-3 member committee during the session who will go through all the ideas - and comeup with an implementation or a follow-up plan. This committee is responsible to inform the other participants on the progress of the post session analysis and the action taken.

Closing Thoughts

Brainstroming sessions are nothing new, but most of the times companies fail to utilize this tool effectively due to lack of diversity among the members in the session. If a company has a diverse workforce and is facing a complex problem, the management can make the best use of its workforce diversity by encouraging a brainstorming session - and following up with action after the session.

Also see:
  1. Leadership & Diversity
  2. Building a Diverse Workforce
  3. Soft Skills For Global Managers
  4. Managing Diversity for High Performance
  5. Encourage Diversity to attract top talent
  6. Distinguish Yourself As a Culturally Diverse Candidate
  7. Making Multicultural Virtual Teams Work

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