Successful New Products Require a Brainstorm-Friendly Atmosphere

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Adam Steltzner, a rocket scientist for the NASA Mars rover missions, opened ASAE's Technology Conference & Expo this week and spoke about brainstorming. After spearheading the successful Mars Rover landing in 2012, he learned this:

"At the [NASA] Jet Propulsion Laboratory [JPL], within our corporate culture, we do a very good job with a very simple thing that is tremendously powerful. It is, quite simply, separating ideas from the people that hold them." Appropriately, his new book is called the The Right Kind of Crazy: A True Story of Teamwork, Leadership, and High-Stakes Innovation.

Here are a few ideas, from Steltzner (as reported by Associations Now) and others, on successful brainstorming:

Encourage sharing. At JPL, there's no such thing as a bad idea, Steltzner said. At the start of any project, he delivers this message to his team: "Great works and great folly may be indistinguishable at the outset."

Embrace new thinking. A truly innovative organization embraces big or crazy ideas, so long as they've been put to the test, Steltzner said. To test ideas at JPL, he starts by convening his entire team for an open and judgment-free brainstorming session. Everyone's thinking—good or bad—is captured by a neutral facilitator. "From there, team leaders develop a taxonomy structure that organizes and maps ideas based on their connections."

Give people time to think independently before an idea meeting. That's from Jill Geisler, author of Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know. "We often bring a group together to brainstorm, then encourage people to keep thinking about things on their own afterward. But the data is clear that "...groups organized with alone-then-group hybrid structure generate more ideas, better ideas, and are better able to discern the quality of the ideas they generate."

Build an idea-sharing culture. In telling her Brief Media success story, Elizabeth Green spoke of the benefits of creating a culture where any employee is happy to raise a hand. When the industry trend was to build an app, a young employee said, 'Why do something that only 17% of their audience could access? Why not follow the Boston Globe's lead and build a responsive-based website that 100% of their audience could access?' It took their main competition six years to match them.

Hear from those who speak to customers. Brittany Carter, president of Columbia Books & Information Services, spoke about how she had to change the mindsets of new staff they inherited. "They were trained to put their head in the sand and just get the job done [thinking] it will be fine," she said. "[They] were afraid to speak up and get to know their customers. People who said, 'this isn't my job.' We had gone from being very customer-centric to people who had never interacted with the customers for fear of staying in line." That quickly changed.

Emphasize and enable collaboration. "I love brainstorming sessions," said Elizabeth Petersen, chief people and strategy officer, Simplify Compliance. "But I've learned that how people brainstorm varies. Personally, I prefer free-form, organic discussions. But there are people who are more likely to engage in conversations when a meeting has a detailed agenda that is circulated ahead of time. During our 'think tanks,' we also look to ensure diverse participation by assigning agenda items to different employees."

Share customer survey results. "It's critical to involve the customer voice in every brainstorming session," Petersen continued. "Consider holding mini-focus groups during one portion of the meeting or sharing the results of customer surveys."

Diversify any work teams you form. Research finds that socially different group members do more than simply introduce new viewpoints or approaches. Diverse groups tend to outperform more homogeneous groups not because of an influx of new ideas, but because diversity triggered more careful information processing. "The mere presence of diversity in a group creates awkwardness, and the need to diffuse this tension leads to better group problem solving," said the study.

Encourage and reward idea givers. "I don't think we have a shortage of creative ideas in the world," said Adam Grant, author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World,."...Where the shortage exists is that people don't know how to champion them. They don't know how to speak up... get heard... find allies; they don't know whether one or two of the dozen ideas they've come up with is any good."

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…