Daniel Calista began with a game. In May, he asked 10 employees of Vynamic Solutions, his $2.4 million, 15-person management consulting company, to tell him one thing about themselves no one else knew. He distributed the responses at a meeting a week later. Participants had to guess which fact applied to which person. The exercise drew plenty of laughs and put everyone in the right mood to brainstorm ways to keep employees happy and connected as the Philadelphia company grew.
Calista divided the group in two, and each side scribbled ideas on a large pad propped on an easel. An hour later the two teams had 32 suggestions, including launching a company blog and a poker tournament. "It was eye-opening to see the energy and passion the team had," says Calista.
Done well, a brainstorming session can harness the creative power of a group to come up with big ideas. But to achieve that alchemy, you'll need to target a specific challenge or opportunity, gather the right mix of people, and use a few tricks to encourage creativity. "The best way to get good ideas is to have a lot of them," says Scott Isaksen, president of the Creative Problem Solving Group in Orchard Park, N.Y.
Isaksen suggests inviting five to seven people to a session. In larger groups, people may feel they can hang back, and smaller groups may lack energy. Think twice about mixing high- and low-level employees—the senior folks might stifle junior employees. Invite people from various departments who know a good bit about the subject, of course, but consider throwing in someone who is creative but is unfamiliar with the subject. Gretchen Heber, co-founder and CEO of five-person, $1 million Naturallycurly.com, a community and commerce Web site, includes a 23-year-old shipping clerk in sessions. "He's young and knows about the whole MySpace and Facebook world that we need to be a part of," Heber says.
Choose a leader who is unthreatening and good at running meetings. Or hire a professional facilitator—most charge about $1,000 to $1,500 a day—through groups such as the American Society for Training & Development or the Creative Education Foundation. Leaders should make it clear that crazy ideas are welcomed, and that criticism is verboten.
Ask someone to write all the ideas on a flip chart, and tape the pages to the wall as they fill. Inject humor when you can. Marc Mallow, president and founder of OnIt Digital, a 20-person, $500,000 Web development and marketing agency in New York, arrived at a session wearing a set of false dentures complete with a gold-capped tooth. Cheryl Oppenheim, director of brand strategy at OnIt and leader of some sessions, brings Tinker Toys and tangram puzzles to brainstorming sessions. "The whole idea is to get them to play. That starts people thinking in a different way," Oppenheim says.
After the session, collect all the ideas in a file and ask all participants to forward any additional suggestions. And don't forget to keep employees in the loop about the actions you take on their ideas. "Otherwise people will feel it was a waste of time and be less likely to participate again," says Jay Hamilton-Roth, a marketing consultant in Mill Valley, Calif. And every business needs more than just one shot at coming up with the next big thing.
By Amy Barrett