Brainstorming to success

Brainstorming to success

Optimizing processes, making workflows more flexible, or establishing new organizational structures? We present the key creative methods and approaches.

Ideas live from experiences

Generating new ideas, approaches, and concepts – whether in your personal or professional life – requires creativity. A lack of creativity keeps us stuck in a rut, and only external stimuli can get us out again. But what can help us be creative?

Frederik Haren, who speaks and writes about business creativity, also has an interesting approach to this. He defines an idea as “combining two known things in a new way.”

New ideas do not just emerge from the void. They are nurtured by experience and the things we know, but they don’t follow familiar paths. Haren sees the emergence of ideas as a mathematical formula: idea = p(k+i).
An idea is simply the combination by a person (p) of knowledge (k) and information (i) in a new way. It sounds simple. But the problem lies in the combining (+).

While companies go out of their way to give employees access to knowledge and information, there is often a lack of guidance about how to combine the two. This skill is essential in the modern age. The need for innovation and evolution has never before been so acute.

Learning by doing

So what would happen if companies saw a real urgency in teaching employees to brainstorm and be creative? What would our world look like today? What would their processes look like? And how do we get there? To put it in the words of Frederik Haren: “You don’t get it by talking about creativity. You don’t even do it by teaching creativity. Not even buying a creativity book. You do it by doing creative things yourself as a leader.” Set an example. Be bold. Be creative!

To help you succeed and get a bit of practice, we present below a small selection of tools and methodologies that every customs and logistics manager should have in their toolbox. We stand behind these tools and methodologies, because we often use them in our own business to add value in the right place.

Learning from Albert Einstein

“If I have an hour to solve a problem, I spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solution.” This statement from Albert Einstein is very atypical in our business world, which is heavily focused on problem-solving.

If you get a solution to the problem right away, everyone is happy and satisfied. This approach may be appropriate for small problems. But if you have developed a product that does not solve a problem in the market, the question is worth asking: Have you devoted enough time to the problem?

In love with the problem

So an important concept is: “Fall in love with the problem, not the solution.” In design thinking, this means that the problem phase is separated from the solution phase, regardless of whether you seek to establish a new process or develop a new product. The aim at the outset is to acquaint yourself with the problem – in all its facets, if possible. To put it simply: You gather data without interpreting it.

There are many ways to do this, from shadowing (quietly following and observing processes) to problem-centered interviews with users and stakeholders. The latter is very helpful but time-consuming in its prep, implementation, and follow-up.

Other methodologies for the phase of understanding the problem:

  • Empathy map – a matrix with four fields: the user thinks/says/feels/does
  • Expert interviews
  • Research from theory and practice
  • Other user analyses such as eye-tracking
  • The insights gained from these methodologies are aggregated and sorted by frequency and importance. The most important and frequently cited problems are addressed in the first run-through.

Depth of ideas: unattainable or within reach?

Once the problem has been sufficiently grasped, the brainstorming phase follows. The first step here is the question that describes the problem. For example: A process is incomplete and prone to errors. This leads to extra work in all departments involved. How can the extra work be reduced?

Randomly selected images can help with the brainstorming phase that now follows. Images trigger a different area of the brain than logical thinking. Images activate and engage the creative part of the brain and link both hemispheres.

The following example shows a procedure that has proven successful in practice (see picture): Set a timer for, say, three minutes. Take this time to write down all the ideas about your problem that occur to you while looking at the image.

The more ideas, the better

The best approach to brainstorming is to focus on quantity, not quality. This, too, is unconventional.
To generate as many ideas as possible as quickly as possible, it helps to bring together a large and diverse group of people. Starting with a clear formulation of the question, another option is to apply the 6-3-5 method: Six people each receive a sheet of paper with a table (three columns by six rows)

Each person writes three ideas in the first row. Each sheet is then passed to the next person, who builds upon and develops the existing ideas. This is repeated five times, with three minutes per round. After 15 minutes, you then have six tables with 18 ideas each = 108 ideas. This is easier to do together in a room than online. The method can be quite exhausting, but the more experienced the participants are, the easier it is. The method also works in a 4-3-3 or 3-3-2 model.

Analogies you can work with using this image: workbench, compass, wood, table (legs), leather folder, sketch, brown and beige colors.

This yields the following ideas:

  1. The processes must be clearly outlined (beginning, end, responsibility, etc.)
  2. Process sketches with dependencies are needed
  3. Processes must be continually adapted
  4. A process needs several quality gates

Wanted: originality and feasibility

The third step is to group the brainstormed ideas by originality and feasibility. A how-now-wow matrix is helpful here. “Wow” is what you’re looking for, of course – those select few ideas with high originality and high feasibility.

“Now” is the range of ideas with high feasibility but low originality – the “low-hanging fruit” that delivers a quick and easy improvement. “How” encompasses ideas with low originality and low feasibility – they might turn into projects or simply end up in the circular file.

Breathing life into ideas

Be sure to plan enough time for this step, since it often provokes the kind of group discussions you want to encourage. After you have parted with some ideas, turn to the ideas remaining in the “wow” field and breathe life into them.

At this point in the process, the lean startup approach now encroaches on design thinking. The name of the game here is build-measure-learn: build a possible solution, measure it thoroughly, then learn by integrating the insights back into the solution. This yields continuous improvement closely aligned with customers and users. Measurements might lead to faster processes or fewer errors in workflows.

The validation phase may also yield new problems, which are then addressed in the solution one by one, based on priority.

Bottom line: you need strategy, methodology, and mindset

 As you can see, there are lots of helpful tools to solve day-to-day problems and manage tasks better with creativity. What’s also clear, however, is that tools and methodologies are at best just means to an end in achieving a defined goal.

Sometimes this is also a creative new idea. But when improperly applied along “familiar paths,” they inevitably lead us in the wrong direction. That’s why you need a clear strategy and approach to marry the tools and methodologies with mindset and curiosity to create something new. Ideally not just now and then but as a fixed part of the corporate culture.

We’ll help you get started

If you’ve been inspired to finally start tackling a specific problem, you are welcome to take advantage of the free offer from the experts at AEB. Your contact to the team:

Problem-solving works online too

Online tools help apply all these methodologies digitally as well. Collaborative whiteboards such as Miro, Mural, and Conceptboard have become indispensable. Survey tools such as Microsoft Forms, Typeform, Slido, and Mentimeter also help gauge the mood, gather ideas and feedback, and make meetings more interactive.

The “breakout room” feature in tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams is an excellent way to form small groups in workshops. Large events benefit most from the more engaged participation and dialog that such tools enable.