Episode One: Attack of the Boring Pushchairs
by Jeffrey Baumgartner
Willy Heckert flung the magazine across the room in frustration. “How do the Americans come up with such clever new pushchairs (baby strollers for our American readers) every year?” he demanded of no one in particular. “BabiGo has been making quality pushchairs for years. But they are boring, boring, boring! The Americans always have clever new models. And now the Chinese are making good pushchairs for half the price of ours!”
Solveig, his long suffering secretary, looked on with a touch of sympathy mixed with fear that he might have a full-fledged tantrum. Willy’s company had seen steadily declining sales figures for the past two years – and it had done nothing for Willy’s disposition. She hoped he had finished and would get back to the marketing plan. No such luck.
“If we cannot come up with better pushchairs for next year, I might as well pack in this job and sell sausages in the town square!” That was new. Solveig was worried. Maybe this time he really meant it.
“Maybe we need to brainstorm some new ideas,” suggested Solveig.
Willy was just about to make a disparaging remark, but then Solveig’s suggestion reminded him of the mysterious man from Erps-Kwerps whom he had met at an IT conference in Munich a few months ago. “What was his name?” he asked out loud.
“Whose name?” asked Solveig.
“Brainstorm Man, that’s it!” and he pulled out his mobile phone, checked the address book and found it. He pushed the button to call the number.
After two rings, a deep confident voice answered: “Never fear. Brainstorm Man is here. How can I help?”
Willy explained his situation.
“We’ve no time to lose!” Said Brainstorm Man. “Put together a team of a dozen people from different divisions and different backgrounds. And be sure to include a few men and women with small children. I’ll be at your office tomorrow first thing.”
In Erps-Kwerps, Brainstorm man rang off and called together a quick meeting with his colleagues, Jeffrey, Andy and Molly. He explained the situation, a brainstorm strategy was devised and Brainstorm Man prepared his bag of tricks. The morning flight to Munich was booked from Brussels airport.
* * *
The following morning, a tall man with a shock of unruly grey hair, wearing a tweed suit and a long coat that billowed in the wind, marched into the head office of BabiGo. “I’m here to see Mr. Willy Heckert. My name’s Brainstorm Man. He was immediately ushered into a plush office where he quickly introduced himself to Willy before getting down to business. “Let’s plan the first session with the Brainstorm team for 10:00,” he said. “Meanwhile, why don’t you give me a tour of your operations?”
The tour revealed much of what Brainstorm man had expected, a traditional medium sized business with most production in-house, although the company recently opened a production line in Bulgaria.
At 10:00 he met the brainstorming team and was happy to see that Willy had followed his instructions. Unfortunately, everyone in the room had dead serious expressions on their faces. “Never mind,” thought Brainstorm Man, “I’ll soon fix that.”
“Hello and welcome to the BabiGo brainstorming event,” he boomed. “My name is Brainstorm Man and my job is to ensure you generate great new product ideas for your pushchairs. We’re going to spend most of today doing three brainstorming exercises. Then tomorrow morning we will finish off. And I should warn you in advance: you might find parts of this session extremely fun, possibly even funny. Will that be a problem for anyone?” A few people smiled, which relieved Brainstorm Man, the worst thing that can happen to a brainstorming event is for everyone to take it overly seriously.
Brainstorm Man reached into his bag of tricks, pulled out a dozen pocket-sized notebooks and gave one to each participant. “Once you start having ideas, you may find it hard to stop. Don’t worry. That’s good. I want you each to take a notebook and keep it with you at all times. If you have an idea, be sure to write it in the notebook. We will look at your notebook ideas tomorrow morning.
“Before we begin with the first session, I need to explain a few basic rules.
“Rule one: no squelching. Squelching is when you criticise another participant or her idea. Squelching can be as blunt as saying, ‘what a stupid idea!’ or as subtle as raising your eyebrows and saying ‘tsk, tsk’. When you squelch, it does very, very bad damage to the creativity of the brainstorming session. I will shoot anyone who attempts to squelch. I’d rather have to deal with a dead body or two than a dead brainstorming event.
“Rule two: push your ideas as far into the realm of craziness as you can. The point of idea generation is not to come up with safe, dull ideas. It is about generating as many creative ideas as possible. Crazy ideas push our creative minds to think more creatively. They inspire more creative thinking. Moreover, some ideas which seem crazy at first turn out, after analysis, to be pure genius. So, anything goes as far as ideas are concerned.
“Rule three: no squelching.
“Rule four: no interruptions. Turn off your mobile phones, tell your assistants not to knock on this door or disturb you for any reasons short of terrorist attack and then only if nuclear weapons are involved. Now let’s get to know each other.”
Brainstorm Man reached into his bag and pulled out a set of cards. He fanned them out, passed them around the room and had everyone take a card. “Each of you has got a card with a word on it. That is your word. Now, I would like us to go around the table with each of you sharing your name and describing yourself in a sentence using the word on the card.”
This went smoothly and started to warm up the participants as Brainstorm Man had expected.
“For the first brainstorming session, I want you each to take your BabiGo persona, crumple it up and toss it in the rubbish,” explained Brainstorm Man while miming the actions. “Now, pretend you are parents. For those of you who are parents, that should be no great challenge. The rest of you will need to use your imagination. We shall begin by spending a half hour brainstorming ideas for features you would like to see on pushchairs. Stretch your imagination as far as it will go and remember, no idea is too crazy to share. Indeed, I shall be disappointed if we do not hear a lot of crazy ideas.
“While you shout out ideas, and please do shout, I shall write them on the poster paper here. Now remember: no squelching. Ready? Good! Let us begin!” Said Brainstorm Man as he pulled a starter pistol from his bag and fired it into the air.
There was a moment’s silence and then an idea was softly called out, then another and another. The ideas were timid, but that was to be expected. In about five minutes the first really creative idea would be suggested. In fact, it arrived at six minutes and set off a round of laughter which inspired an even sillier idea that led to more laughter and the first squelching attempt.
“Don’t be ridiculous, we could never…” began one of the male participants who reeked of middle management.
Brainstorm Man pulled a revolver from inside his coat, pointed it at the man and said. “I told you no squelching.” The room went silent as he pulled the trigger. The gun made a loud farting sound and filled the room with confetti. Everyone laughed, some a little uncomfortably, and the brainstorming continued. There was no squelching after that.
At the end of the half hour, 43 ideas had been written on the poster paper. “Which ones do you like best and why?” asked Brainstorm Man. A dozen of the ideas were checked.
“Very well done indeed,” said Brainstorm Man. “We’ve got some interesting ideas here and we’re only a third of the way through. Herr Heckert, I believe we will have no problem out-innovating the competition if you and your colleagues keep up the good work.
“Let’s break until after lunch. Remember, if you have any additional ideas during lunch, pull out your notebook and write them down. In the meantime, Herr Heckert, we need to work out the evaluation criteria for these ideas. Let’s you and I and anyone else you want to involve sit down for a half hour and sort these out.”
Two directors joined the meeting. Brainstorm Man explained the purpose of evaluation criteria for providing quick, yet reasonably accurate initial analysis of ideas. He explained that criteria based evaluation means taking each good idea and measuring against a set of five criteria. (for more information on evaluating ideas using this method, take a peak at this article).
With Brainstorm Man’s guidance, Willy and two other directors worked out a set of five criteria for evaluating new product feature ideas.
After lunch the team convened again in the meeting room. Brainstorm Man pulled out of his bag of tricks a set cards and had everyone take one.
“I want everyone with a ‘Samantha’ card over here, everyone with a ‘Arthur’ card over here and everyone with a ‘Juliet’ card right here, Brainstorm Man said, indicating three different spaces in the room. Once everyone joined their team, Brainstorm Man reached into his bag again and pulled out three baby dolls of the sort small children play with.
“Each team is now a baby or small child represented by your doll. What I want each team to do is to work together to design the most outrageously luxurious, feature filled dream pushchair for yourself – as the baby. Remember, you are not adults, you are not cost conscious employees of BabiGo. You are babies who demand the absolute best and have no conception of costs.
“Each team has poster paper, colored paper, pens, pencils and scissors. You have forty five minutes to design one or more pushchairs. When the time is up, each team will present its concept to the group. Remember: be super-duper outrageous and no squelching!” Brainstorm Man patted his gun pocket.
The teams promptly got to work while Brainstorm Man walked around listening in and offering advice. He found that interactive group activity like this was perfect for after lunch brainstorming when people are sometimes drowsy and easily distracted.
At the end of the teamwork session, the Samantha team made its presentation of a ludicrous, motorized, computerized four wheel drive pushchair. Everyone was delighted and the presentation was frequently interrupted by laughter. “This is how brainstorming is meant to be,” thought Brainstorm Man to himself. At the end of the presentation, Brainstorm Man asked the audience what they liked about Samantha’s pushchair. While the group talked, Brainstorm Man took notes on another sheet of poster paper. In particular, he made note of the most popular ideas.
The remaining two teams each made their presentation in the same way. Brainstorm Man filled two sheets of poster paper with new ideas. “You’re going to knock the Americans’ socks off with these ideas,” Brainstorm Man remarked to Mr. Heckert.
“Let’s take a half hour beak for coffee, and any quick business you need to do and we’ll reconvene here at three.”
When the brainstormers returned to the room, they found Brainstorm Man waiting for them by the door with yet another deck of cards. “Take one and go the table with the same name,” he said to each person. The cards read “busy executive parents”, “show off parents” and “gadget loving parents”.
Once everyone was at their table, Brainstorm Man explained. “This session is rather like the last one, but instead of being the children, you will be the parents. The busy executives have lots of money, but not much time. They are willing to pay for quality, practicality and anything that makes their lives easier. The show off parents love to get one up on their friends and colleagues. They like to show off and believe that their worth is demonstrated by their possessions. The gadget lovers prefer function over form. The more gadgets, functions and gimmicks the better.
“So, imagine you are the kind of parents described by your cards and design a pushchair that would delight you. Like before, the more outrageous, the better.”
The third session was structured largely like the second session, with each group making a presentation followed by a discussion where brainstorm man made notes of the most intriguing ideas. Because it was the end of a long, mind stretching day, most of the participants were a bit silly and there was substantial laughing during the group work as well as the presentation. Ideas were crazier – but there were also some very creative suggestions made.
“Terrific, terrific, terrific,” said Brainstorm Man. “You’ve done wonderfully. There are some great ideas here. But that’s enough for today. We’ll meet up again tomorrow morning to review the results, discuss evaluation and conclude the brainstorming. Also, if you have any ideas tonight, be sure to make a note of them in your notebooks and share them tomorrow morning.
“Now, I have heard rumors that your German beer is almost as good as Belgian beer. So, I shall go out this evening and try a beer or two to see if that’s the case. If anyone would like to join me, I would delight in your company.”
* * *
The following morning, the group reconvened in the meeting room. A few of the brainstormers had had ideas the night before and they were added to the lists.
“You have a lot of ideas here. Some are brilliant, some are merely good. The next step is to evaluate ideas to determine which ones to apply to your pushchairs immediately and which ideas you may want to develop further. And remember, just because I am gone does not mean you cannot play around with these ideas some more.”
Brainstorm Man went on to explain how to evaluate ideas using the 5×5 evaluation matrix. “For your convenience, we have set up a secure on-line evaluation tool that you can use to evaluate your ideas easily. All of your ideas from yesterday are already in the system and I will add today’s latest ideas within a few hours. You can also add additional ideas later.” Brainstorm Man demonstrated the simple-to-use evaluation tool.
“I shall call you next week to see how things are getting on. In the meantime, please feel free to give me a call at any time if you have questions about the brainstorming, evaluation or any other aspect of what we have done today.
“It has been a pleasure, ladies and gentlemen. And now I have a plane to catch. Good bye!” Brainstorm many shook everyone’s hand, turned and walked out the door with Willy.
“That was fantastic, Brainstorm Man,” said Willy. “Yesterday, I felt lost. Today, we have enough ideas for several new lines of pushchairs and I feel so inspired, I am sure we will have more ideas. How can I ever repay you?”
“No worries, you’ll soon get our invoice which will be reward enough. Good luck.” They shook hands and Brainstorm Man hopped into a taxi.
Over the next few days, Willy, the brainstormers and others evaluated and reviewed their ideas. Several prototypes were made incorporating more than 20 ideas from the brainstorming event. Another dozen ideas were considered worth developing for future implementation.
The following year’s pushchairs sold better than ever before and BabiGo gained substantial market share over other quality pushchair manufacturers.
All in all, everyone lived happily ever after. Oh, and the invoice wasn’t nearly as bad as Willy had feared. He even hired Brainstorm Man again to brainstorm new product launches. But that’s another story.
Jeffrey Baumgartner is the founder of jpb.com, makers of Jenni innovation process management software. He also edits Report 103, a popular eJournal on business innovation. Contact Jeffrey at email@example.com or visit http://www.jpb.com/