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The Big Idea: How to Improve Brainstorming Sessions


In the second of six articles looking at tools and techniques for innovation, Brian Campbell looks at how to make brainstorming more effective. To read Brian's first article in this series, on the subject of brainstorming, click here.

Last month I wrote about the rules of brainstorming. This month I will talk about a concept that will make your brainstorming skills even more effective: contradictions.

It is always easy to improve something as long as we ignore the unwanted side effects. I can improve staff morale but it will cost money. I can improve the quality of my reports but it will take more time. The list of examples is endless and the concept is taken as a fact of life. “There are no free lunches” is a phrase that springs to mind.

However the most successful people have found ways around contradictions to make the improvements they want without the unwanted side effects. In management speak it might be thought of as getting to win-win.

According to TRIZ theory whenever you have a problem which involves a contradiction then there are only 40 ways to solve this problem.

These are called the 40 principles Each principle has a title followed by one or more sub-headings followed by a list of examples.

The principles are a list of simple ways other people have made significant improvements to their products, processes or procedures. Since your problem is not unique, then some of these principles will help you solve your problem.

Each of the 40 principles can be used as a “trigger” in a brainstorming session: for instance “how might Principle 4 Asymmetry help us solve our problem”.

However let’s go back to the contradictions concept. To help you home in on the most likely of the 40 principles to use a contradiction matrix has been developed. A list of 31 parameters has been drawn up to cover all the likely improvements you would ever want to make. This same list also applies to the factors stopping you making the improvement. Then for each intersection of parameters there is a list of the principles most likely to help you with your problem. See the diagram below:

The approach is perhaps best used with one or two people initially to make sure some reasonable ideas are generated. It can then be carried out as a fully fledged brainstorming session to see what further ideas are generated with ideally a multi-disciplined team.

Understanding contradictions is the most powerful way of making improvements. Whenever you have a problem to address think in terms of the conflicts involved and exploit the fact that other people have solved your problem before.

* Further reading:
Darrell Mann’s Hands On Systematic Innovation for Business and Management or try the software version: free download
For a full listingof the 40 Principles:

* About the author: Brian Campbell has been working with systematic innovation for five years. He has a degree in physics and initially came across the techniques whilst working in research and development at Pilkington. He is currently working on an EU funded project to produce a CDROM to help SMEs become more innovative. He has applied TRIZ techniques to the glass industry, water industry, electronics industry and the photographic film business and is keen to see systematic innovation more widely adopted in the UK. He can be contacted at [email protected]


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