ATD: “A New Way to Brainstorm”




January 23, 2015

by Mark Donnolo, Managing Partner, SalesGlobe

In a recent SalesGlobe survey, 81 percent of sales organizations said it was “extremely important” for a sales person to be creative when developing customer solutions. But, according to the same survey, 71 percent of sales people only offer new ideas when they feel it’s safe to do so. That indicates an awareness of the importance of innovative thinking, but a reluctance to create the environment or practices to allow real creativity to happen.

So how can sales organizations encourage innovation?

Critique, Not Criticize

When I was in art school, I suffered through a process called a critique many times. Think of a critique as brainstorming with teeth. But a major rule is that the critiquer must not simply criticize: he must also offer a positive suggestion which makes the presenter’s idea better.

When people in your sales organization offer their ideas, don’t jump to what’s wrong with it or why that idea won’t fly. Instead, critique the idea by offering constructive criticism that helps develop the idea.

Don’t Fall into the Brainstorming Traps

Brainstorming today can—ironically—be pretty stale. The idea of brainstorming has become so ordinary it’s almost ineffective. If your team comes together for a formal brainstorming session, it probably disappoints for one of two reasons:

  • It’s too structured and seeks narrow answers. This was the case of one executive who told me he only wanted ideas which had already worked in the past. So much for new thinking.
  • It’s not structured enough and its output unpredictable and, in the worst cases, completely useless.

Set Some Innovation Rules

Rules don’t have to be restrictive. If creating a safe environment for new ideas is your goal, coach your team that whenever someone offers new thinking—whether in a sales meeting, in an email, or informally in the all—follow some guidelines.

One former executive of Comcast Communications described how they used a process similar to a critique to inject some life into their brainstorming sessions: “We structured our brainstorming sessions like a game with some basic rules. We start with a beginning statement of the problem and then play it around the table.

“Each person can take a shot at an alternative way to define the problem or an alternative question that might get to the root of the problem. If they don’t have anything, they can pass. We play subsequent rounds, this time refining an idea. Each team member either suggests an alternative or a builds upon a prior idea without criticism. It keeps the conversation open and risk-free, but it helps us make progress rather than having a total free-for-all, and we can apply the approach to just about any sales program challenge.”

The main idea is to encourage positive language while discussing ideas, even if the idea itself needs a lot of refinement.

How do you structure your environment to encourage innovative thinking?