Brainstorming can be a useful and indeed powerful tool in the business world. In my corporate career I participated in several large brainstorming sessions to help develop or focus on new product or service initiatives. Typically we were brainstorming for answers. Yet I recently read an article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), entitled “Better Brainstorming”, by Hal Gregersen who posited that the way to achieve better brainstorming sessions is not by focusing on the answers but by brainstorming for questions. He believes that by doing so, “you can create a safer space for deeper exploration and more powerful problem solving.”

Brainstorming is a way to obtain new perspectives and insights into issues. Gregersen has come up with a brainstorming process he calls “question burst”. It is something that should be in the toolkit of every Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) and compliance practitioner. He laid out three parameters he has observed in successful application of this technique.

Set the Stage

You should begin with an issue that is both deeply challenging to an organization and one that motivates your workforce as well. Your brainstorming group should include your company’s compliance professionals, senior management and a “few people to help you consider the challenge from fresh angles.” Gregersen noted, “It’s best to include two or three people who have no direct experience with the problem and whose cognitive style or worldview is starkly different from yours.” Here you might consider an engineer or other professional discipline not rooted in the study of law or other humanities.

After you have selected and gathered your group, you should dedicate only a few minutes to setting out the problem or issue. This is because by sharing in such a format, you are required to give only a high-level view that does not constrain or direct the questioning which will follow. You should also detail two critical rules for the brainstorming session. The first is that only questions can be contributed, no solutions allowed. The second is that there can be no framing or justifying the questions, as that tends to guide the listener to “see the problem in a certain way.”

Brainstorming the Questions

Gregersen noted there will be a tendency for senior leaders to offer solutions, largely to display their own knowledge or gravitas. Conversely as often times for senior managers not have to a ready answer is seen an embarrassing weakness in the corporate world. To overcome this bias, he suggests starting off with a roar, four minutes to generate 15 questions and the more provocative the question the better. This part of the brainstorming is designed to focus on quantity of questions. It leads to more questions “unburdened by qualifications and assumptions” and will enhance the creative output. You must take down the questions without editorial comment, so you can capture all the questions accurately.

After you have run through this quick process, Gregersen suggests doing a quick “emotional check”. The leader should determine how they might feel about the questions as well as asking those in the group. Try to assess if both you and the group are feeling more positive than when you started. If not, try the same exercise again, either that day or soon thereafter. Gregersen ended this section with “part of the power of the question burst lies in its ability to alter a person’s view of the challenge, by dislodging—for most—the feeling of being stuck.”

Identify a Question and Commit to it

As the leader, you should then study the questions from several approaches. This is important as by doing so will help you to understand which question(s) may help you to reframe the problem or issue at hand. First you should consider taking the key questions you have selected and expanding them into a further subset. Interestingly, the author pointed to the Toyoda method or “five whys” approach where you would take a question and then ask ‘why’ it seemed important or meaningful. Gregersen noted that by doing so you would obtain “a better understanding why a question really matters and what obstacles you might face in addressing it”. Such an approach could even work to “deepen your resolve and ability to do something about it”. Finally it could “broaden the territory of possible solutions.”

You should then commit to “pursuing at least one new pathway you’ve glimpsed—and do so as a truth seeker.” To do so, you may have to set aside “considerations of what might be more comfortable to conclude or easier to implement” and move towards getting the job done. Determine what it will take to provide a solution and set forth an action plan, detailing the steps you will to find potential solutions to as suggested by the questions.

The process, which Gregersen lays out, “makes it easier to push past cognitive biases and venture into uncharted territory.” He suggests at least three rounds of the question burst process for a given problem or issue. However the more deeply you delve into an issue, the deeper your thinking will evolve. Another key to remember is the cost of all this. Your time investment and those of your question burst team are minimal; after all it is only three 15-minute sessions that the team is committing to be involved in. If you are in an economic downturn or other situation where you cannot bring a high-priced consultant, this could be a very cost effective approach to a new set of solutions.

Gregersen concludes his piece with some words on accountability. You as the leader must hold yourself accountable for following up and further using the insights and ideas to help resolve the issue or problem from which you originally sought guidance. Senior managers also have an important role to make sure people feel like they can ask questions and then allow persons to craft a solution to the problems.

This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at tfox@tfoxlaw.com.

© Thomas R. Fox, 2018

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