Q: My partner and I need some creative ideas for our business. We want to do some brainstorming, but we're not sure how to go about it. What's the best way to use this technique?

A: Brainstorming is a great technique for generating creative ideas. Generally performed in groups, it's a fun way to get lots of fresh ideas out on the table and get everyone thinking and pulling together. Over the years, I've participated in and facilitated brainstorming sessions ranging in size from just several people to about 40. But to start out, I recommend you keep your group on the small side. The participants should be relatively at ease with one another, and as you continue to brainstorm together over time, they'll become more comfortable throwing out off-the-wall ideas--which often generate the best results.

Begin by choosing a facilitator to record the ideas on large, poster-size sheets of paper that can be stuck to a bulletin board or along the walls of the room. This will keep all the ideas clearly visible. And follow these important ground rules:

  • Suspend criticism. All ideas, no matter how crazy they may seem, should be encouraged and recorded without comment or criticism from the group. The general goal of brainstorming is to collect as many ideas as possible, making quantity much more important than quality at this initial stage.
  • Postpone evaluation. Brainstorming sessions are not the time or place to evaluate the merits of the ideas suggested. So don't suspend the process to evaluate the projected results of any single idea.
  • Build on others' ideas. At their best, brainstorming sessions are fast-paced and fun. Participants should try to build each consecutive idea on the previous ones. This can sometimes result in surprising twists and turns.

Though all brainstorming sessions should follow these basic ground rules, there are numerous ways to approach the idea-generation process. Here are three proven methods to try:

  • Pose an initial question. Suppose you had created a product for small businesses and were looking for a new marketing approach. The facilitator might open the brainstorming session by posing a question such as "What do small business owners want?" Participants would then throw out ideas, such as "to save time" or "to increase sales." Or you might select a feature of your new product-one-button operation, for example--and open with a question such as "How does one-button operation help small business owners?"
  • Use word association. This method involves brainstorming lists of words and then finding linkage between key words on each list. For example, imagine you want to create a new slogan for a hair gel product. You could start with the root word "gel" and use word association to come up with a list of ideas, such as "flexible hold." Then you could brainstorm another list beginning with "flexible." In the end, you might have four or five lists of ideas based on word association. To build your slogan, you'd choose a word from each of the lists and creatively link them together.
  • Identify a challenge. Even the most difficult questions can be tackled by brainstorming, provided you have the right group of people. When I was called in by an auto parts manufacturer to find ways to use the company's roll-forming expertise to produce additional products, we gathered together a large group of experienced workers from throughout the plant for brainstorming. As the facilitator, I began by posing a simple challenge--list anything made from rolled metal not presently manufactured by the company. In short order, the group turned out dozens of viable product ideas. Later, management evaluated all the ideas to determine which products offered the greatest potential.

So while inspiration may come to you in the shower, a more structured approach to creative idea generation is often the best bet. Try using these effective brainstorming techniques to come up with terrific ideas for marketing your own business.