Your process improvement effort is going splendidly. You flow charted, collected data, determined root cause and, now, you finally get to discuss solutions. Sometimes the solutions are obvious. It doesn’t take hours of brainstorming to understand that Standard Work might be a good place to start when people are confused about a process and everyone performs it differently. But what do you do to get the best solutions to the trickier situations?

Do you minimize all that hard preparatory work by launching a traditional brainstorming session? You know, the sessions where people just randomly “pop” out ideas, often referred to as “Popcorn brainstorming. It assumes that all ideas are good idea (no criticism), people will be inspired by other ideas, and it produces the most ideas. However, the method rarely gets the desired results. Keith Sawyer, Professor of Education at the University of North Carolina, summarizes the situation in his book Group Genius: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”

Debate is Good

Add to that, research by Charlan Nemeth at UC Berkeley. He tested the creativity of teams in the U.S. and France in various conditions, including classic (Popcorn) brainstorming and debate. Which teams did the best? You guessed it, debate. Groups in the debate condition were told research shows that debate stimulates more ideas. While the researchers couldn’t pinpoint the exact cause for debate’s success, it appears that when we position debate as a way to encourage more ideas, it leads to less concern about evaluation or “being wrong.” This makes the discussions less personal.


If brainstorming with open debate makes you squeamish. Think about approaching it as improvisation. Improv is gaining interest in business as a way to teach creativity, innovation, communication, teamwork and leadership. It can be applied here as a technique to “gently debate.” In improv, nothing is wrong. It is “Yes and . . . .”  For example, if I say we can increase airline revenue by putting seats on the wings of planes, you can respond with “yes, and we can build another floor or insert more rows.”

Twilight Zone

Last, we know that random intersections of ideas and cross pollination of disciplines and industries can result in even more creativity. We can get great results by connecting and combining objects and concepts that seem unrelated. What happens if you are Boeing and you cross building airplanes with farming? You get a hay-loader type device that more quickly lifts seats into an airplane.

Burn or Scorch

At a minimum, all of this tells us to burn, or at least scorch, that popcorn. We want to allow methods that include individual reflection, group interaction, idea cross-pollination, and we want some discussion and debate to spur more ideas.

Two Good Tools

Here are a couple of tools to try:


A tool that provides the time and structure to generate ideas alone and in a group, along with providing an opportunity for unusual combinations and connections.

  • Establish a problem/issue statement.
  • 5 min – Using grids on flip charts or 8 1/2 x 11 sheets of paper, each person writes three ideas in the top row of his/her sheet or flip chart – 6-10 words, usually.
  • At the end of 5 minutes, pass the worksheet to the person on the right or move to the next flipchart.
  • Expand on an idea, write a variation of any previous idea, generate a completely unrelated idea. You do not always have to fill in a cell, if you have no further additions.
  • Narrow choices with other tools.


Problem: Reduce reporting errors

1 2 3 1 Complete reports monthly, instead of weekly Provide better training Create standard work for reports 2 Eliminate the reports Give auto calculated fields for the numbers Have reports done by the same people every week, so they learn 3 Ensure all items are needed Provide example of a “good” report Track errors to determine the trouble spots 4 Ask how all items are used   Assume all reports are always “draft” 5 Report exceptions only Have common fields completed ahead of time by administration Create an app for report completion 6   Quickly apprise people of errors and determine root cause within 24 hours Use Sharepoint and make all data available real time, so no report needed


  • The facilitator identifies a similar or analogous situation and generates ideas around this second situation in order to help unblock people’s thinking.
  • Review the list and ask participants how the ideas generated can apply to the original topic/issue.
  • Choose a technique to narrow and debate the final solutions.


Problem: Reducing errors in customer applications

       1. How to get school kids to follow directions

  • Write what they need to do on the board, for later reference
  • Minimize distractions during the explanation
  • Make instruction easy to understand
  • Be short and to the point

2. How to reduce errors in customer applications

  • Provide written instructions with the application for their reference
  • Don’t include info or text not related to what they need to complete (simplify form)
  • Have instructions available in Spanish
  • Use easy to understand phrases

Gwen Voelpel

Gwen Voelpel has 20 years of experience in coaching and mentoring leaders at all levels of organizations. She has an undergraduate degree in communications, a graduate degree in public administration, and has served as an executive leader in several organizations. Gwen is an accredited Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team and Everything DiSC Workplace Facilitator and a Certified Master in Training for The Leadership Challenge.