Why Your Team’s Next Brainstorm Should Happen in the Shower

Why is it that, when we want to think outside the proverbial box, we often put ourselves in one? We gather our team in a conference room, plaster the walls with sticky paper, and wait for the ideas to flow in a stream of marker scribbles. How often has your quest for innovation peaked at renovation – new dressing on old ideas?

If you track your organization’s creativity by the number of brainstorms on your calendar, you’re missing out. It’s more important to capture those unplanned sparks of inspiration that so often come when we’re cooking dinner, taking a shower or commuting to work.

At DonorsChoose.org, we have our own “idea safety net” that any organization can implement. We simply created a “new ideas” email distribution list where anyone can send a new idea about absolutely anything. All staff members are encouraged to subscribe and to suggest ideas for any aspect of our business.

This approach addresses three myths about creativity:

Myth #1: All ideas have to be big. Not all of the ideas sent to our new ideas list are life changing. We field suggestions like “put a DonorsChoose.org gift code on our business cards,” “another place on our site to feature job openings,” and “a better way to capture typos in posts to the site.”

Myth #2: Only the “creative people” or the people closest to a problem can find a solution. Operations staff submit ideas for donor-facing website features. Finance staff submit ideas for marketing campaigns. People at every level of our organization, in any department, can submit ideas to their colleagues.

Last week, a business development team member read Fred Wilson’s post on “Friendly Failing” and we have since improved the copy on our “zero results” search page.

Last summer, a staff member responsible for teacher outreach submitted an idea for a new fundraising tool (a promo match code that teachers can use to fundraise from their social networks) that has become a source of new donors.

Myth #3: Creativity can be planned. People are finding that “debate and dissent” generates more breakthroughs than “there’s no bad idea.” They’re also finding that “groups engaging in brainstorming come up with fewer good ideas than people working by themselves.” Our brains are designed to solve some of our most complex problems when we’re distracted by routine habits.

One of the things I like most about our email distribution list is the way people reply to someone’s idea to build off it and troubleshoot pitfalls. Colleagues make tweaks, identify issues, or simply rally in support of their favorite ideas, without waiting for validation from supervisors or experts. It’s the way a brainstorm should work, minus the awkward silence.

And no idea goes uncaptured. Some of the top ideas are naturally absorbed by the teams best equipped to run with them. Even better, by the time the first meeting is called, a whole email brainstorm has already taken place so a majority of time is spent on next steps rather than fleshing out the concept.

For the remaining suggestions that don’t take off right away, a few of us gather regularly to noodle on them some more. Sometimes we find a real gem, and sometimes we come up short, but people contribute because they know every idea is given honest consideration.

That’s perhaps the most important distinction with this approach: team members have to see the value in contributing and trust the review process. Otherwise, it’s not worth the effort or the risk.

How does your organization capture new ideas? Do you involve everyone in creative problem solving? When was the last time you asked your entire team for ideas, solutions and feedback?