Project Management Institute

Seeding the brainstorm

Shared problem-solving can generate innovative project solutions, but all participants must be encouraged to contribute ideas.

by Lorna Pappas img photo by Hasan Jamali

At Saudi Aramco, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, brainstorming is transforming how this energy provider processes and approves transactions around the world. To get to that point, though, the team first generated “as many original ideas as possible to identify problems, analyze causes and generate possible solutions,” says W. John Sabin, PMP, analyst and project manager at the company.

It eventually came up with the approval authority engine (AAE). Soon ready for a multi-year rollout, the AAE will slash the routing and review of tens of thousands of transactions from “months and days to hours and minutes,” Mr. Sabin says. The system encompasses all areas of this 52,000-employee business—from drilling, maintenance, logistics and purchasing to medical services, employee activity and payments.


W. John Sabin, PMP, Saudi Aramco, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia


img Project brainstorming is most productive when every participant contributes, and candid, no-boundary thinking is encouraged.
img Small groups of 15 or fewer are ideal, but larger ones may encourage people to speak more freely.
img Foster innovative thinking and actionable solutions by generating ideas about how the project could fail.
img Keep participants on track by setting an agenda and creating an “idea parking lot.”

“A great deal of brainstorming was required to develop an engine that could be used in a multi-currency, multi-language and multi-process environment, yet was not too business-line or business-process specific,” he says. And the intensive brainstorming session will continue, Mr. Sabin says, as “integration and redesign of processes is integral to the tool's successful rollout.”

Project brainstorming is most productive when there is open discussion, in which every participant contributes. The facilitator should encourage candid, boundaryless thinking, Mr. Sabin says.

During Saudi Aramco sessions, participants aren't allowed to criticize each other's ideas. All comments are recorded using flip charts, sticky notes, white boards or other methods and kept visible to participants during the meetings to foster further discussion.

“We then group like ideas and flow the processes out from cause to effect to solution using process flow diagrams. Fishbone or cause-and-effect diagrams can be used as well. We publish the results to participants soon after each brainstorming meeting,” Mr. Sabin says. “In subsequent breakout sessions, we categorize and rank the items, then determine the best way to implement key changes. When we make successful improvements, such as a time or cost savings, we publicize it companywide.”

Hold Judgment

Successful brainstorming requires you to defer judgment, opt for the original, record a vast number of suggestions and expand on already existing ideas, says Tom Pike, MBA, founder of Ambercom Inc. The process improvement consulting firm is based in Harrisonburg, Va., USA.

When creative thoughts start running dry during a session, try introducing “ice breakers” such as lateral thinking puzzles, brainteasers and other games designed to help stimulate creative ideas. In addition, there are software packages available to help project managers organize a high-speed thinking session, capture and rearrange possible solutions, export and publish ideas. Another technique for soliciting ideas is to challenge the group to come up with as many ideas as possible within 15 minutes.

Going off-site can generate imaginative thinking. It also communicates that the meeting is distinct from others and keeps people away from their offices and e-mails. Don't overlook the basics, though. “This may sound medieval, but it's always good to have food in the session,” Mr. Pike says. “There's something about sharing food that goes back thousands of years. When people eat together, there's a friendlier, warmer environment, and relationships start to develop.”

Size Matters

A session of about 15 people helps create “a productive, congenial brainstorming atmosphere in which participants are most willing to offer a free flow of thoughts and can build a close rapport and relationship,” Mr. Pike says.

Project brainstorming is most productive when there is open discussion, in which every participant contributes. The facilitator should encourage candid, boundaryless thinking.

—W. John Sabin, Saudi Aramco

The mid-range of 15 to 50 people introduces an environment of invisibility in which some participants may disengage. The group is small enough for individuals to be noticeable but large enough that they can sit back. In very large groups, that same invisibility can work to an advantage, he says. “There's a silver lining to the challenge of a large brainstorming session. When people feel they're just one indistinguishable piece of a big crowd, they feel open to offering some very fascinating ideas. However, big sessions offer the danger of group think,” Mr. Pike warns. “An idea can move down a certain path that everyone accepts as suitable, when in smaller groups that same solution might be rejected and replaced with a different approach.”

To stimulate more independent thinking, Mr. Pike suggests dividing participants into teams of up to five people to contemplate a problem. The results are then shared with the entire group. “Normally one team will come up with a radically different approach than the others,” he says.

Also try circulating a survey of open-ended questions to which people respond via e-mail, either prior to or in lieu of a physical meeting. “When they can't be seen and group body language can't be read, participants are on equal ground and are far less inhibited,” Mr. Pike says.

The Invite List

To form a list of attendees, take an organizational chart, consider the processes to be improved and then select the key decision-makers or individuals most likely to offer creative suggestions. When the city of Nashville, Tenn., USA, implemented a new voting system for the 2004 presidential election, it recruited everyone it thought could help.


Brainstorming doesn't have to be the fluent, ad hoc thinking generally associated with the term. Ambercom's Tom Pike uses a structured system dubbed SCAMPER:

Substitute. Who else can be the process owner? What other processes, procedures, resources, locations, suppliers, customers can be used? What are other possible objectives?

Combine. Why not combine owners or processes, functional units, objectives, ideas or sources?

Adapt. What else is like this? What other idea does this suggest? Does something in the past offer a parallel situation? Does another industry offer a different approach?

Modify. Is there a new twist? Can we change the customer expectations, delivery media, sequence, form or shape?

Magnify. Can we add time, frequency, resources, cycle length, extra products or services, more tasks or duplication?

Minimize. Can we include fewer processes or people, miniaturize product, shorten cycle time, lower quality standards or divide the processes?

Put to other uses. Are there other customers? Are there other uses if the process is modified?

Eliminate. What processes or tasks can be removed?

Reverse. What if we turn it backward or upside down, reverse roles, change owners, or reverse supplier, process owner or customer roles? Review another perspective? Make the process faster or slower?

Rearrange. Can we interchange components? Find another pattern, layout or sequence? Transpose cause and effect? Can we change cycle time, cost, quality or customer expectations?


“When we were in the midst of a brainstorming session and realized a key person was needed, rather than rescheduling, we would stop the meeting and literally go get the individual, either from IT, networking or wherever,” says Marsha Gilbert, project management office manager for the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County. “We didn't allow the session to continue without that person's input.”

Some staff members with busy schedules may need incentives to participate, “such as a prize for most ideas or the idea used to solve a problem,” according to Renee Robinson, a Brentwood, Tenn., USA-based consultant and instructor at Nashville State Community College. They may be looking for time off from work, training classes, restaurant certificates or some form of recognition from a top executive.

Staying on Track

Sometimes innovative thinking steers the meeting off track as members spend time on issues and solutions deemed unrealistic by the project manager.

Walter Jarrell, division manager of application development and customer support at the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, advocates a “parking lot” for all ideas too far off subject. “When conversations lead to an extraneous side issue, I acknowledge that it may be a great conversation to have, but at another time, and add it to the ‘parking lot’ topics, listed for all to see,” he explains.

As the new voting system was developed, every morning Mr. Jarrell's group sat for 20 minutes to discuss, brainstorm and resolve any logged issues. The parking lot was used several times, but when participants still began wandering from agenda items, he would simply not allow it. “If I am running a meeting and know what I want to achieve, then it is my responsibility to keep attendees focused,” he says. “Yes, I want their input and creative ideas, but at some point I have to prevent the discussion from getting too far off-field.”

Points of Pain

At Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare of Quincy, Mass., USA, Lisa DiTullio creates a productive brainstorming environment right at kick-off by measuring “levels of pain.” She invites participants to brainstorm all the ways the project could possibly fail. Each idea is captured and divided by the group into “most likely to happen” and “most painful.”

“As vital as it is to understand best practices in project management, it is also important to recognize past mistakes—and we've all had them—then work as a team to circumvent similar ones,” Ms. DiTullio says. “When the group honestly shares points of pain up front in a safe environment, trust is established and relationships begin to build. People feel good about sharing their input and knowing that their highest concerns will be addressed.

“Strict rules apply to this process,” she says. “For example, initially we don't talk about each item—we just sing them out and collect them. Once all possible conditions of failure are identified, we brainstorm on their priority based on their potential amount of pain, an early indicator system for each, and an action list. If and when a condition of failure develops, we'll already have a plan in place.”

To help keep the discussions focused, brainstorming leaders should circulate an agenda prior to the meeting and post it clearly at the site.

“I am a firm believer in suggesting a pre-established agenda for brainstorming sessions,” Ms. DiTullio says. “Before the meeting begins, however, the group discusses the agenda itself, enabling everyone to own a piece of it. All participants are invited to add, rearrange or subtract topics to ensure the group is addressing the most succinct list of project items.” PM

Lorna Pappas is a freelance writer based in Andover, N.J., USA, who contributes to POP Times and Retail Information Systems News.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.




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