By Ed McLaughlin and Wyn Lydecker 

When you are running a small business, every second counts. Time is particularly precious for the owner of a pre-revenue startup that is burning through cash daily. At the same time, you are in need of generating new ideas to propel your company forward. That begs a question: Even if you are in need of new ideas, should you spend the time on brainstorming?

Brainstorming, when done wrong, can be one of the biggest time sinks in business. So how can you avoid falling into the trap of wasting time being unproductive? Here are some do’s and don’ts for good brainstorming.

Do: Clearly Define the Issue

Asking people to come up with ideas on cue is already a tough thing, but asking them to do it with the whole world of possibility open to them is impossible. Yes, people need room to be creative, but they also need to understand what problem they’re solving. If you need to be more productive with limited resources (a goal of every startup), having people come up with solutions that overtax already-strained tools and elements – like picking up more clients – isn’t helpful.

Let your idea people know what you’re trying to solve. Then, you have a direction against which to check yourselves throughout the discussion.

Don’t: Give YOUR Answer in the Question

Sometimes, you have an answer you favor for a given problem, and it sneaks into what should be an unbiased discussion. Imagine you have a lateness problem among your staff, and you find out people are circling the block for long minutes to find parking. You meet to discuss the issue, and the problem statement you give your crew to address is, “We don’t have enough parking spaces.” Well, what are they going to come up with? “Let’s get more parking spaces.” Your problem statement shunts all the answers in the same direction – the direction you think is best. You’re not letting the team come up with any new ideas.

Instead, consider something more open, like, “Transportation and parking problems are making it hard to get to work on time.” Solutions could involve carpooling, a bus service, maybe more parking spaces, more flexible hours, public transportation reimbursement, or more working from home. The problem is identified, separated from the big wide world of problems in general, but open to creative solutions.

Leave the problem statement open to multiple approaches.

Do: Connect Brainstorm to Real Life

When you start a brainstorming session, get everyone’s investment in the time they’re about to spend. Explain why you’ve taken them away from their individual work and what the solution will allow the company to do. Basically, tell them why the problem is important.

Don’t: Leave Your Participants Hanging

When the brainstorm is over, and you’re ready to pursue one or a couple of the ideas raised, let your participants know what’s going to happen next. Who’s going to take action? How will they know the results of their time spent in the brainstorming session? Tell them when and how they can expect to hear back on the progress made. Then make sure you follow up!

Do: Get Everyone on the Same Page

Make sure everyone has the background information they need to provide meaningful feedback. This will save you a lot of unnecessary deviations from the topic at hand to fill people in on various contributing elements. Doing this may take the form of you addressing everyone at the start of the session, when you explain the importance and state the problem, or you could send out the background information before the session, depending on how complicated it is.

Empower your participants to give useful feedback.

Do: Honor the Function

If you’re really invested in the issue or a particular solution, take yourself out of the equation. Hand the reins of the brainstorming session over to someone who can be objective. This is the best way to make sure you don’t accidentally sabotage your team’s idea-generator. Your ideas may be the best, but the point of brainstorming is to find the best out of a range of ideas. After all, if you just wanted to railroad your idea through, why have a brainstorm at all?

Whoever manages the discussion needs to be as uninvolved in the content as possible. This person is responsible for giving people the chance to participate, and making sure their contributions are heading down the path of solving the problem stated. The manager is also responsible for reporting back to the group the results of the discussion. This way, the process can be maintained without bias that could shut down the creativity, rather than helping it flow constructively toward a solution. If you can do that yourself, great. If not, hand it off.

Brainstorming is a powerful tool. Follow these guidelines to get the most out of it when solving problems in your business.

Got other tips for getting great ideas out of your team? Email us at: ed@thepurposeisprofit.com, and we’ll share the responses. 

Ed McLaughlin is currently co-writing the book “The Purpose Is Profit: Secrets of a Successful Entrepreneur from Startup to Exit” with Wyn Lydecker and Paul McLaughlin.

Copyright © 2014 by Ed McLaughlin All rights reserved.