Part I of a Two-Part Series on Management Process Tools You Can Use
When you work at a university, you quickly learn that being on committees is a part of the job. For me, I must admit, it is akin to going to the dentist! However, there was one, the “Quality” committee, that I said yes to and learned two tools for generating new and creative ideas that I still use today. These two tools are the subject of part one of this two-part series on management process tools you can use – Brainstorming and Nominal Group Technique.
My introduction to these two tools came from a booklet provided to committee members called “The Memory Jogger”. The booklet is a resource of management tools that could be used when the committee was stuck, needed a breakthrough, needed to find the cause of a problem, or needed some creative thinking. The tools had interesting names including brainstorming, nominal group technique, fishbone, and my favorite – force field analysis. The tools were quick, easy, and cheap. If they worked – great, and if not, little time was invested.
Google “brainstorming” and you will get many websites and videos that will explain how. Following are a few group brainstorming strategies that have worked for me.
- Clearly communicate in writing and assure everyone understands the question being pursued (lowering SCC, cutting costs but not production, lowering employee turnover, accommodating a new generation, or determining the future direction of the business).
- Give participants a pencil and a stack of post-it notes.
- Have participants separate and go somewhere alone for 5-10 minutes with the instruction to write as many ideas down as possible, one idea per post-it note.
- Also, instruct participants that at least two ideas must be so wild and crazy that no one in their right mind would ever consider them. This is not the time to hold back and eliminate, that will come later, now is the time to stretch the mind. After all, there was a time when someone had the silly idea of putting water in a bottle and selling it, or milking cows with a robot!
- Once individual ideas are completed on the post-it notes, there are a couple of options.
- Participants record their post-it notes results.
- Participants randomly scatter their post-it notes on a table. Participants collectively study the post-it notes and cluster “like” ideas together, defining, in writing, a description of each cluster. Note, some post-it notes may be a group of one. That’s OK.
The more anonymous the process, the broader the idea pool likely will be. Avoid having a person, often one of the bosses, grab a marker and ask the participants to give her/him their ideas. One article referred to this as “Tyranny of the Marker Pen” and can stifle creative thinking through non-participation of shier participants or those lower in the hierarchy and can lead to groupthink led by the loudest, which anchors the rest of the group.
A few Brainstorming principles:
- No more than 7-10 people.
- Include a diversity of people. Not just the owners, but maybe the feed manager, herdsman, spouses, or employees. Everyone has creative thoughts lurking in their brain.
- No idea is a dumb idea. In fact, if you don’t come up with a few silly crazy ideas then you are not thinking deep enough.
- No idea is rewarded. That will come later, but rewarding an idea now anchors the group to that line of thinking.
- At this point, the quantity of ideas is more important than quality.
- Power of 7 rule: Each individual develops a minimum of 7 ideas (7 post-it notes). The first couple is generally easy, well known, and fit the current norm. However, ideas 5, 6, and 7 stretch the brain to a new creative sphere.
Nominal Group Technique
You may now have an overwhelming list of creative ideas, which itself can paralyze decision-making. Now what? One option is to whittle down the list using Nominal Group Technique.
Nominal Group Technique is a voting process. Each participant is given a number of weighted votes. For example, if there are five items or more, then each participant is given five votes with one vote worth 5-points, a second worth 4-points, and so on. If there is a smaller list of items, then reduce the weights accordingly. Participants now give their 5-point vote to their favorite idea, 4-point vote to the next favorite, etc. To avoid anchoring any groupthink, each participant votes anonymously. Everyone’s votes are tallied, and the winning ideas emerge. There may be a clear winner, more likely it will help cull the less desirable ideas to a more manageable list.
For example, the 250-cow Bella Acres Dairy run by Mom, Dad, and daughter has old infrastructure in need of major investment. Further, a son and daughter-in-law want to join the business. There’s been discussion, but overall, the owners and potential owners are stuck in what to do and any progress is paralyzed. The five of them decide to try Brainstorming.
The Brainstorming results in the following overall clusters:
- Significant expansion to around 1,400 cows
- Medium expansion to 400 cows
- Stay the same (invest in new facilities as needed), but push the genetics business
- Stay the same, but invest in a value-added creamery with a cousin who has expressed interest
- Sell the cows, farm the acres, and run a beef cow-calf herd on the rough ground and pasture
The Nominal Group Technique results:
- 1,2,4,1,1 Total = 9
- 5,3,3,2,2 Total = 15
- 4,4,2,3,5 Total = 18
- 2,1,5,5,4 Total = 17
- 3,5,1,4,3 Total = 16
The vote was close with a noticeable separation between the older and younger generation, the latter much more interested in the value-added creamery. By the same token, little interest was expressed in expansion. With the list narrowed, the next step may be to flush out the economics, resource needs, investment requirements, etc. of the top three ideas.
The next great idea often starts with a thought that bubbles up from subconscious into the light. Brainstorming and Nominal Group Technique are two tools that may enable and shorten that process through the collective use of the brains around you. Plus, it is cheap, quick, and easy.