Posts tagged: brainstorming

The Monkey Cage Sessions

monkey throwingI’ve seen a lot of strategies and “solutions” fail over the years primarily because the solution was crafted before the problem addressed was thoroughly understood.

Many times, the strategy or solution was the result of a brainstorming session filled with type A personalities (me included) ready to make things happen.

You may be familiar with the type of session I’m referencing. Usually, there’s a guru consultant leading the charge. He separates the group into teams and gives them Post-It notes and colored sticker dots. “Write down as many ideas as you can in the next 20 minutes. Don’t think too much. Be creative! No idea is dumb. Stick your ideas on the wall. Now go!” After 20 minutes, a leader from each group presents their best ideas to the rest of the room. Then each person in the room is allowed to vote for maybe six of his or her favorite ideas using the colored sticker dots. A few people are assigned the winning ideas and off we go.

Those types of session frustrate me. I’m concerned there’s too much action, too many unspoken assumptions, and not nearly enough serious thinking.

Over the years, I’ve developed a problem solving technique that I’ve found to work a lot better. I call it the Monkey Cage Sessions. The technique is all about thoroughly identifying the problems from all angles before developing carefully considered, thoughtful and collaborative solutions.

It’s got an intentionally silly name because the process should be fun.

Here’s how it works:

Step 1 Define the problems.

We start by gathering a group of cross-functional people – ideally from different levels of the organization – together in a room to talk about the problem or problems we’re trying to solve. This could be as simple as enhancing a Careers page on the corporate website or as complicated as building a complete company strategic plan. It’s important to define the general scope of the problem, but it should be defined fairly loosely so as not to stifle the discussion.

The rules of the meeting are fairly simple. We only discuss problems. No solutions. This is a license to bitch. Let it be cathartic.

I usually stand at the whiteboard, marker in hand, and write down everything everyone says. There is no need to be overly structured here, and anything anyone says is legitimate. We throw it all at the wall and we’ll sort it out later.

Sometimes people want to debate whether or not something another person says is really a problem. If someone said it, it’s at least a perceived problem. It’s legitimate. Also, there is often an attempt to offer an explanation for why a problem exists. The explanation is covering for another problem, so that problem should be written down.

People are always tempted to offer solutions, even when they think they’re offering problems. For example, someone might say it’s a problem that we don’t have a content management system. Actually, a content management system might be the solution to a problem. What problem might a content management system solve? Beware of any problem statement that starts with “We need…” and be prepared to break down that need into the problems needing the solution.

Sometimes the problems offered up are very broad and vague. In those cases, it’s important to work with the group to dissect that broad problem into its component parts.

This first session generally uncovers a LOT of problems, but the problem is still usually not completely identified yet. Which leads to…

Step 2 Categorize the problems

While the chaotic approach of the first session works well to get an initial set of problem descriptions, it’s important to create some order in order to prepare for the problem solving stage. So Step 2 involves writing down all of the problems and sorting them into logical categories. I don’t have any pre-determined set of categories. Instead, I prefer to the let the problems listed dictate the categorization.

Step 3 – Widen the circle

We probably have a pretty good description of the problems now, but we’ve also still likely missed some. For Step 3 we send the typed and categorized list of problems to the original group as well as a widened circle of people. The original group will likely have thought of a couple more issues since the day of the meeting, and the new group of people will almost definitely add new problems to the list. Since this is the final stage of problem description, we want to give this step at least a few days to allow the team to think this through as completely as possible.

Step 4 – Develop the solutions

Finally, we can start solving the problems. Woo hoo!

Now it’s time to gather a subset of the original meeting to start working towards solutions. There should be at least a few days between Step 3 and Step 4. We want to give people some time to think over the full problem set. The group should enter the Step 4 meeting with at least some basic solution ideas. There is no need to come into the room with comprehensive solutions that solve every problem on the list, but the solutions considered should certainly attempt to solve as many problems as possible (without causing too many new problems).

I usually find that by this point many of the solutions are fairly obvious. But there should be good discussion about the relative merits of each suggested solution, and the solutions should be measured up against the problem list to determine how comprehensive they are.

I like to end the meeting by assigning people to lead each of the proposed solutions. Obviously, any suggested solution from this session will need to be fleshed out in a lot more detail, and the leader from this meeting is responsible for determining the viability and solution and then potentially leading the development and ultimate execution to completion.

Subsequent progress is then handled via a separate execution process.


I’ve had very good luck over the years using this technique. Some of the primary benefits I’ve found are:

  1. Better understanding of the problems
    As the initial meeting wraps up, most people are inevitably feeling enlightened about the problem. They’ve outwardly expressed their own assumptions (which sometimes even they didn’t know they were making) and they’ve understood the perspectives and assumptions of others. They’ve seen the problem in an entirely new light.
  2. More comprehensive solutions
    The heightened understanding of the problem and the critically important time between steps to allow the team to be more thoughtful in their ideas. Those ideas are usually pretty all-encompassing solutions to start with, but the discussions in Step 4 lead the team to collectively choose the best of the best of the solutions offered.
  3. Better execution
    Solutions are nothing but fancy ideas until they’re executed. And poor execution can cause even the best ideas to fail. The process of fully defining the problems and sharing that work with wide circles of people is an incredibly important stage that sets the foundation for success in execution. When the execution team provides input in the process and understands the basis for the solution, they are far more supportive in the effort. They are also far more prepared to make the daily, detailed decisions that are often the difference between success and failure.

So, that’s the Monkey Cage Sessions. I hope you find it helpful. If you try implementing the process in your business, I’d love to hear how it goes.

What do you think? Would this process work in your organization? Have you ever used a similar process?

Innovation by popular opinion – evolutionary or revolutionary?

What do Best Buy, Starbucks and Barack Obama all have in common? They’ve all launched sites designed to solicit customer ideas for their business and policies. (At least Obama used to have this capability on the transition site I can’t seem to find the ability on has been around for over a year, and Best Buy’s Idea X just launched. Given my recent post on how defending the status quo kills companies, I wondered if this sort of solution would help companies find that next great revolutionary idea to transform the company.

I really like this idea as a way to generate some fresh new ideas that come from the people being served by a business. And there are some very good ideas on the new Best Buy site; ideas that range from improvements to their Reward Zone program to ways for customers to register for help in busier stores. I love that customers have this ability to submit their ideas, and I love that Best Buy and Starbucks are using open brand techniques and letting all ideas be shown publicly, even when they aren’t always complimentary.

But, man, what a task to review all of those ideas! As a way of helping to sift through the ideas, each of these sites has a voting mechanism ostensibly designed to move the best ideas to the top.Or at least the most popular ideas.

So, will this concept help companies find that next great revolutionary idea for their businesses? 

I’m not so sure. My experience is that popular voting is a pretty good way to find evolutionary ideas, but it doesn’t work as well for revolutionary ideas. This is because most people tend to gravitate towards incremental improvements to concepts already familiar to them and have trouble visualizing radically new concepts.

To be clear, I’m not in any way knocking these systems or the idea of the popular vote. I love that Best Buy and Starbucks are reaching out to their customers and trying to find ways to improve their businesses by better meeting their customers’ needs and expectations, and my guess is they’re not looking for revolutionary ideas via this mechanism. (Although, given both company’s solid histories of revolutionary innovations, if they come across a revolutionary idea I’m sure they’ll act upon it quickly.)

So, how then do companies find revolutionary ideas?

It seems we often rely on executive brainstorming sessions. Those sessions almost always use the same technique (i.e. generate lots of ideas and vote on your favorites) and I find those techniques are exactly the reason they usually fail to produce transformational ideas. Usually, there aren’t a lot of guidelines issued prior to the session — by design — and the problems to be solved are usually not well-defined and agreed upon. As a result, the most out-of-the-box ideas tend to lack votes and end up in the trash heap.

I recently read a Harvard Business Review article that promoted a different approach. Instead of coming up with random ideas on the fly, the approach is to spend time garnering support with individuals from a variety of functional areas prior to submission of the idea. Feedback is incorporated and the idea is able to develop more fully. Only once it’s gone through some development is an idea submitted for review by executive decision makers.

How different would these strategy brainstorming sessions be if the ideas had some development before they were suggested? Of course, radical ideas that cause transformational change will still meet resistance from all who benefit from the status quo, particularly when those revolutionary ideas are, almost by their nature, not likely to produce immediate financial results. This is the primary issue address by Clayton M. Christensen in his excellent book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. Christensen advocates creating entirely separate groups or even funding new start-up companies as a way to incubate these new strategies while they develop. This incubation approach is much the way many e-commerce organizations got their start, and I think it worked in many ways. Of course, now the new dilemma is how to bring it all back together with the parent companies. (Sigh) Nothing’s easy.

I hope more companies will follow Best Buy’s and Starbucks’ leads in opening their brands to customer ideas and public feedback. I look forward to the many great ideas I’m sure will come from it. I hope also that we can all find some techniques to deliver some really great revolutionary ideas to keep our companies vibrant and relevant for a long time to come.

What do you think? Do you have any great brainstorming techniques to share? Have you seen new ideas come to life in your company?

Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell

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