The Power of Group Brainstorming

Interview with IdeaConnection facilitator Len Ferman
By Paul Arnold
Len Ferman loves the innovation process. Prior to becoming an independent brainstorming facilitator with his own consultancy, Ferman Innovation he spent more than two decades in the corporate world managing idea generation and idea evaluation for Fortune 100 companies, including AT&T and Bank of America.

He is also a world joggling champion (running while joggling) and sees lots of similarities between the pastime and innovating. Both involve the left and the right brain communicating with each other and the forming of new brain connections.

During a search for new opportunities, Len came across IdeaConnection and signed up to participate in innovation challenges. In this interview he talks about his recently completed first challenge (in which the team received a partial award) and what he loves about innovating so much to make it his career.

Len FermanI have always been an ideas person. I love looking at how things are being done today, visualizing how they can be done in the future and how things can be improved on. That is my passion. I love the whole process of understanding customer needs, brainstorming and generating ideas to try and satisfy those needs and then going through the vetting process. That is evaluating all the ideas and narrowing down to one or two that have the most promise to make an impact. Over the years I’ve come up with my proprietary way of managing that which has proved to be very effective.

Is there any specific part of the innovation process that satisfies you the most?

I’m in the middle of a project for a client right now and it's funny because I was thinking there are some little aspects that are kind of tedious and some that I enjoy. The things I enjoy the most are talking to customers and exploring their needs. I enjoy this market research process, and that is really the most critical part of innovation.

Innovation that does not consider customer needs often leads to failed new products. In fact, if you look at the history of great new product failures almost always the root cause of the failure is a lack of proper market research at some part of the process.

I also enjoy brainstorming and facilitating group brainstorming sessions. It's always a lot of fun to watch the sparks fly when people come together and generate ideas. It is seeing the power of brainstorming when someone has the seed of an idea and another person with a different background builds on that and suddenly you've got a great idea in the making that neither would've come up with independently. That's the power of group brainstorming.

The other part I enjoy, and which many organizations do not do a good job of is narrowing down and identifying one or a few big ideas. When I come out of a typical brainstorming session we may have hundreds of ideas, and no organization I know of has the resources to implement every idea we come up with, nor should every idea be implemented. So, I really enjoy the process of vetting ideas and reaching the conclusion where we’ve got one or several ideas that are going to get funded by the organization.

Did you experience some of these things that you enjoy when you facilitated an IdeaConnection challenge team?

Yes, and it was a tremendously rewarding experience. It was a very different experience to what I’ve encountered before. We had five people on the team, myself as facilitator and four scientists who all had PhDs and were in different countries. The combination of working with a team in a virtual environment and their level of experience was new to me.

I came from the financial services industry and the challenge I was working on was related to chemistry and biology. So, I had no functional expertise in their areas at all. Consequently some of the initial thoughts and plans I had about facilitating the group quickly went out the window. I had to reinvent how I was going to help facilitate the process because of the challenges of running the group virtually and the divide between my skillset in facilitating and their expertise in areas that I could not hope to fully understand. I had to quickly devise a system that would help best facilitate this group towards a successful solution to the challenge.

And is that a hindrance to being a good facilitator, not coming from a similar background as the solvers?

A good facilitator is going to provide the proper structure and format and help the team to generate and evaluate ideas. I would like to think the structure I brought to the team helped us ultimately to be successful. I don’t want to take any credit away from the scientists; they clearly did the bulk of the work and it was their ideas and their research which made us successful. I felt I was more of a guide helping to create a process that enabled them to stay on track and ensure we got to the point where they had a successful solution.

I do believe that a facilitator should have at least a minimal understanding of the topic and our topic was very technical. During the challenge, which was only 10 weeks I didn’t have the opportunity to become any kind of expert in this field, which would obviously take years. That was personally very challenging. But I realized early on that I’m going to have to facilitate the group without being a functional expert in the nature of the challenge. My role was going to be less about contributing directly to the development of the solution and more about providing the structure for the team that allowed them to create the solution. That was very different from anything I had done previously.

How did that make you feel?

It was a humbling experience. I’m listening to these guys talk and I realized how brilliant they are and the depth of the knowledge they have in their fields.

I knew I wouldn't be able to contribute the way I normally do with a lot of my clients. For example, when I'm facilitating a brainstorming session one of the key things I do is listen to what people are saying and then help them focus in on what is the core idea or I help them move from an area of opportunity to something specifically we can do to solve the problem.

My role with the IdeaConnection challenge team was to help the solvers help each other by providing the structure and facilitating conversations, making sure we had the right forums and reminding them of the schedule and where we needed to be. So, it was providing focused management of the challenge to keep them moving forward.

Finally, what do you see as the value of this way of innovating with facilitator led virtual teams?

Well this clearly confirms one of my main hypotheses, and that is that group brainstorming works because different people with different backgrounds are going to create synergies when they're bouncing ideas of each other. The ideas the group creates are ideas that no one individual would be able to come up with on their own. And I saw that at play in this group where one person would have an idea and it would trigger something in another solver and they would add on to it in a way that the first person would never have thought to do. And that’s the power of having these groups as opposed to having individuals tackle these challenges.

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