Making Brainstorming a Highly Effective Creative Tool


By Mick Carroll, PhD

Brainstorming is easily the most common activity that an organization turns to when it needs to be creative.  First, let’s take a look at what brainstorming is and why it is so ineffective as most commonly practiced.

The origins of brainstorming can be traced to back to the 1940s and ’50s to an American advertising executive, Alex Osborne.  This process was based on the creative characteristics of:

Fluency, i.e., the ability to generate a multitude of ideas

Flexibility, i.e., the ability to change perspectives and thought patterns

Originality, i.e., the ability to express new concepts, relationships or ideas

Awareness, i.e., the ability to see beyond the given rules and principles

Drive, i.e., the motivation, energy and confidence to take chances and fail

The biggest problem with these creative characteristics is that they are not normal ways that the human brain functions. The brain is programmed to immediately search for solutions.  The brain has evolved to be a survival instrument always looking for the quickest ways to size up a situation or challenge it — and then quickly provide the best path to resolution.

Brainstorming requires the following rules, which make intuitive sense:

  • No criticism. The atmosphere for brainstorming is supposed to be open; the purpose is to encourage ideas, not judge them prematurely.
  • Freewheeling discussion and free expression are desired — more than carefully thought-out ideas.
  • Quantity over quality of ideas is desired.
  • Combining, improving and adding on to ideas are highly encouraged.

So why doesn’t brainstorming typically result in many creative and useful ideas?  It has to do with how the brain is wired and what people know.  The thought process is driven by neural connections that people make based on something called “knowledge clusters.”  This is a fancy way of saying that people have created ways of knowing and processing information, and this becomes deeply engrained, habitual and many times automatic.  Simply putting people in a room and telling them to be creative has no impact on their highly patterned ways of thinking.  Often, this is described as “stuck thinking.”  Unless tools and mental processes that make a person make new associations, relationships and thought patterns are introduced, very few new or creative associations and relationships will occur.

The main purpose of this post is to answer the question “How can you make brainstorming a highly creative and generative process?”  The main ingredient of creative thinking is to achieve new combinations, relationships and associations among the knowledge points or clusters that one has stored in his or her head.

Keep in mind that, for brainstorming to succeed, you have to change  the patterned ways in which your brain wants to think. Here are some steps that can be immediately taken to improve your next brainstorming session:

Two weeks before the planned session, send out a notice that there will be a brainstorming session. Include on the notice a clear statement of the issue/problem/opportunity the session will be addressing, e.g., “The purpose of the brainstorming session scheduled for two weeks from Friday will be to generate ideas around how we find more effective ways to process internal workflow to speed up our delivery to customers.”

Have participants rewrite this statement at least two different ways and send them  to you within two days. Depending on how many people will be attending, give individual or team pre-assignments.  Depending on the purpose of the brainstorming session, the following assignments should be given:

  • Have participants research three companies in your industry and report back on how they handle your issue.
  • Have several people go on small “field trips” to different places (e.g., museums, restaurants, sporting events) to see how these environments might have possible solutions/ideas about your issue.
  • Similar to above, have several people search for analogous activities (e.g., an election, air traffic control, Library of Congress cataloging) that might be similar to how you handle your issue.
  • Have participants draw a picture or pictures of the problem/issue that you will be addressing at the brainstorming session.

Here are a few guidelines for the actual session:

  • Have each person or team report on their assignment.  Allow time for ideas to flow during each report.
  • Periodically during the session, ask three questions and document the answers on a flip chart: (1) What is the purpose here? (2) What is happening here? (3) What is the value here?
  • It is critical that someone in the meeting organizes, illustrates and displays the ideas for the group.  Pictures are key stimulators of ideas.  It is also extremely helpful that someone draws out the current process that you are trying to improve upon.  Seeing what you currently do can help the mind look for alternatives.
  • When harvesting ideas, don’t throw any away — rather, drop them into different buckets, such as: ready-to-use, “seedlings” (i.e., the beginnings of a good idea) and “useful directions” (i.e., useful broad concepts), ones that aren’t ready at the moment but may have future value.

Alternate approach to classic brainstorming:

“Six Thinking Hats” Ideation Each hat color (see below) represents a persona, attitude or approach.  Have each participant pick a hat color/role that represents qualities that are out of their comfort zone. The idea is to change the way you normally think about things.  (Have fun with this; humor relaxes the mind and causes new connections.)

Another variation calls for everyone wearing the same color at the same time.  At a designated time,  everyone will change to the next color and assume the associated thinking approach or attitude.

White Hat:  Data and information. “What data is available?” “What data is needed?” “Let’s run some projections.” “How do we get the data?”

Red Hat:  Feelings, intuition, emotions, no data or evidence. “My gut tells me…” “I don’t like the feeling of this.” “This just feels right.”

Black Hat: Caution, risk averse, critical judgment. “This won’t work.” “We’ve tried this before.” “We don’t have the resources.”

Yellow Hat: Optimistic, positive, benefits, figure a way to make it work — opposite of Black Hat. “Let’s pretend money is no object.” “What do we need to do to make this work?” “Who needs to be involved?”

Green Hat:  Creative thinker, new ideas, variations, challenges conventional thinking, movement.  “What are the main concepts we are looking at?” “Let’s look at five great companies inside and outside of our industry.” “Let’s have weekly ideation sessions around this.”

Blue Hat:  Process, control, manages process, keeps process moving. “Let’s summarize.” “What are next steps?” “Let’s go back and review Red Hat’s points about _____.”

Could these tactics help prime the pump at your next brainstorming session? Or are they too zany to fly at your organization? Let me know what you think by connecting through LinkedIn. I’d love to hear from you!

Mick Carroll holds a PhD in educational philosophy and is the founder of BetterThink, a business consultancy specializing in using creative thinking to solve problems.


Industry 4.0: How one company is tackling digital transformation at its customers

By Nicolas Zimmerman



It’s widely accepted that the introduction of new technologies like blockchain, Internet of Things, augmented reality and others  is changing business faster and like never before, creating uncertainty for customers and suppliers alike. But if you’re unnerved by this state of uncertainty, good news from the front lines: Your customers are looking for help navigating the complexity of digital transformation, and if your company can provide answers, you’re going to be sitting pretty.

At a recent SAMA Executive Symposium, Anton Chilton, the global head of field operations for manufacturing software company (and symposium co-host) QAD, offered a comprehensive take on his company’s approach to dealing with the changes wrought by new digital technologies. (QAD makes ERP software for manufacturers.)

He outlined three of the biggest high-level challenges facing his customers:

  • Industry disruption. For evidence of how quickly industries can transform, look no further than the automotive world, once thought to be immune to disruptors due to its astronomical barriers to entry. Not only has Tesla advanced to become a major player in just a few short years, but Dyson (yes, that Dyson) is working on an electric vehicle.
  • Smart manufacturing. Technology isn’t just changing the businesses themselves but also how customers conduct business — from how they interact with their supply chain to how they optimize their shop floor.
  • Geopolitical turmoil. From trade war to Brexit, the world is seething with change and uncertainty. If you’re a global manufacturer, how do you decide where to invest?

What does this mean for you, as a strategic supplier? Chilton suggests that adaptability will become (if it hasn’t already) the new competitive business advantage. He suggests four key traits to maintain your organization’s agility.

  • Ability to read and act on signals. The time to react to changes is growing shorter and shorter, so you have to be highly focused on the external world. Look at what’s happening in the world around you — with your customers, with their customers, with their supply base and with your competitors — and be prepared to act on those signals.
  • Ability to experiment. Much of the potential business value from digital transformation is, as yet, in the realm of the imaginary. The use cases may not exist yet. But you don’t want to make a big bet on something that *might* work. The ability to experiment, and the willingness to “fail fast,” is critical.
  • Ability to manage complex systems. Because of the interconnectedness of everything, you will increasingly have to excel at knitting together multiple systems, from multiple parties. Only the most nimble suppliers will be able to pull this off successfully.
  • Ability to mobilize. With the pace of change accelerating, none of the first three traits will “play” if you don’t have the ability to translate strategic thinking into action and deliverables.

For QAD, this has created a host of new business model imperatives. As Chilton says, these things have always been true, but they’re “even more true now.”

  • Results-oriented. It’s easy to get excited by new technologies, but you can’t forget that they have to lead to good business outcomes. Don’t be seduced by tech for tech’s sake.
  • Rapid response to change. If new technologies are transforming your customers’ businesses (and they most certainly are), you can’t take five years to roll out a new project. 
  • Risk & change management. So many big capital projects run over budget, run late or fail to deliver the promised business benefits — sometimes all three. More and more, customers will be looking to their strategic suppliers to help them both manage risk and manage change.

Research reveals that the only way to grow business with existing customers is to bring them new ideas and fresh perspectives. That is the SAM’s raison d’etre. Good SAMs are experts at taking their company’s existing capabilities and leveraging them to solve their customers’ problems. But increasingly, customers are looking for new ideas and fresh perspectives on digital technologies whose business impact may be an open question. Suddenly, a SAM can find himself in uncharted territory.

So how does QAD attempt to navigate this untrodden territory? Chilton’s team puts emerging technologies in one of four buckets, based on how close they are to having real-world impact: (1) research/monitor, (2) educate/evaluate, (3) innovate or (4) productize. Chilton likens the framework to a “virtual time machine,” which helps QAD keep tabs on emerging technologies while staying focused on the ones most likely to yield dividends.

Of course, it’s still up to the SAMs to have probing questions with their strategic customers to tease out which emerging digital technologies could be leveraged to solve a customer’s business problems.

“It’s a difficult conversation to have,” Chilton admits. “You don’t want to give the impression you’re out there just fishing. You don’t want to seem clueless.”

This new paradigm makes it more critical than ever to find and develop SAMs with the right blend of traits to have productive, probing conversations with customers around future challenges.

What follows are the traits Chilton prioritizes when adding new talent to his strategic accounts team. For the most part, these attributes have always been important to SAM, but they’re doubly so now as interactions shift from the known to the unknown.

  1. Curiosity. If SAMs are not naturally interested in how their customers are using new technologies, they aren’t going to be able to harvest insights on QAD’s behalf. More than ever, they also need to be curious about the technologies themselves. What is it, how does it work, what are some examples of how it could be used? These insights can help QAD build a roadmap.
  2. Key observation skills. Who at the customer is using these new technologies? Whose job could potentially be changed or improved with the use of new digital technologies? What kind of things are they being used for?
  3. Networking. There are an increasing number of key decision makers at our customers. In the past, QAD always worked with the IT group, but that’s changing and expanding. Especially with big digital transformation projects, many more people need to be involved than in the past, so SAMs have to seek out and cultivate relationships with the customer stakeholders who may be impacted by new digital technologies.
  4. Collaboration. This means both internally and at customers. No one is going to own any “digital transformation space,” so there will inevitably be third-party providers bringing solutions you will have to introduce and integrate at the customer. Collaboration will be become even more important than it already is.
  5. Courage. It’s hard to sit in front of a senior customer and navigate a successful conversation in areas in which you’re not an expert. And with so many emerging technologies out there, this will be an inevitable condition of many customer conversations. Self-confidence will be absolutely critical.
  6. Coaching. You grow existing accounts with fresh ideas and by convincing the customer you’re the only company that can solve a given problem. Coaching the customer (as well as internal stakeholders) will only grow in importance.

Chilton ended on a note of fierce optimism. While digital transformation may be disrupting industries, including yours, the fact is that no one has the answers. Your customers know this, and they’re looking for help from their suppliers. If you can empower your SAMs to help customers navigate this uncertain time and start developing answers, your company will be primed to take advantage of the uncertainty created by digital transformation.

Wish you could have seen Chilton speak in person? SAMA’s executive symposium series is open to all SAMA Corporate Member companies. Want to become a member? Contact Chris Jensen, SAMA’s Director of Membership & Strategic Accounts, at or +1 312-251-3131, ext. 10.

Emotional Intelligence: What it is, and why it’s so critical for SAMs

By Jessica Worny Janicki and Bo Golovan

Analysis vs. empathy

A SAM is a business manager and a true LEADER in managing strategic relationships, and this requires much higher and more complete interpersonal relationship skills and EI than the average sales rep: from technical expertise, analytical and strategic thinking to communication, management, leadership and negotiation skills. Successful SAMs understand how to integrate this complex mix of hard and soft skills.

The SAMA competency model articulates how technical and cognitive skills combine with social and emotional competencies to create high performance. For why this combination is so rare and difficult to achieve, we turn to the field of neuroscience. The brain contains what’s called the “Task Positive Network (TPN),” which is analytical and task-oriented, and the “Default Mode Network (DMN),” which is empathetic and social.

“In the business world right now, the emphasis is more on the task orientation of leaders rather than cultivating empathy,” says Anthony Jack, assistant professor of cognitive science at Case Western Reserve University. “That is partly because it’s easier to assess task-oriented leadership.”

But the long-term consequences of this cultural bias are damaging, Jack says. He and a group of researchers at Case Western suggest that business leaders should strive to cultivate both skill sets (analytical/task-oriented and empathetic/social) so they can learn to cycle fluidly between the two networks and better perceive when each mode of thinking is appropriate.
With its focus on social and emotional functioning, EI provides a perfect framework to develop the Default Mode Network. It offers a guide to how and when to deploy it to leverage performance.

What is EI?

EI is a set of social and emotional skills that influence the way we perceive and express ourselves, develop and maintain social relationships, cope with challenges and use emotional information in an effective and meaningful way.
Most SAMs have spent a lot of time learning and developing hard skills but much less time on soft skills, potentially resulting in an unbalanced skill set and a lack of agility between the TPN and DMN brain networks.  EI can be used as a tool to establish a more effective balance.

EI for professional development

To co-create value with customers, SAMs need to possess strong communication and influence skills, know how to listen beyond what is said, effectively articulate a value proposition, persuasively promote their ideas, get buy-in among key decision-makers and be comfortable addressing difficult situations or conflicts. To lead orchestrate an ecosystem of resources and stakeholders, they must demonstrate strong interpersonal skills to develop and maintain trustworthy relationships, develop a team vision, lead teams in implementation and execution, and demonstrate sensitivity, understanding and empathy for cultural differences in order to adapt and be effective in a global environment.

The EQi 2.0 model of emotional intelligence comprises fifteen competencies across five categories that form the building blocks of abilities such as communication, decision making, time management and resilience. The framework provides an effective structure to support and develop these competencies.

Interpersonal skills are at the heart of the competencies SAMs need to build and develop strong relationships, manage cross-functional teams, align stakeholders, influence and negotiate. But it is essential to understand that these skills also build on others, such as self-perception and self-expression.  Although the model’s competencies are separated into five distinct groups, they are all interrelated and mutually impact each other.

Self-perception is an essential building block, as it is about our internal world, which determines how we perceive ourselves, our mindset and our attitudes. Being self-confident, for example, helps SAMs overcome obstacles, while being motivated ensures they are driven by a desire to perform and excel.

Self-expression is the flip side: focused on the outside world, it describes how we choose to express ourselves and how we communicate. Sharing and expressing feelings in an open and transparent way helps SAMs establish rapport with stakeholders and build trustful relationships with cross-functional teams. Emotional expression, of course, happens in a context and is a matter of degree, which SAMs assess by being tuned in to others and having empathy. An effective SAM reads and understands these social cues and adjusts his or her behavior accordingly and in the moment. For example, a SAM is more open with a long-time customer than with a new one.

Decision making is highly relevant for SAMs, as they constantly face multiple and often complex decisions. To optimize their decision making, SAMs must integrate emotional information in an effective and meaningful way, along with analytical and strategic elements, data and facts. Understanding and managing emotional undercurrents to get buy-in or during negotiations, for example, can be the difference between success and failure.

Stress management is particularly important in the SAM environment, which is fast paced, competitive and high stress. Stress, especially if chronic, can be detrimental to performance, both cognitively and emotionally. Being aware of stress, assessing its impact and developing appropriate coping strategies reflects valuable stress-management practice and is key to effective functioning. Developing flexibility, resilience and remaining optimistic in the face of adversity allows SAMs to process stress more effectively and mitigate its damaging effects.

Each individual has a unique profile, with distinctive strengths and areas in need of further development. Results of an EQi assessment provide SAMs and sales leaders an individualized road map that can become a daily guide that empowers them to accelerate their professional development.

Here are two tools you can use to start developing your EI skills immediately.

Gauge your mood. Developed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, the Mood Meeter app is both fun to use and rich in content to expand users’ emotional self-awareness and emotional expression capabilities. The app enables users to quickly and easily track emotions througho. ut the day, expands emotional vocabulary, provides tips for moving one’s emotional state, and provides stats for further reflection and analysis.•

Reflective listening. Adapted from “The EQ Edge” by Steven J. Stein & Howard E, the following listening exercise strengthens users’ reality testing, empathy, interpersonal relationship and problem-solving skills.  Step 1: Ask someone you know well how he or she feels about a given topic.  Let the conversation roll for five minutes without sharing your own point of view.  After five minutes, describe to the person your version of what he or she thinks and feels.  Compare your version with the other person’s version and note any differences. Step 2: Review this video to learn about reflective statements. Repeat Step 1 with another person, this time using reflective statements with the speaker.  Compare the amount of information you collected in both conversations.

Jessica Worny Janicki is the owner of JWJ Consulting. Bo Golovan is the owner of Strategic Solutions Associates. 

They will deliver their highly rated “Emotional Intelligence for SAMs” workshop on Wednesday, July 25, at SAMA Academy Chicago. Click here to learn more and to register.