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Brainstorm well, and ideas will drop down

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Posted  Tuesday, December 11  2012 at  02:00
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Q: Are there any techniques that could help me brainstorm?

— Kai Prout
A: When I took part in attempts to set speed records for hot air ballooning across the oceans in the ‘80s and ‘90s, we got into some sticky situations. For me, the term ‘’brainstorm’’ always brings back memories of flying a hot air balloon 30,000 feet above the earth into the eye of a very different kind of storm.

In those terrifying, exhilarating moments, our team desperately racked our brains, trying to work out how to survive. Luckily, we were always able to come up with ideas and made it through.
While not every brainstorming session involves making life-and-death choices, the principle is the same. When you face a problem and are groping for answers, brainstorming is a great way to harness your staff’s collective knowledge and come up with solutions. Here are eight tips on how to get the most from your brainstorming sessions.

To think outside the box, avoid getting into one
Many management consultants suggest scheduling regular brainstorming sessions so that you and your team can ‘’think outside the box’’ or do some ‘’blue-sky thinking.’’ I hate those terms – being creative shouldn’t be confined to specific times in your day. You and your staff should try to be innovative in every aspect of your work, every day. But brainstorming is great when you get stuck and can’t find a solution.

Choose a creative environment
I find that I often come up with my best ideas when I’m on the move – either traveling or exercising or just taking a walk. When you run into a problem and decide to hold a brainstorming session, get everyone out of that stuffy, cramped office, which isn’t going to be conducive to creative thinking.
Enjoy a change of scenery for at least half an hour before you start working, and remember to take breaks. Diversions like playing a game, exercising or listening to music might help everyone to relax and then go back to work refreshed.

Define the problem, not the solution
While everyone gets an opportunity to think creatively during a brainstorming session, there should be a practical purpose for your gathering, or else you may end up going nowhere. When the conversation strays, remind everyone about the problem you’re trying to solve, and keep working toward that objective.

Keep the ideas fresh
Rather than surrounding yourself with the same people at every session, invite employees from other parts of your company to join in. You just might find that employees elsewhere in your business have great ideas – someone on your accounts team might have a suggestion that leads to an unusual and creative marketing strategy, or one of your administrators might point out a recent change that helps the team to come up with a new sales pitch.

Make sure everyone is heard
The quiet guy sitting in the corner may have excellent suggestions, but unless you give everyone the chance to speak, he won’t be heard over the person shouting at the top of his voice. Encourage listening as much as talking.

Write it all down
Any ideas that may come up during your session should be recorded. Those great suggestions aren’t going to be any help to you if you forget them. I carry a notebook so I can write down every useful idea I come across, no matter what the context, and then follow up later.

Make the best ideas a reality
Remember to say yes to potentially good ideas that come out of brainstorming sessions. Sure, you might make an occasional mistake, but if you take a risk, you’re more likely to find success. Before your group disperses, plan out how you’re all going to follow up.
Listen and follow through – then lead

In ‘’Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,’’ by John Le Carre, the protagonist George Smiley succinctly explains how group decisions are delayed by disagreements and discussions: ‘’A committee is an animal with four back legs.’’ The same often applies in business, where it can be important to make timely judgments.
While I have discussed here the importance of brainstorming and listening to and learning from others, I often also act on impulse. Over the years, some of my decisions to go ahead with what turned out to be among Virgin’s best ideas have been made off the cuff. (I didn’t get the nickname ‘’Dr Yes’’ for nothing.) In business, as in life, you sometimes have to trust your ability to lead your company to achieve things that others may think are impossible.

This does involve risk: I decided to go ahead with a few of our less successful ventures in the same way. But on the whole, you should pay close attention to your gut reaction about how to solve a problem and forge ahead.

Ultimately, you need to find a balance between brainstorming your way out of a great idea and acting as lone ranger. Use brainstorm sessions to obtain your team’s perspective, listen to and follow up their best ideas, but in the end you need to make a choice and then take responsibility for that decision.
Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group.

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RichardBranson@nytimes.com.