“Brainstorming Is a Skill You Can Learn”

Markus Mettler
Markus Mettler

How are ideas generated at BrainStore?

Mettler: At BrainStore, ideas are generated as part of a systematic process that has been developed and improved over the years. A key factor is to involve a whole range of diverse perspectives in the brainstorming process. Furthermore, speed, intuition and a huge amount of ideas play an important role. Ideas from people outside the company, such as young people or experts from other industry sectors, are always welcome. The quality of the results and the procedure itself is subject to stringent checks throughout the process. We agree specific criteria with each customer and our ideas are then checked based on this information.

How did you actually come up with the concept of mass producing ideas?

Mettler: When we were younger, my co-founder Nadja Schnetzler and I were annoyed by the fact that the school day was so unimaginative and only concentrated on imparting knowledge, instead of using the potential of school children to actively create new ideas. As a result, we decided to set up a company that focuses on “ideas and brainstorming” and gives experts and young people the opportunity to exchange all their ideas. And this idea laid the foundation for BrainStore.

How much do you charge for a “good idea” and how long does it take until a customer can implement it?

Mettler: One idea costs 7,600 Euro. These costs cover the entire brainstorming process. Ideas can be bought in packs of 10, 15, 20, 30, 45 or 60. Therefore, 20 ideas cost 152,000 Euro. Most customers order between 20 and 30 ideas from BrainStore. Production usually takes four to six weeks. In some cases, the result can be as quick as 24 hours.

What happens exactly at the think-tank in Biel?

Mettler: At the end of the process, we provide the customer with a roadmap including between ten and sixty ideas. All ideas meet specific criteria agreed with the customer beforehand, such as “realizable by next year,” “realizable without additional investments” or “good response from the target group.” First, we define the project focus in a kick-off meeting and set the boundaries for the brainstorming process. At this point we also decide which of our internal and external team members are to be included in the brainstorming process, for example, company employees and specialists, external specialists, target group representatives or lateral thinkers. The exact profiles of the participants is agreed with the customer for each project. Based on the agreed profiles, BrainStore then looks for suitable participants – usually around 50 people, in special cases up to 300.

BrainStore works together with the participants and uses a range of resources to come up with thousands of ideas. Following on from this, the participants combine all these ideas in a controlled, intuitive process and then re-arrange them in different combinations. The resources we use include workshops, ideas from the Internet, and interviews with experts or target groups.

Using Pencils and Clotheslines to Come Up with Ideas
Using Pencils and Clotheslines to Come Up with Ideas

Ideas that pass the second phase are compared directly with one another and put through their paces by experts in the think-tank. Experts are in-house and external team members who are able to assess ideas according to the kick-off project criteria. The final step in the consolidation process is to consider how the ideas could be implemented. Ten to sixty ideas are included in a direct comparison, in which all ideas are presented with an image that encapsulates the idea, a brief description of the idea and an explanation of the inspiration behind it.
In the final selection process, the ideas are presented in front of a panel of experts, which then has the task of evaluating them. Next, a roadmap workshop is held at which the selected ideas are fed into the implementation pipeline and detailed questions on the implementation process are clarified. The very last step is to draw up the implementation assignment, which is then realized by the company, BrainStore or external partners.

How do you work at BrainStore and what qualities must your employees have?

Mettler: A customer team, comprising around ten members, works on each project. Furthermore, depending on the scope of the task, between 60 and 300 people are included in the brainstorming process. Our in-house employees must be inquisitive, interested in language and have a sense of humor. They must also believe in the motto “It’s possible.” They are team players and individualists rolled into one and must be able to lead others.

What facilitation techniques do you use to develop ideas?

Mettler: Our “facilitation techniques” help the team members to put their ideas onto paper. In other words, the group members put forward any ideas that come into their heads and then consider the topic from countless perspectives. Key factors in this process are variety, speed, fun and the ability to see things from different angles.

One of the most popular techniques is the “BrainRace,” which is a relay race with the aim of writing down as many ideas on a question in the shortest possible time. “BrainShaping” is another favorite – the group divides into teams of three, and each group has to create three-dimensional shapes out of modeling clay to explain their idea. The “BrainPodium” technique involves a group, for example company representatives, writing down ideas on a question that a second group, for example, target group representatives or young persons, then uses to come up with specific ideas. “BrainParty” is the latest concept used for producing ideas at BrainStore. It is a one- or two-day workshop in the form of a party at which, for example, a celebrity may perform and the participants prepare their own cheese fondue under the guidance of a fondue coach.

What type of customers do you work for?

Mettler: BrainStore has customers from all walks of life and industries, ranging from a 56 year old woman who asks for an idea how she can fall in love again, to the biggest chemical company in the world looking for new business models to market a special chemical. People not only want ideas for new products, services and business models, they are also looking for tactical or internal ideas to generate new company workflows.

Can you give us a successful example of your work?

Mettler: BMW posed the question, “How can we show drivers how to use the car computer in our 7 Series model in a way that is easy to understand?” BMW was looking for an object that could remain in the car at all times to help drivers understand the most important functions of the “Connected Drive” car computer. BrainStore developed 15 ideas based on these criteria, and the most popular one was a parking disc with a built-in CD. The CD provides spoken explanations of how to use the functions. Representatives from BMW Marketing, BMW drivers and young people worked on this brainstorming project. It took three weeks to come up with the idea and two months to implement it.

Does IT support the brainstorming process?

Mettler: The issue of IT crops up in virtually all projects today because processes and products no longer work without IT. The BrainStore process is also controlled by IT from start to finish and is being improved all the time. For example, IT helps us in the search for inspirational ideas; it allows us to consolidate basic ideas and enables the panel to evaluate the final ideas.

How can you measure the success of an idea?

Mettler: An idea can be said to be successful on the market when it is not only the idea that is accepted, but the implementation itself. Whether or not an idea is successful depends on more than just the idea. The quality of the implementation, the service, or the credibility of the company also plays an important role.

What is your advice to companies looking for inspirational ideas?

Mettler: Brainstorming and innovation are management’s responsibility and, as they affect all areas of a company, they should not be confined to the research and development department. Furthermore, brainstorming needs clear questions to answer. For example, Amcor and DuPont from the chemical packaging industry asked: “How will drugs be dispensed in 2015? And which packaging formats will result from these new developments?” The team members must be selected carefully, and they must be given clear instructions and an exact definition of the brainstorming process. And one more thing – brainstorming must be a fast process because when people are given an hour to think about something, they only come up with mediocre ideas. If you only give a group ten minutes to come up with an idea, the results are usually really good and something out of the ordinary.

Can brainstorming really be taught?

Mettler: Of course! More than 3,000 freelancers currently work for BrainStore, and many of them have been trained by us. They have worked their way up from the bottom. Brainstorming is a skill you can learn.

Further information: www.brainstore.com