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Posted: October 25, 2009

The 13 rules for a successful think-tank

How to keep a brainstorm from becoming a drizzle

Steve Baker

I have always had great success in using think-tanks to come up with new ideas and solutions in my companies.

Don't limit to only one department with one mindset. My most successful think-tanks are a team of creative thinkers with diverse backgrounds who can offer different slants and perspectives.

As the think-tank leader, you should explain the mission, i.e. "New ways to increase market share." You should be the moderator that keeps things on pace but no one, including you, dominates the conversation. Your tank-mates can create valuable ideas quickly if they operate within a set game plan.

Here are 13 Rules that will help you succeed:

1. No egos allowed. I have a sign outside my conference room that says "Please leave egos here." You're not in the tank to impress others with your brilliance and monopolize the time. A good think-tank is a cooperative supportive team where all thoughts are welcome and shared, and only the team succeeds.

2. Use a dry-wipe whiteboard. The bigger the better. I once had an entire wall in the conference room wallpapered with dry-wipe paper so we could get more ideas. If you can't get a white board, use a large lecture paper pad. I prefer that each member have their own marker and go to the board with their ideas.

3. Stay on topic. Your idea for an iPhone microwave oven app is awesome, but not during a session on how to improve customer service.

4. One conversation at a time. When different conversations are going on within a team, no one can focus.

5. Encourage each other to participate. Often the shy person has great ideas that they've been quietly thinking about.

6. Go for volume. Getting to 100 ideas is better than 10. The more ideas you have the more chances you have for quality ideas. Try setting a goal for the number of ideas you'll get to in a certain amount of time to provide incentive.

7. Think fast & keep it short. Impulse thoughts and ideas are often sound and worthwhile. Got an instant thought? Write it on the board.

8. Encourage wild ideas. As Albert Einstein said, "If at first, the idea is not absurd then there is no hope for it." Most great ideas and inventions were first silly ideas. (but remember #3)

9. Headline your idea. Make it quick and sharp, then move on to the next one.

10. Be visual. Sketch your ideas out for your tank-mates. It will communicate them more clearly than words alone, plus it might inspire some new ideas.

11. Review and build on the Ideas of others. This leverages the perspectives of diverse teams and can be especially useful when you feel like you're stuck.

12. Withhold judgment. Don't block someone else's idea. If you don't like it, look at it on the whiteboard and maybe you'll be able to build on it later. Remember, this is a Think-Tank, not a Shark-Tank.

13. Summarize and condense for action items. Assign action steps to follow through with sound ideas.

Have fun. Even when the topic is serious, try to keep the pace loose. Anger and worry hamper creative thought. I've had great success with after-hours sessions over pizza and beer. If that's against your rules, at least have brain fuel and energy snacks.

A good think-tank session not only produces results, it strengthens communication and inspires all participants to be more creative and think for the good of the company. Using these simple guidelines will help make your think-tank session a brainstorm instead of a drizzle.

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Steve Baker is a founder of successful businesses and a business advisor with a passion for every phase of business cycle from startup to exit He’s also a public speaker and author of "Pushing Water Uphill With a Rake," as well as an avid poor golfer. He welcomes your comments and e-mails at  and invites you to visit his website

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Readers Respond

Steve - I just wanted to respond to your article, and let you know that I thought it was very good and applicable information. I will look forward to sharing this article with my co-workers. Christen Roberts Director of Business Development Lockbox Marketing Group, Inc. By Christen Roberts on 2009 10 27
Steve, I have been using the brainstorming concept for many years and find that your rules are interesting, but they are more administrative than functional: 1. Leave your ego at the door 2. Use a computer to capture ideas 3. All ideas count (no good ones and no bad ones, they are all valuable) 4. Have a cross section of thinkers 5. Put a time limit on the creative period 6. Allow your participants to come prepared 7. Keep them net 8. Rank them but don't lose them 9. Define action plan to use them and put someone in charge to put them into action. 10. Follow-up on status and action 11. Revisit results/actions (There I go need to shorten list, but you get the point.) By John Mozeliak on 2009 10 27
What an innovative idea, Mary! I can see how you earned those degrees Steve By Steve Baker on 2009 10 26
I share your enthusiasm for white boards, the bigger, the better. We found out years ago that shower liner, which can be obtained in really big sizes at a trifling cost (something like $11 for a 5 foot by 8 foot piece) at a building supply store works just as well. We put it right up on the wall and add some wood molding for a “frame.” It works great! Mary Wilson Callahan, Ph.D., MBA, CODC Transitions That Work Longmont, CO By Mary Wilson Callahan, Ph.D., MBA, CODC on 2009 10 26

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