Old business concepts get a new twist

Innovations are often the “new and improved” versions of things that already exist. Such is the case of brainsteering and NetWeaving -- two new takes on the traditional concepts of brainstorming and networking.

“Brainstorming has been around for 60 years and is the only way many people have been taught to generate new ideas,” said Shawn T. Coyne, co-author with Kevin P. Coyne of “Brainsteering: A Better Approach to Breakthrough Ideas” (HarperBusiness, 2011).

The brothers are managing directors of the Coyne Partnership, in Vinings, a boutique consulting firm to executives and boards in the areas of strategy, innovation and organizational effectiveness. Kevin Coyne also teaches at the Goizueta Business School at Emory University. Brainsteering draws on their 14 years of strategy research at McKinsey & Company and other corporations.

“Most people have experienced bad brainstorming sessions,” said Shawn Coyne. Typically, a leader gathers 20 people in a room and asks them to get creative and think outside the box to generate new products, processes, marketing plans or business solutions. People throw out ideas randomly, so that few get traction. A few extroverts do most of the talking, and everyone leaves wondering if anything will come of it. “Research has shown that brainstorming is rarely effective, because it violates the way human beings work best in problem-solving situations,” said Coyne.

Faced with a broad question like “How can we increase profits?” and told there are no constraints, most people are overwhelmed by the scope of the task, Kevin Coyne argues. “Having no constraints makes no sense. In business, there are always constraints in funding or skills. Why not acknowledge those upfront?” he asked.

Brainsteering is a more focused creative activity that relies on asking the right questions and adding enough structure to allow people to think more constructively,” said Shawn Coyne. “If you ask the right questions, you change people’s perspective, and the right ideas will follow.” A list of 101 right questions and many successful case studies are included in their book.

For example, the U.S. Postal Service used brainsteering to ask what specific hassles its customers faced. The agency learned that customers hated not having the right postage because of rate increases, which necessitated more trips to the post office. From that question, the Forever stamp was born. “They’ve sold billions of dollars of those stamps,” said Shawn Coyne.

The right questions can be helped by the right structure. “By carefully selecting your stakeholders and dividing them into groups of four or five, everyone’s voice can be heard,” said Shawn Coyne. “If you give each group 30 minutes to answer a specific question, they’ll spend the first five minutes generating ideas and the next 25 minutes building on one or two to make them better. One person’s thought will spark another.”

The Coynes have seen brainsteering work for entrepreneurs, startups, Fortune 500 corporations and nonprofit organizations because it allows the right (creative) side of the brain and the left (analytical) side of the brain to work together.

Richard Makadok, associate professor of organization and management at the Goizueta Business School of Emory University, has asked the Coynes to guest lecture on brainsteering to his students since 2006.

“When everyone is focused on the same question or goal, and there’s enough structure to keep things from going off the rails, brainsteering is a very useful ideation technique,” said Makadok. “Most books on creativity don’t offer much useful information about how to generate new ideas. Our students immediately grasp how practical and useful this tool is, and are eager to try out the exercises.”

The Coynes often ask student teams to brainsteer new adult product ideas based on something that was emotionally powerful to them as a child. “Most students are eager to share their ideas afterwards, but sometimes a group won’t talk because they want to try and make their product and sell it,” said Shawn Coyne. “We tell them if they make a billion dollars to send us a nice gift.”

Just as brainsteering helps people refocus and refine their method for creating new ideas, NetWeaving helps them rethink their way of connecting and relating to the many contacts they make. NetWeaving is about making those connections more meaningful.

When Robert S. Littell asks job seekers how many of them enjoy walking into a room of strangers to find the one or two people who can help them, few raise their hands. While experts agree that networking is an effective way to find a job or advance your career, it’s not always an easy or satisfying process.

Littell offers a powerful alternative called NetWeaving. “Instead of thinking about what you can get from meeting someone, suppose you went into a networking meeting with a research mindset,” said Littell. “You are going to find interesting people who are good at what they do and people who seem to be givers, not takers.”

Littell said that at the least you’ll learn things and be more interesting at your next party, but if you follow up and establish deeper relationships with those people, you can also find ways to help them -- with no strings attached. You begin connecting people you know who would benefit from knowing each other. Introduce them over coffee or lunch. Conversation flows, ideas get exchanged, sometimes problems get solved, Littell said.

He recently introduced an Irish musician to a Nashville music producer, and the two are working on a PBS special about Celtic music.

At some point in the conversation, Littell said that guests will look to the host and ask what they can do for him. Litttell asks his guests to "pay it forward" -- to host meetings between their own contacts.

After successful careers in insurance and financial services where he built his business on relationships, Littell coined the phrase and concept and became the "chief NetWeaver" 10 years ago. NetWeaving is based on the golden rule and Pay It Forward concepts, as well as the law of reciprocity. “What goes around comes around, and if you do good things, it will come back in ways you won’t suspect,” he said.

His second book on NetWeaving, “The Heart and Art of NetWeaving" (2003), came about through a business relationship he had with an executive at Xerox. She persuaded her company to publish the book for free so that Littell could donate the proceeds to the Pay It Forward Foundation.

“NetWeaving develops three skill sets. First, you grow as a connector of people and builder of relationships. Second, you become known as a go-to resource when someone needs to get things done. That enhances your reputation and your marketability. Third, you are constantly on the lookout for people who are exceptional at what they do,” said Littell. “Listening to people like that get to know each other is very energizing. Keeping a positive mental attitude is a real asset in today’s workplace, and especially for job seekers.”