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February 2009

Feb 10, 2009


Using Brainstorming Focus Groups to Take the Law FIrm to the Next Level

Question:

We have a successful practice but need to do a lot of things differently to move to the next level. How can we generate some momentum and ideas?

Response:

Our advise – why not use a few brainstorming focus groups and do some brainstorming. We find that many firms either don’t engage their people or don’t know how to engage their people. Untapped ideas are in the heads of your attorneys and staff. Using brainstorming focus groups and brainstorming techniques can help the firm improve decision making and tap these ideas.

Brainstorming focus groups are not just another firm or staff meeting. A focus group consists of  (1) people with similar characteristics, (2) that provides qualitative data, (3) in a focused discussion, (4) to help understand the topic of interest.

Size

These groups are typically composed of five to ten people, but the size can range from as few as four to as many as twelve. The group must be small enough for everyone to have an opportunity to share insights and yet large enough to provide diversity of perceptions. When the group exceeds a dozen participants, there is a tendency for the group to fragment.

Purpose

    Brainstorming focus groups aren’t decision making groups or committees. They are used to generate ideas. The actual decisions are made after all the brainstorming focus groups are completed, not in the individual groups. The brainstorming focus groups are used to gain understanding about a topic so decision makers can make more informed choices.

The Brainstorming Process

Brainstorming is a technique whereby individuals or groups generate large numbers of ideas or alternatives relating to a decision without evaluating their merits. Listing alternatives without evaluating them encourages group members to generate ideas rather than defend or eliminate existing ideas. Evaluation occurs after a large array of ideas has been generated. Principles for brainstorming include:

§  All ideas should be listed. No idea should be evaluated during the first part of brainstorming.

§  Creativity should be encouraged. Participants should think outside of the box. All ideas should be recorded, regardless of how frivolous or irrelevant they seem.

§  Members should be encouraged to offer ideas related to those already on the list.

§  Asking each participant to record and then offer five to ten ideas can help start the session.

§  Setting a time limit for brainstorming, for example, five to ten minutes, can often stimulate the rapid generation of ideas. 

Moderating the Discussion

Consider using a moderator team: a moderator and a recorder. The moderator, typically the administrator, the managing partner, or an outside consultant,  is primarily concerned with directing the discussion, keeping the conversation flowing, and taking a few notes. The recorder, on the other hand, takes comprehensive notes, operates the tape recorder, handles the environmental conditions and logistics (refreshments, lightening, seating, etc.), and responds to unexpected interruptions.

Recording the Discussion

A recorder should be appointed and all ideas obtained in the brainstorming focus group should be recorded by either tape recorder or written notes. Written notes are essential. Often ideas are initially listed on flip charts and later converted to written notes. The note taking should not interfere with the spontaneous nature of the session. Notes should be as complete as possible.

John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

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