It's the annual planning season, and if you haven't created your 2007 business plan — or your business plan, period —I propose a fun, creative way to get started: brainstorming.

Brainstorming simply means unleashing a group of employees for a limited time (as little as 20 to 30 minutes) to generate as many ideas as possible about a challenge, opportunity, or topic. Popularized by advertising executive Alex Osborn in his 1950s business classic, Applied Imagination, it is a collaborative process in which people with different backgrounds and expertise share and build upon one another's ideas.

You can use brainstorming to tackle any number of questions. For instance:

  • How can we get quality leads from the top interior designers in our area?
  • How can we raise our clients' spirits during the most difficult part of the remodeling process?
  • How can we get more applicants for our field jobs?
  • Brainstorming gets people engaged and contributing, and it can be a tremendous business tool. Some companies hire professional facilitators for brainstorming sessions, but I think even small remodeling companies can benefit enormously.

    Ask the question, start the timer, and have someone capture all the ideas — no matter how wacky or obvious they seem — on a flip chart, white board, or chalkboard. Ideally, folks will shout out so many ideas that the scribe will barely be able to keep up, and you'll need to start taping sheets of paper to the walls. Each new idea will spark a flurry of others.

    Despite generally being free-flowing, brainstorming is best served by following some guidelines:

  • Spark inspiration early. Distribute the topic a few days in advance. Inspiration can strike anywhere, anytime …
  • Set a time limit.
  • Keep it positive. Everyone must feel safe to speak without fear of being criticized, humiliated, demoted, or fired.
  • Focus on quantity, not quality. Elicit as many ideas as possible, not just “good” ideas. Quality will come from quantity.
  • Maintain the momentum. Don't allow discussion of any ideas until the session ends.
  • Welcome zany ideas. They spark useful ideas.
  • Encourage folks to build off one another's contributions.
  • I suggest a specific brainstorming technique called “SWOT analysis” — Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. The first two letters refer to internal issues, and the latter two are external.

    I recently asked a number of remodelers to conduct a SWOT exercise with their planning teams. Here are some of their notes, word for word:

  • Strengths: “being design/build,” “name recognition,” “strong vendor relationships.”
  • Weaknesses: “subcontractors not reliable, damaging to client relationships,” “time lag in scheduling warranty work,” “lack of shared vision.”
  • Opportunities: “urban migration,” “high home equity,” “use of showroom as a sales tool.”
  • Threats: “too reliant on company owner,” “unsatisfied customers,” “terrorism,” “not owning own office building.” Or, in the spirit of silliness: “employee breaks an e-mail chain, bringing curse upon company.”
  • Besides being useful at the company level, SWOT can be useful for departmental planning. Your SWOT for estimating, for example, might identify these challenges: outdated software, more job estimates than jobs sold, lack of timeliness, and job cost erosion, which could reflect inaccurate estimates.

    A final suggestion: Act on your brainstorming sessions. Whatever technique you use, take your best ideas and address them individually with focused goals and clear metrics. — Linda Case, CRA, is founder of Remodelers Advantage in Laurel, Md., a company providing business solutions through a network of experts and peers. 301.490.5620; linda@remodelers;