At this stage of the creative problem-solving process you have a large number of ideas to consider. If the team has done the divergent thinking stage well the ideas should range from the promising and feasible to the fairly ridiculous.
Then follow the process below to reduce the ideas to the most promising and start some serious analysis to find the best.
Check your criteria
The first task - as a team or an individual - is to check your criteria, and refine them if necessary, so you know more precisely what you are looking for.
Group your ideas
You now need to run through the ideas you have come up with as a team, checking that you understand what is meant by each idea. This normally involves the person who put the idea forward giving a quick run through of any necessary further detail. It is highly likely that you will have several ideas that are identical to each other, or that fit so well together that they should be grouped into a single potential solution.
Pick the three most promising
When you are happy that you have tidied up the ideas, you are ready to look for the most promising for further analysis. One of the key convergent thinking rules is that you shouldn't just have a 'knee-jerk' reaction to unconventional ideas. So give all the ideas proper consideration, but at this stage you can probably weed out quite a few of the ideas. (If you haven't got a lot of ideas to weed out you may well have been too narrow-minded at the creative stage, so you may want to go back and repeat one of the divergent thinking exercises).
There are several ways you can select the three most promising options. (It doesn't have to be three options - pick whichever number seems most sensible to you). The team leader should choose which of the following methods is most appropriate for the situation:
Voting: This is commonly used in creative sessions. This is a rough-cut first stage evaluation, so the lively 'grouping ideas together' discussion can be followed by giving everyone a number of sticky dots (say five each) and asking people to stick them next to their favourite options. The team will be doing a more sytematic review later.
A nominated team member selects: Sometimes, the issue that is being discussed falls so clearly into one person's area of authority or expertise that it makes sense for the team leader to ask them to make this preliminary selection.
The team leader selects: There are circumstances (eg if they have specific knowledge, that they can't disclose to the team, that some options might be completely unacceptable to key stakeholders) when the team leader decides to take personal responsibility for selecting which ideas to take forward to the next step in the process.
Refine and improve
Now you have a smaller number of possibilities, you have a couple of options. If you are considering an issue that you should be able to resolve in the current team session, you can ask for any information that people have that will help you improve and decide between the options. Take care to draw out from the team as much information as possible before moving to the decision stage. There is considerable evidence that most teams fail to do this properly, and also have unrealistic illusions about the effectiveness of their own team processes. (see the team decision-making section for how to make sure this doesn't apply to your team! The key is to make sure every team member contributes any relevant information they might have.)
At the other extreme, this may be the start of a several-session process, in which case you will want to send people away to find out more information about the advantages and disadvantages of each option. At this stage you might even want to split the team into 'competing groups' with each group tasked to improve and advocate for one of the options. There is some evidence that this leads to a fuller discussion of the facts, but handle it with care so that the whole team still feels like a single team.
Evaluate and choose
When you have gathered all the relevant information, the final stage is to review and assess each option against the criteria you set. Sometimes this can be handled in a conversation in the team, or if it is more complex you can draw up a grid to score each of the options against your set of criteria.
You can do this visually by making a grid (in Excel and use a projector. or on a flip chart) with one option per column, and the criteria down the left hand side - one criterion per row. Score each option out of 10 on each criterion. You can then add up the score for each option, and the highest scoring wins.
It is important to realise that this options grid is part of the answer - not the answer itself. You may all look at the grid and decide you haven't given enough weight to a particular criteion. Or you have missed an important criterion out completely. Or you may be able to alter one of the options to improve it. So the grid often has to be reviewed several times before it gives you an answer you feel satisfied with. This is not 'fudging' the answer (but you have to be careful you're not doing that) but refining the selection process.
Once you have your decision, there is some evidence that it is worth having a break and a coffee (seriously!) and coming back to spend a final ten minutes improving the solution you have chosen. The break will help you to look at it anew.
If it is a very significant decision you might also want to look for a final time at potential downsides of the decision you have made. 'Black hat thinking'1 (see the section on Six Thinking Hats) can be used. Spend ten minutes coming up with every possible thing that could be wrong, or go wrong, with the decision you have just made. For this to work well the team leader has to emphasise that, for this ten minute period, the aim is to be as 'downside' as possible. The more negatives that can be aired the better! It sounds counter-intuitive, but when you have finished that exercise, and put your usual team 'hat' back on, you will realise that you have dared to look at every eventuality. And the decision still looks right (Or it doesn't, and you'll have to review. Either way, you will be very glad you did the exercise!)
Quick Tip for teams and individuals
(1 hour - or less if you allocate less time to each step)
1. Group your ideas into clusters
2. Vote on which you think are the best three ideas
3. Refine, adapt and improve the ideas
4. What could possibly go wrong - improve the ideas
5. Options appraisal or choose other way to make your decision
6. Make the best idea even better
The next job is the biggest part of all - making it happen! You might want to have a look at our 'Managing Stakeholders' page, which will give you more tips and briefing about how to handle this important phase.
1Six Thinking Hats, de Bono, Penguin Life 2016