Brainstorming

By Martin Gilliard

The term brainstorming was first coined by the cofounder of the giant advertising agency BBDO, Alex Osborn back in the 1940’s

It has been used for many years since then as a means to generate creative ideas.

a board full of post it notes

(Photo Credit: Jacob Bøtter)


Brainstorming is an Eleven Step Process

Follow this eleven step process to make your brainstorming session as successful as possible…

  1. Form a team of participants. Get a good mix of people. Get people who are knowledgeable about the subject area. Try and include people from different functions. For example you may want to include people from marketing, information technology, and finance. Consider inviting an end customer. The group size should ideally be greater than five or six in order to produce an appropriate cross fertilization of ideas, but it should also be no larger than ten or fifteen as an overly large group size increases the difficulty of recording contributions.
  2. Scope the problem out. To be certain that you are focusing on the problem at hand, the problem needs to be well defined in terms of what is in scope and what is out of scope. If the problem consists of multiple smaller problems then you may want to consider just focusing each brainstorming session on one of these smaller items.
  3. Define the problem up front. Book a room for the brainstorming session and send a meeting request to the participants. Include in the meeting request a clear definition of the problem that you will be tackling. Request that when individuals accept the meeting they also send a note confirming their understanding of the problem. Also request that people call you prior to the meeting if any clarifications are required. If the problem appears to be not well understood then propose a pre-meeting to define the problem in detail. Often defining the problem well greatly improves the chances of the problem being solved – The common saying goes… “a problem well stated is a problem half solved.”
  4. Define the ground rules upfront in the first few minutes of your meeting. As well as common meeting ground rules you should also highlight that the session is informal, non-critical and non-judicial. Insist that negativity be left out. It is most important that participants understand that they must not criticize someone else’s idea as being useless or hare-brained. All contributions are valued. Criticisms should be left for future sessions. Encourage creativity among the group. Welcome ideas that could be considered ridiculous, impossible or simply mad! Also encourage positivity and productivity. Screwy ideas can act as sparks for others to come up with more practical, value-driven and realistic contributions.
  5. Record all contributions. Assign a note keeper or use a digital voice recording system to ensure that everybody’s contributions are recorded. A whiteboard or easel can be useful so that the participants can refer to what was noted. This may act as a visual stimulus.
  6. Aim for quantity over quality. One of the major objectives of the brainstorming session should be quantity of ideas. While not a guarantee of quality, increased quantity usually corresponds to increased quality. Use a stopwatch to hurry along group responses. Set goal targets for the group, for example twenty ideas in five minutes or one-hundred before the group stops the exercise in its entirety. If you're finding that the ideas simply aren't coming from the team then throw in some warm up exercises. For example brainstorm something completely different such as different forms of transport that could be used to get to work! Or something else perhaps something humorous or interesting to the group. Alternatively try to form associations between two completely separate items. This also can trigger people back into action.
  7. Improve ideas that have been previously submitted. Actively encourage the group to do this in a non-critical fashion. A lot of value can be created by improving on someone else’s idea or by combining one idea with another – this is often referred to as association, synergy and hook-on-ideas or cross fertilization. Due to ideas acting as stimuli to others and due to combining ideas together it is quite normal to get the best ideas towards the end of the group session.
  8. Control the group. As with any effective meeting a chairman should have been appointed. This person will be responsible for maintaining overall control of the group. Order must be maintained while retaining a high degree of informality appropriate for keeping such a session successful. This will enable ideas to keep flowing and will enable the note taker to accurately record all ideas and comments put forward by the group. To prevent several people speaking at once, contributors should be on a turn-by-turn basis or by an individual raising their hand to notify the chairman that they want to speak.
  9. Stimulate thinking. At times during the brainstorming session the pace may slow down. It is the chairpersons' responsibility to keep the ideas flowing. To maintain the pace the chairperson may use questions or restate the problem to which a solution is being sought. The chairperson should ask questions that stimulate further thought such as what if questions like: “What about changing the size? Color? Weight? Dimensions? Components? Price? Packaging? Shape? Materials? Function? Method of distribution?
  10. Evaluate the ideas. During a subsequent meeting evaluate the ideas that were put forward. This is where the criticism and judicial comments should be encouraged. This follow up session ideally should be within the week of the end of the brainstorming session. This way ideas and comments put forward are still fresh in everyone’s minds. Use the same participants and optionally include the stakeholder of the project to which the problem is associated to. Where ideas are unclear get the original contributor of the idea to clarify. Sometimes benefit can be gained by having the ideas reviewed by an entirely separate group to the one that submitted the original ideas. Use the session to remove duplicate ideas and to combine similar or synergistic ideas. Prioritize ideas in terms of their value to solving the problem. Reject useless ideas. Record ideas for further review that could turn into other value driven projects.
  11. Celebrate. Take the group out for a meal or a drink to celebrate the successes of the team. Ensure you thank everyone for their participation. People love to be recognized so give a verbal (and written if appropriate) thank you to each participant. Also provide each participant with a written list of any ideas put forward along with any conclusions made by the evaluation group. If solutions generated within the session transform into actual monetary value for the organization then ensure that the participants also receive more tangible rewards for their efforts. Having a tangible output from the session is a good motivator towards participants contributing to future sessions.


Categories

When conducting a brainstorming session you can guide the discussion towards a particular category of idea discovery…

  • Creating a vision Here you are looking for a completely new way of doing something. It’s about letting the group imagine how things could be in the future. It’s about dropping all preconceptions and breaking away from the past to create something entirely new. Imagine what things would be like in a perfect scenario where you had unlimited cash and resources to implement the solution. Get people to speak out to their wish list. Could any of wishes put forward be made reality? Also get people to project the idea into the future. What will it look like five, ten or even twenty years into the future. Are any of those ideas doable now?
  • Modifying something that already exists This is where you get the group to focus on improving a product or service that already exists. Think of what you can add to or remove from it to improve it. Are there new technologies that could be used? What complaints / wish lists have you heard from your customers with respect to your existing product or service? Get the team to look at the product or service from a feature perspective. What adds or reduces value?


Criticisms

Brainstorming works in part due to its ability to subject the participants to multiple social stimuli, however it is sometime criticized for its usefulness in generating creative ideas. While voicing disapproval of ideas is meant to be prohibited during a session, you cannot prevent individuals from making facial expressions such as the raising of eyebrows. Such body language can still convey disapproval and inhibit people from voicing their wealth of ideas.

Also some people don’t contribute simply due to the fear of feeling stupid or from a lack of confidence to speak up. Others may not want to share their ideas until they have validated them further or developed them to a higher level. People can remain silent due to their ideas being in opposition or contradictory to other people’s ideas.

More and better quality of ideas is thought to occur when individuals are requested to brainstorm a subject or problem area on their own and then meet with a group to discuss later.

Why is this so? Because creativity is an individual process with disapproval a major barrier (see barriers to creativity). Groups tend to be better at selecting ideas not at creating them. 


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