Effective Brainstorming

Most people have heard of Brainstorming, and most people, particularly students and working professionals, have probably used brainstorming at some point in their studies or in their career

Originally, brainstorming came from the product design industry, and because of its ability to generate lots of ideas, the technique has quickly spread to most sectors of the community.

In its most basic form, brainstorming is about using groups of people to generate ideas to solve problems or to take advantage of an opportunity. Traditional brainstorming has 3 steps:

   1) Present a group of people with a problem
   2) Ask them to generate as many solutions as quickly as they can. At this stage, there is no     
       judgement or criticism of any idea
   3) Review the ideas and choose the most suitable solution for your problem

When most people think of brainstorming, they picture a corporate workshop or planning session. This looks like a conference room, bright lights with lots of people, all talking quickly shouting out ideas, and a facilitator with a whiteboard trying to capture all these ideas. The session is usually short and intense and often done in the first session after lunch to keep everybody awake until afternoon tea.

There are many versions of brainstorming using whiteboards, flip charts, mind maps and SWOT analysis. These type of sessions can be exciting and motivating but do they generate the best ideas for your problem or opportunity?

Unfortunately, research now suggests that this is not the most successful way to generate the really good ideas. A 4 step approach is thus suggested –

1) The Initial Problem or Idea

 The organizer needs to develop a concise and focused problem. A vague description will generate vague ideas and a very specific description can suggest that there may be only one correct solution.

 Try to ask open questions and try to think of it from the end users perspective. For example, instead of asking “How to we improve sales for product X?”, ask “How can we get our customers to view product X as a new product or from a new perspective?”

 Basically, the organizer of the brainstorming session needs to contribute as much effort to the session preparation as they want the participants to contribute.

2) Individual Brainstorming

 Email this concise and focused question or problem description to the individual team members before the Brainstorming session. Give them 3-4 days to consider the question and ask them to generate their solutions privately.

 This recognizes the fact that everybody processes information differently and this allows them to generate ideas in their own space and in their own time. Personally, I know that a conference room with bright lights and lots of noise does not inspire me to produce my best ideas.

 The famous sci-fi author Isaac Asimov once said “….as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required…..since creation is embarrassing”. Creativity can be a messy process and ideas often need time to be developed and to mature. Many people do not feel comfortable to air their undeveloped ideas in public.

 To get the best ideas from everybody often means to allow everybody to create in an environment that allows them to work at their best.

3) Group brainstorming

 Individuals present their solutions to the group. Because they have already formulated their ideas beforehand, most people find it easier to deliver them now rather than produce and deliver them on the spot.

 An even better option is to use Post-It Notes – ask the group to write their ideas on a Post-It Note and to stick them on a board as they enter the meeting. This method keeps each of the ideas concise and allows each individual – from the strong, loud extrovert to the thoughtful introvert - the equal opportunity to deliver their ideas.

This separates people and personalities from their ideas and allows the ideas to be evaluated on their own merit rather than the source of the idea.

The concept of giving individuals the opportunity to generate ideas privately recognizes some of the main problems of generating ideas in a group setting -

   • People are simultaneously asked to think of “brilliant” ideas and discuss the “brilliant” ideas of    
     everybody else in the room. Most people cannot do this well.
   • The most senior or the loudest participant will often dominate the process. Because of group
     dynamics or corporate culture, these people are often the first to be asked for their idea or
     through sheer volume speak over everybody else. These initial ideas can dominate the creative
     process and often sets the direction of future discussions.
   • Not all participants have an equal voice. Introverts, those with low positional or hierarchical
     power and minorities are often not able to deliver their message on equal terms with everybody
     else in the room.

 It is also important not to rush the ideas generation process. To do this process properly takes time to generate the ideas, to reflect upon them and refine ideas. This step of the process is about collaborative improvement and unless the group has worked together before, individuals may need time to get to know each other and to establish links.

 The necessary time for a brainstorming session will depend upon the problem or opportunity - generating ideas for a new product or next year’s corporate strategy should take more time than planning for the office Christmas party.

 The best ideas can now be selected to address the problem or opportunity. As with any meeting or group venture, the best results are achieved when all members of the group listen to each other, collaborate and are respectful to each other.

 The concept of Individual creativity and collaborative improvement is critical for the generation and development of great ideas. Individual creativity is the genesis for creativity but collaboration is an act of synergy – where the result is greater than the sum of the parts.

 Without ideas being “owned” by specific people, the group is free to consider each idea on its merit and if necessary discard them without fearing the repercussions of corporate politics.

Collaborative improvement also creates “buy-in” or committment from the group members into ultimate solutions. This synergy creates ownership of the idea by the group which will ensure that the implementation process should proceed more easily.

4) Implementation

 With the best solution selected, the organisation can now address the problem or exploit the opportunity. Individuals within the group generated the ideas, the group reviewed, refined and then selected the best ideas. The group can now “shepherd” their solution through the organisation to implementation.

If you remember nothing else from this discussion – Brainstorming done properly is a very powerful tool and involves Individual creativity and collaborative improvement.