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Brainstorming: Dead or Alive?

Brainstorming seems to have been transient in many organisations, though in some cases the title has been changed but the process is essentially the same.

Probably ten years ago, Brainstorming was at its zenith, a hip tool that seemed to impact any and every scenario in businesses; management meetings, project teams, ideas committees.  All embraced it actively … and then as quickly as it arrived on the scene, it departed from many settings …  which is very sad.

For many, a brainstorm was little more than an excuse for firing out ideas, discussing them and then forgetting them.  The sessions were ill-structured, poorly manged and produced little lasting fruit.  And yet, over a decade later, innovation experts still sing the praises of this tool.

So, for those who have perhaps missed out on the power and value of brainstorming, here is a short(ish) summary of the method and its benefits.

Brainstorming is a very important technique, not only because it generates ideas but because it lays the foundations for a creative and innovative culture.  Bob Sutton, a Stanford University professor suggests that Brainstorming is especially beneficial for a number of reasons:

  • Organisational Memory – Many valuable and experienced members of our organisations are too busy to be involved on project teams.  BUT they can spare an hour for a brainstorming session. The brainstorm thus allows us access to organisational expertise and knowledge that would otherwise be inaccessible.  During the session, possible solutions from past, present or future experiences may be explored, thereby drawing on the organisation’s memory and intelligence.
  • Reinforcing an attitude of wisdom – The attitude of wisdom is the balance between confidence in what we know and a willingness to listen to ideas that challenge us and our worldview.  Brainstorming matches our wits and creativity with those of others, which can be humbling, but also makes us wiser.
  • Increases visibility of team members – When run properly, the free-spirited atmosphere of brainstorming sessions allows people who may not normally be ‘visible’ to shine and to make their contribution, and their mark.  They are able to gain attention and status which may have otherwise passed them by.

However, a brainstorming session can only be as effective as those contributing, and in a large part, to those responsible for leading the group.  Here are some simple rules for making the sessions effective:

  • Target focus – Start with a question that really states the problem in an open-ended but not too braod manner.  An example of this type of question would be, “How can we gain deeper insights into our first-time customers?”
  • Stick to the rules – Go for maximum quantity rather than quality, encourage wild ideas, be visual, defer judgement until later, allow only one contribution at a time.  Make sure everyone knows these rules and make them visible to all (e.g., printed in large letters on posters, white boards etc which are positioned in clear view around the room); it is important.  By adhering to these rules we are able to keep the meeting and ideas focussed and empower members of the team to contribute.
  • Number all ideas – By keeping a tally of how many ideas we have generated we are able to motivate and spur on the team to even more.  If we are aiming for 100 ideas (a good result for one hour’s work) and we have reached 94, it is unlikely that any team will settle for less than the target.
  • Add and switch –  At some stage during the process ideas will dry up or slow down.  Rather than dwelling on this, it is a good idea to return to some of the earlier ideas and build on them for a while.  A good question to ask here is something like, “How might we apply these?”  Once we have answered a few of these, we can return to adding to the list, where it is quite common for ideas to freely flow again.
  • Use space – Use the whole room; all vertical and horizontal spaces.  Use Post-Its and low-tech mediums that everyone can share and use.  Use a room that allows this to happen (rather than one which says, “Do not stick tape on the paintwork“).
  • Pre-warm the brain – Set attendees a bit of ‘homework’ by asking them to think about the problem the night before and then sleep on it.  A pre-warmed brain is a good tool for increasing output during the brainstorming session.
  • Include the physical – Verbal ideas are good, but some projects lend themselves to visual and physical ideas, such as the creation of prototypes, construction of crude models, drawing diagrams or pictures etc.  Make a good supply of ‘creative staples’ (plastic bottles, boxes, paper, tape, glue etc) available and visible.

So there we have it.  A few hints and ideas to breathe new life into our next brainstorming session.

I have to acknowledge and thank Tom Kelley for his book, The Ten Faces of Innovation [Profile Books, ISBN 978-1-86197-806-6] for help on this subject.

Until next time, happy storming of the brain!


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