Alex Osborn developed the original approach to brainstorming for his 1953 book, “Applied Imagination.” Since then, the brainstorming technique has been further developed – to the extent there is:
No one-way to do it, and many organisations and individuals have their own approach.
Commonly, it is seen as a way to get people together and share ideas on a topic. Frequently, results of the session are recorded as lists, spider diagrams and mind maps.
In true brainstorming, Lateral Thinking – better known as thinking outside the box should be used. The brainstorming discussion should be open and uncritical. Everyone should be encouraged to contribute.
Brainstorming is easy, and can be used by anyone. It relies on people sharing their own skills and knowledge, to produce ideas, and to generate possibilities. This results in a rich and diverse input into problem solving.
It is also useful to get buy-in to changes and solutions. If people have been consulted, they are more likely to take a positive approach in implementing and using a new solution.
Step 1: Preparation
Make sure there is an appropriate room. Brainstorming is meant to be informal, so basing people around a conference table is going to impair the session. Break tables up, or push them to the wall.
Before the meeting, make sure people have details of what:
- Brainstorming is.
- Techniques to be used,
- Who is facilitating, and
- Topic(s) under consideration.
They should also be aware of how the results will be used. Set a date and a time. It is best to stick to between 40 and 90 minutes, any less and there is not enough time, and more and people get bored or tired.
A diverse range of participants often produces best results. If a series of sessions are being held on the same problem topic with different teams, mix the teams up. But remember, even if the session is held with people from the same team, people have a range of perspectives.
Encouraging people to come up with different ideas, and express their own views and opinions produces excellent outcomes.
A facilitator should be appointed in advance. In problem solving, it may often be better if this is not the team manager, as people may feel intimidated, and be reluctant to share ideas that deviate from the manager’s views and opinions.
However, the facilitator should be a member of the problem-solving group, so they have a suitable knowledge of the problem under consideration.
The facilitator needs to make sure all the resources needed are available – flip charts, PC, pens, paper etc.
On the day, the group should produce a list of rules for how people interact. This does not make the meeting more formal, but does prevent people being ignored, interruptions, and can stop digressions from the problem under consideration.
If people do not know each other, introductions should take place, and an icebreaker performed.
Step 2: Introduction Session
The problem, which will form the topic presented to the brainstorming group, should have been clearly defined in advance of the session. This would usually be done as the first step in the formal problem solving process. However, brainstorming can be used to define the problem itself – in which case a good overview of the real world problem should be provided.
The group members should individually take 5 to 10 minutes to right down their own initial ideas. These ideas are then shared with the rest of the group. People can either present their ideas themselves, or the facilitator can communicate them. Depending on the size of the group, it may sometimes be best to limit the number of ideas each person writes down.
Step 3: Discussion
The next part of the session takes place as a group. It can be a good idea to vote on the 3 ideas they would like to start with. This stops group members becoming overwhelmed. More ideas can be added and discussed later. Everyone should be encouraged to contribute by the facilitator – particularly people who are shy or reserved. They should make sure no one dominates the discussion.
The group facilitator can suggest ideas, but their focus should be on:
Encouraging the group, managing the discussion, and helping the group build on ideas – Role of Facilitator
It should be a fun process and thinking games could be included to stimulate conversation. It is also works better if there is someone to record ideas, so nothing is lost. This is often the facilitator, but people can volunteer, or use an additional person.
Step 4: Ending the Brainstorming
At the end of the group discussion, the ideas need to be organised. Not all ideas will work and some will be very complicated. But the goal is not to eliminate ‘wrong’ solutions, just find out which ones the group prefer or feel are most workable.
A Decision Matrix Analysis and Paired Comparison Analysis can be used to select different options. Another option is to use voting, or a SWOT analysis.
Ideas for better brainstorming
- Come up with bad ideas first – great for finding what will not work and discussing why.
- Break big ideas into smaller ones, mix them up and recombine them to give new ideas.
- Ask ‘How might we questions…?’
- Draw a picture or a map of how an idea would work.
An effective brainstorming session should be prepared in advance. Initially, people should be encouraged to find individual ideas, which are then shared before the full group discussion begins. The objective of the group discussion is to come up with as many possibilities as possible.
In problem solving, these possibilities are not always about finding a solution, it could be about understanding the problem, or coming up with an ideal future – what should work better or gaining feedback on a proposed solution.
- Group brainstorming is a way to get people generate ideas on a topic, which are then recorded as lists, spider diagrams or mind maps.
- The two key principles of success are: to generate as many ideas as possible and to defer judgement on any of them until the generation stage is over. These principles are supported by four rules:
- Rule 1 – Go for quantity because the greater the number of ideas generated, the bigger the chance of producing a radical and effective solution.
- Rule 2 – Any criticism of ideas generated should be deferred so that participants are encouraged to generate unusual ideas.
- Rule 3 – Encourage wild ideas that look at the problem new perspectives and suspend assumptions.
- Rule 4 – Stimulate the building of ideas by a process of association with ideas as they are suggested.
- These rules are designed to: reduce social inhibitions among group members, stimulate idea generation, and increase the overall creativity of the group.
- When done properly brainstorming can result in a rich and diverse input into problem solving.