Saturday, October 29, 2005

The DIY Guide To Brainstorming

If you and your team are looking for a technique that’s pretty well guaranteed to solve all your problems, and come up with ideas you’d never think of on your own, then you can’t do better than good old-fashioned Brainstorming.

When done correctly, Brainstorming is all of the following: simple, quick, productive, effective, developmental, teambuilding, and, perhaps most of all, fun.

The technique has been around for a long time. It was first used by Alex Osborn, an advertising executive of the 1950’s, who laid down the following 5 rules when performing a brainstorming session:

1. no evaluation of ideas
2. wild ideas to be encouraged (in fact, the more, the better)
3. quantity of ideas all-important
4. participants should build on each others’ ideas
5. apart from these 4, no other rules were needed.

A brainstorming session can be used for all sorts of problems. It works for little problems where there is a solution waiting to be identified, such as a machine fault, to situations where there is no known solution, such as “How do we improve customer service?”

So, how should you brainstorm?
Based on Osborn’s 5 principles, the following method is one of the best:

• First create a good group climate. Warm them up with a mini icebreaker or fun game. Don’t brainstorm in a group that isn’t already laughing, joking and chatting.
• Select as many scribes as you can find with as many flipchart stands as you can find. Check these people are your quickest writers. Their job is to hear and record every idea.
• Now write up your problem clearly and precisely. Make sure everyone can see it and understand it.
• Then you’re ready to go. Encourage a constant flow of ideas while keeping some kind of order. Don’t put a time limit on the session as this adds pressure and will cut off the flow.

The most common brainstorming technique is known as Sparking. That’s because in Sparking, all ideas are welcome and should spark off each other a bit like flashes of electricity.

For more ways to brainstorm, here are 3 other techniques:

Paradoxical Intention, which turns the brainstorming session on its head by asking how you can make the problem worse. For example, if you had the following problem: “How do we improve the paperwork systems in the office?”, you might get: mix the files up; collect other people’s paper as well; leave them in untidy piles.
Wording, which takes each word in your problem statement in turn and develops ideas around it. So, in the same example, the word “paperwork” might produce: Put files on film; put files on computer; have a paperwork purge.
Seeding, which randomly selects a totally unrelated word and sees what ideas this will set off. So, in the same example, the word “breakfast” might produce: keep all the papers in empty cornflakes packets; have a daily breakfast-time clear-out of files; and have a deadline on all incoming paperwork by breakfast time each day.

If your brainstorming sessions are chaotic and out of control, that’s good. They should be. Remember, you’re looking for a pile of ideas, not the one that instantly fits, and your team are producing them intuitively and spontaneously without any check on the flow from their subconscious.

When you’ve filled up a large number of flipcharts and the ideas stop coming, then it’s time to take a break. You can then declare the brainstorming at an end and the evaluation can start.

Even after 50 years of use, Brainstorming is still top of the creative thinking charts. Try it whenever you need lots of original ideas, and you’ll have one of the most powerful thinking techniques you could ever hope to use.

© 2005, Eric Garner,

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