A Guide To Effective Brainstorming

Brainstorming is an extremely beneficial technique used by many to generate ideas and boost creativity.

It’s also a low-cost way of generating solutions to problems and exchanging ideas for a vast array of issues that you may face.

It is completely free, fast to organize and can result in a large number of ideas being generated. Participants with different knowledge and experiences can contribute to various ideas and suggestions.

Online brainstorming can spread through social networks so that you have the potential to reach people with whom you would otherwise never come into contact. The participants of the brainstorming build their solutions on the ideas of others and improve them.

This synergy effect boosts creativity which leads to better ideas being generated.

Brainstorming, especially among groups, improves the working atmosphere which can motivate participants. The solutions found are generally more accepted by the team and will be implemented with more support in the organization.

The original approach was developed by Alex Osborn, Madison Avenue advertising executive, which he published in his book, “Applied Imagination.” Osborn’s approach, which has since been adjusted by many researchers to incorporate additional approvements, emphasized the following three conditions in order to ensure effective brainstorming.

Conditions for effective brainstorming:

  1. Criticism ruled out
  2. Freewheeling encouraged
  3. Quantity wanted

1. Criticism ruled out

According to Osborn, brainstorming is only truly effective if there is no criticism. This means that employees or individuals engaging in the brainstorming session should be allowed to contribute their ideas without receiving any adverse criticism. Essentially, individuals should be allowed to say what they think without fearing negative feedback.

2. Freewheeling encouraged

Freewheeling is allowing people to contribute any ideas they may have, despite how crazy or wild they may seem. In fact, Osborn believed that the wilder the idea, the better as it is easier to tame down than think up.

3. Quantity wanted

Osborn further advocated reaching for quantity as this helped in achieving creative efficacy. The more ideas the better. The larger the quantity the greater the chance that we will find an idea or solution that meets our need.

Osborn defined brainstorming as “a creative conference for producing a list of ideas – ideas which can be subsequently evaluated and further processed.” He believed that brainstorming should only address one specific question as multiple questions can result in lower productivity. He was also of the opinion that we should blend ideas in order to enhance them and that these rules should lessen any social inhibitions among the group members.

Under these conditions, effective brainstorming could be achieved, ultimately boosting overall group creativity and fueling idea generation.

Variations of brainstorming include:

1. Face-to-face brainstorming sessions

The face-to-face approach to brainstorming is one of the most commonly used approaches. It essentially involves team members engaging in an open interactive discussion addressing the particular question or topic. Despite being one of the most common types of brainstorming, it comes with many disadvantages which must be taken into account before you decide on a suitable approach for your own session.

One of these disadvantages is that the facial expression of another team member after an individual contributes his idea may indicate disagreement. This can lead to certain shyer and less confident team members being reluctant or failing to contribute their ideas. As a result, the session will produce less novel ideas. It will also fail to meet Osborn’s essential requirement for free-flowing ideas without adverse judgment. In addition to this, junior members of the organization may be less vocal with their ideas in the presence of superior members of management.

On a final note, the face-to-face approach can be a bit restrictive in terms of idea generation as team members must wait their turn to speak. Osborn advocates the necessity for free-flowing ideas in order to achieve a successful brainstorming session. Having to wait their turn to speak may reduce the chances of generating ideas and limit the overall amount of ideas generated.

2. Nominal brainstorming

The nominal group approach to brainstorming addresses some of the issues mentioned above. It allows individuals in a group to come up with ideas on their own before sharing them with other team members. Using this approach you may decide to give each team member a certain amount of time on their own to come up with solutions or ideas to a particular topic or question. Following this, they would then discuss their ideas with the other team members and then decide which ideas they wish to pursue further.

The benefits of this approach are that the individual can contribute their ideas without waiting their turn which aids idea generation. It also ensures that all team member can participate fully.

Brainstorming can also be carried out using electronic brainstorming(EBS), which involves using technology and software to submit their ideas. This may involve individuals being placed at computer workstations or using an interactive website, similar to a chat room, to submit their ideas. Another way would incur each team member listing their ideas and then sharing the document with other team members.

The major benefits of using EBS is that it boosts creativity as individuals can contribute ideas anonymously, this is particularly important where the topic may be of sensitive nature of the individuals within the group are shy. It also allows team members to contribute their ideas immediately and not have to wait for their turn. Another additional benefit is that these ideas are stored immediately which can be then retrieved later for further discussion.

Steps involved in carrying out an effective brainstorming session.

Step 1: Place and facilitator
Step 2: Participants
Step 3: Specify the problem
Step 4: Time limit
Step 5: Commence brainstorming
Step 6: Choose the best ideas

Step 1: Place and facilitator

The first step involves finding the right environment. This is important because we want our employees or participants to be comfortable so that they are best placed to maximize efficient idea generation and creativity. Therefore, the chosen room should stimulate people’s mind and engage their senses rather than placing the group in a dull boring room. A room that encourages creativity and encompasses a fun environment has a better chance of effective brainstorming than a standard conference room.

Should we anticipate the process involving a substantial period of time it may be wise to have some refreshments available for the team members. It is also necessary to provide individuals with plenty of sticky notes which can be useful for jotting down words as they think of them which can then be placed on a wall or the whiteboard.

Bigger sheets of paper or flip charts can be used to sketch out ideas if required. The facilitator should also take notes during the session. It is wise to allocate the role of team manager to one of the individuals and the recording of ideas to another team member otherwise, they may not be carried out effectively.

Step 2: Participants

According to Mary Scannell and Mike Mulvihill, authors of the book “Big Book of Brainstorming Games“, it is best to use a diverse cross-section of people for brainstorming to be effective. If you choose a group of individuals who are quite similar thinking, your session is unlikely to be effective as the group is likely to generate the same ideas.

Therefore, it is important to include people with different thinking styles or associated with a diversity of disciplines.

A group of any size can be used for brainstorming but we must take into consideration that a smaller group will produce fewer ideas than a larger group, ultimately reducing the ability to feed off each other’s ideas. However, management of a larger group may be more difficult and ensuring everyone has an opportunity to get their ideas across may require additional effort.

To avoid any disadvantages associated with a hierarchal structure, it is necessary to give the role of facilitator to an individual who is not directly superior to the team members, ie a manager of another department in your organization. This will encourage junior staff to contribute their ideas which they may have otherwise been reluctant to give in front of their manager or boss.

Step 3: Specify the problem

The problem must be identified clearly and communicated with the participants so they understand clearly the topic or issue that they are addressing. It should be a clear statement which will bring focus to the brainstorming session and ensure everyone is heading in the same direction. It is also essential to establish rules, boundaries and criteria for the ideas that are to be generated.

A good idea is to have the statement wrote clearly at the top of the room so everyone can see throughout the session.

Statements may include:

  • “3 ideas to encourage customer interaction on social media”
  • “Ways to reduce order fulfilment time”
  • “Ways to reduce costs”

Step 4: Time limit

At the very beginning state the time limit. This can be based on your own judgment and the task required but anywhere from 5 or 15 minutes is usually sufficient.

Step 5: Commence brainstorming

It is crucial that team members are made aware that no adverse criticism is allowed during the brainstorming session. All ideas, no matter how crazy they may sound, should be ruled out or receive any adverse judgment. The person in charge of note-taking should record all the ideas as individuals generate them.

Step 6: Choose the best ideas

After all the ideas are pooled together, the ideas that meet the pre-determined criteria are then shortlisted. The best ideas are then pursued further. One way to make things easier is to score each of the ideas a number from 0 to 5 depending on the degree to which it satisfies each of the pre-determined criteria. The one with the highest score can be taken as the best idea, and if it is unsuitable then the next ranked idea can be pursued.

Brainstorming Techniques

Today there are many different techniques that can be used to carry out a brainstorming session and the choice will ultimately be up to you and your requirements. Below we have listed a few simple techniques that may be used.

1. Teleporting Storming:

Teleporting involves imagining that you were in a different place or a different time. In those scenarios, you would then consider how you would approach the problem. For example, it could involve considering how you would approach the issue if it had happened ten years ago. What would be different then, from now? What if you were facing this problem in a different place? Different country? How would you handle it? This can help us clearly identify more ways in which the issue could be solved and broaden our pathway to finding a suitable solution.

2. Figuring Storming:

This involves placing yourself in someone else’s shoes and trying to identify how they might go about solving the issue. What would you do if you were someone else? Your boss? Your parent? Your teacher? Your manager? Your partner? Your best friend?

3. Changing Your Attributes:

How would you think about the topic if you were a different gender? Age? Race? Intellect? Height? This can make a difference in how you see a challenge. With each attribute change, your subconscious opens a new door that might lead to your answer that you could have been subconsciously closed off from.

4. Mind Mapping:

A great tool to work out as many ideas as you can in a cluster format. Mind mapping can significantly help improve one’s technique and help store information. The process involves creating a diagram, which generally takes the form of a tree. It will have a unique starting point, which will then divide up into many branches.

This visual representation of information can involve the use of colors and diagrams. Start off with your goal or issue in the center, branch out into the major sub-topics, continue to branch out into as many sub-sub-topics as needed. Create as many subcategories as possible as well as ideas that spring from them.

It’s great for writers and other creative types who are looking for a commonality but have the freedom to get a little more innovative.

5. Medici Effect Storming:

The Medici Effect describes how ideas might not be obviously related when we first look at them. However, if we put our goal alongside similar goals in different areas/contexts we may be able to identify parallel themes/solutions. Look at what is common to both.

You may find much more commonalities than you had thought. For example, if your goal is to be an award-winning businessman, you might consider looking at award-winning game developers, computer makers, educators, etc. In this way, we may be able to establish commonalities among all of them that we can apply to our situation?

6. Blind Writing:

Bling writing involves forcing yourself to put pen to paper for a minimum of 10 minutes. This will open up new ideas. For this to work, it is important to keep writing. Go wild and write whatever you can think of without restricting yourself.

Eventually, you’ll come up with something as you’re energizing the part of your mind that does the work of writing.

7. Reverse Storming:

Reverse storming involves thinking about what everyone will typically do in your situation and then do the opposite. You could consider “How could I stop this goal from happening.”

8. Round-Robin Brainstorming

Round-Robins involves forming a circle and then sharing the topic with the team. Once shared, we then go around the circle one by one listening to each individual to share their idea. In this way, everyone gets a turn to speak and contribute to their idea. Simultaneously, a facilitator records each idea so they can be discussed once the sharing is over.

9. Starbursting

Starbursting challenges the team to come up with as many questions as they can about the topic, focusing on questions rather than the solutions. Begin with who, what, where, when, and why. This is an excellent technique for teams who tend to overlook certain aspects of a project.