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Creative power can be stepped up by effort, and there are ways in which we can guide our creative thinking. —Alex Osborn, the Father of Brainstorming
What Is Brainstorming?
Brainstorming is a tool used to generate creative solutions to a problem. It was developed in the mid-1900s by a Madison Avenue advertising executive, Alex Osborn. He described it as "a conference technique by which a group attempts to find a solution for a specific problem by amassing all the ideas spontaneously by its members."
Brainstorming combines lateral thinking with a relaxed, informal approach. It uses a set of rules or techniques that encourage team members to come up with ideas, which are at times absurd, bizarre, or ridiculous! Some of the craziest ideas, however, can be crafted into workable, original solutions to the problem. Or, they may spark still more ideas from the group that are themselves more workable.
Why Use Brainstorming?
Brainstorming encourages members of a team to break out of their stale, overused, and established patterns of thinking. Fresh, unique, and different solutions are sought out for problems old and new. Brainstorming jolts team members out of the "tried and true," which is no longer working, and into uncharted, creative territory.
Brainstorming brings out and leverages the diverse experience and creativity of all team members. If two heads are better than one, imagine how much better a whole team of heads will be!
Brainstorming involves everyone. Team members feel included, which boosts morale. And since they were part of the solution, they are much more inclined to buy into that solution.
Brainstorming builds camaraderie and teamwork. Differences are not only respected, but welcomed and encouraged. Team members bond with one another because there's a feeling of respect and inclusiveness that pulls them together for a common purpose.
Brainstorming avoids problems associated with traditional group problem solving. Big egos are left at the door. Authority in the room is neutralized. Less assertive team members are included, even encouraged to participate. Pressure to come up with a total, complete, and flawless solution is relieved. Groupthink—where team members, in an attempt to avoid conflict, reach consensus without really evaluating options—is minimized; team members are freed up to think "outside the box."
Best of all, brainstorming is fun! It provides a positive, upbeat, and affirming experience for the team. And this carries over into regular day-to-day work.
What Are the Basic Rules of Brainstorming?
There are four basic rules for brainstorming. These are meant to reduce social inhibitions among team members, stimulate idea generation, and improve the overall creativity of the team's work.
Rule #1: Focus on quantity, not quality (quantity will lead to quality later).
We need to think up plenty of tentative ideas, because, in ideation, quantity helps breed quality —Alex Osborn
During a brainstorming session, the focus is entirely on quantity. There will be time later to qualify, or judge, the ideas, but for now, it's all about quantity. Everything should be aimed at generating more and more ideas, regardless of their quality. The underlying belief is that it's easier to pick good ideas (later) from a larger list than from a shorter one. It's easier to evaluate or modify an idea (later) than it is to create a new one.
A fast-paced session focused on quantity reduces the likelihood of team members trying to evaluate ideas prematurely (see Rule #2 below).
It also promotes uninhibited thinking, which leads to wild, outlandish ideas (see Rule #3 below)—and in the context of brainstorming, outlandish is good.
And, participants will find it fairly easy then to create good ideas by combining lots of little ideas (see Rule #4 below).
Keep the ideas short. Don't discuss the details of any idea. Just capture its essence and move on to the next idea quickly. With the focus off the idea itself, team members will feel less pressure to come up with "good ideas," "complete solutions," or those that are "well thought out."
Think fast, reflect later.
Rule #2: Withhold evaluation (at least for now).
We should hold back criticism until the creative current has had every chance to flow. —Alex Osborn
For most people, this is the most difficult rule. Hold off passing judgment on the ideas until after the brainstorming session is complete. This means no comments of how an idea is not feasible or what its downside is. While brainstorming, consider all ideas equally valid, and keep moving. This practice helps reduce inhibition in the team members, which then prompts greater quantity (see Rule #1).
Critiquing ideas takes brain power that could and should be devoted to idea generation.
Even positive reinforcement is taboo during brainstorming. If someone's idea gets lauded, what kind of pressure might that person feel to come up with another "good" idea? And how will the next person feel if their idea is not praised?
Every idea may be a great solution. It may also spark another, different idea that may be a great solution (see Rule #4). Yes, even the silliest ideas can spark better ones. Judgment is strictly forbidden, so the good and the seemingly not-so-good ideas emerge.
Once more: no evaluation! Reinforce this rule by writing everything that is said, no matter how ridiculous. A team member may say, "No, I was just kidding!" Write it anyway. The message is that there really is no such thing as a bad idea right now. Anything and everything is gladly accepted.
Rule #3: Encourage wild, outlandish ideas (nothing is too extreme ... yet).
It is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one. —Alex Osborn
Sometimes, the wilder and more outlandish the idea, the better. Sure, they may not make the cut when you do get to evaluating them, but often it's the bizarre and unworkable ideas that spark further ideas that turn out to be very doable indeed. It's easier to tame a wild idea into a valid solution than to try to boost a common idea into an original solution.
During brainstorming, no idea is too ridiculous or extreme. Raising the limits of acceptable ideas encourages team members to lower their inhibitions and generate more (see Rule #1) and better ideas. This is the rule that validates everyone's unique viewpoint and perspective.
Encourage out-of-the-box thinking. Way out of the box. Push for the exaggerated and the extreme. But in so doing, don't overlook the obvious. The plan is to keep everything a possibility for now.
Rule #4: Combine or build on ideas from others (because synergy means 1 + 1 = 3).
Most people have never learned ... that they do possess the gift of creative imagination. —Alex Osborn
Here's where the synergy of the group comes into play. Team members use each other's ideas as inspiration for more ideas. Build on them. Expand them. Combine them. Adapt them. Twist them. Add something to them. Improve them (without making mention of why the improvement, lest you violate Rule #2).
From this rule, wild ideas morph into viable, valuable solutions. How? The group assumes that every idea put forward has some merit, some truth, or some element that is useful. They seek out those nuggets of value and use them to come up with more ideas— ideas that others may yet be able to build upon even further!
This may feel like a free-for-all, and to a degree, that's a good thing. An open exchange of ideas is best. Do maintain some sense of order, though. Don't let people talk over each other, dominate the conversation, or otherwise give participants reason to pull back.
Everyone should participate in the brainstorming. For some, it's easier to adapt someone else's idea than to generate a completely original one. Remind them that it's just as valuable to the team to be able to adapt and improve other people's ideas as it is to generate the initial idea that sets off those new trains of thought in the first place.
The reason for these four rules is simple: free everyone to be as creative—in their own way—as possible!
How Is a Brainstorming Session Conducted?
Brainstorming sessions are not complex, nor are they particularly difficult. Often they are a small part of a regular staff or planning meeting. Sometimes brainstorming may be the sole purpose. Regardless, planning is essential for everyone to enjoy a successful experience. Follow these simple steps to ensure a productive brainstorming session.
Step #1: Be clear on the purpose of the session.
If you can't articulate the purpose of the session, don't have it until you can! This purpose should drive everything about the session— from the invitee list to the activities you chose to the questions you ask. Keep the purpose simple and easy to understand so that everyone can quickly engage. Remember KISSS—keep it short, simple, straightforward! For example: find a way to improve our hiring process; identify the roadblocks to better customer service; develop a marketing strategy for a new product.
This step sets everyone up for success, so be very clear before proceeding any further!
Step #2: Select your participants carefully.
Invite people who care about the purpose to participate. Don't fill the room with only similar-thinking people, though. The more diverse the group, the more creative the thinking. Consider inviting "outsiders" you wouldn't typically think to include—people with such different perspectives that their wild ideas may be just the ones that jar the rest of the group to a breakout solution.
The ideal size of a brainstorming session isn't set in stone. Certainly, you don't want so many participants that they have to fight to be heard, so it's best to stay under 15 or 20. If you have more than that, use one of the activities that will split the group into smaller teams to brainstorm, and then come back together to share your ideas with the larger group.
"Facilitator" should be your only role during brainstorming so you can focus your energy on the job of facilitating. If you must also contribute as a participant, be aware of the extra power you have as the facilitator who controls the flow of the conversation and the documentation. Take steps to not abuse that power: call out when you shift from one role to the other, so participants don't get confused; offer your ideas later, rather than earlier; and so on.
Step #3: Create your Focus Question and select the activities to use.
Use Chapter 2 to create your Focus Question—the question that launches the brainstorming session. This question sets the stage for the entire brainstorming activity, so put some time and effort into creating the best one for your group's purpose.
People react differently to brainstorming sessions. You may want to present them with the Focus Question ahead of time so those who need it will have time to collect their thoughts.
Then use later chapters in this book to determine which brainstorming activity(ies) you will use with your Focus Question.
Step #4: Gather the materials and prepare the room.
You want the environment to be conducive to creativity. Make it comfortable and relaxed. Lower the lighting so it's not so harsh; draw shades if the view is distracting. Perhaps provide some toys or interesting play objects to stimulate thinking. Be sure to have plenty of supplies for recording the session: markers, paper, tape, laptop battery power, sticky notes, etc.
Step #5: Kick off the session with an icebreaker.
Warm up the group with a quick, fun icebreaker. (You will find dozens of quick options in my book Quick Meeting Openers for Busy Managers.) This will get the creative juices flowing and warm the participants to each other. Set the mood for the upcoming brainstorming to be fun, lively, and very interactive.
Step #6: Set the context and the boundaries for a successful brainstorming session.
First, review the purpose of the session with the team (which you can articulate brilliantly, because you did your homework back in Step #1). Make sure that everyone understands and buys into the challenge ahead of them.
Next, go over the four rules of brainstorming (see Figure 1–1). Do not assume that everyone knows them. And even if they say they do, the rules bear repeating anyway. Review them together. For each rule, emphasize its purpose to reinforce its necessity. Agree upfront how you or the group should handle violations. For example, what will you (or they) do if someone starts criticizing ideas? Get verbal or visual agreement from everyone in the room to abide by the four brainstorming rules before going forward.
Many facilitators set a time limit for the brainstorming session. This time pressure may add to the frantic pace in a good way. It may also be too much stress for the participants. Use your knowledge of the group to determine if a time limit would work or not.
Step #7: Set up the activity and ask the Focus Question.
If you are using an activity from this book, follow those instructions to get going. Then use your Focus Question to get the participants contributing. It should be succinct, specific, and targeted. See Chapter 2 for details of how to frame your question so it promotes the greatest response from your participants.
Step #8: Keep the session moving.
This step involves three actions that will ensure the session remains lively and engaging. First, record every idea offered. More on this in Chapter 3.
Second, keep the energy high and the ideas flowing. More on this in Chapter 2.
And finally, reinforce adherence to the rules of brainstorming outlined above. Nothing shuts down a session quicker than unchecked violations of these basic rules.
Brainstorming can be taxing work, though. If the task is large, break up the session into shorter periods of time so you don't burn the group out. Never go more than 15–20 minutes without changing course a bit or taking a break. Breaks can be a short 60-second stretch break, or a moment of silence to rejuvenate. Take your clues on when to break from the energy of the group.
Step #9: Process the list(s) as appropriate.
There's no point brainstorming a list of ideas if nothing is to be done with the list. Typically the next step is to categorize the list, prioritize it, or otherwise analyze it. Use the activities in Chapters 6 and 7 to accomplish this now, or plan for such actions to be done at a later date.
Step #10: Agree on next steps.
Wrap up the session by agreeing what the next steps will be. This includes how the ideas will be documented and when and with whom they will be shared. And finally, thank the group for their participation.
What Could Go Wrong?
Brainstorming sessions tend to be pretty straightforward, productive, and fun. But they aren't without minor hazards. Here are five of the most common pitfalls with some suggestions of how to handle them.
Pitfall #1: People are reluctant to fully participate.
This occurs if the environment feels threatening to them.
* Reinforce the basic rules of brainstorming, especially the prohibition on evaluation and criticism.
* Stop any criticism in the group—not just verbal comments (including groans and sighs), but facial expressions (rolling of eyes) and body language, too.
* Use an activity that splits the group into smaller teams so participants feel safer.
* Change the activity, perhaps using one where participants write (anonymously) their ideas first.
* Consider removing offending participants, or speaking to them during a break.
* Ask the group how the session could be improved.
* Check your own reactions: are you subtly critiquing (including positive rewards) their ideas, and thus contributing to the problem?
Pitfall #2: The same ideas are repeated over and over.
This may happen when a spectacular idea was given and the participants can't seem to get off it. Or, people are just worn out and have nothing left to give.
* Make sure the idea has been recorded adequately; remind them that it has already been captured.
* Change the activity, perhaps using a different one from Chapter 5 to redirect their creative juices.
* Take a stretch break or even a full time-out break (if the group seems tired).
* Have them change seats or otherwise shake up the environment to rejuvenate them.
Pitfall #3: They seem to struggle too much for new ideas; too much silence.
Periods of silence (while they think) are expected, but sometimes your participants will just get stuck.
* Change the activity to get their creativity going again.
* Do an icebreaker to help lower inhibitions and/or jump-start the group.
* Take a stretch break or even a full time-out break (if the group seems tired).
Excerpted from QUICK BRAINSTORMING ACTIVITIES FOR BUSY MANAGERS by Brian Cole Miller Copyright © 2012 by Brian Cole Miller. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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