Better Brainstorming and how to achieve it

Last month I wrote about stage 1 of the creative problem solving process (CPS). Today’s post is about the second stage, exploring options to resolve the problem.

The first part of this stage 2 is to open up to all possible approaches to resolving the problem. There are many techniques which you can use to do this, and a lot of them are based upon brainstorming.

Brainstorming is something that is much abused and  I want to share with you ways in which you can improve it.

Brainstorming

Let’s start with your experience. I am certain that you will have experienced that time when someone has suggested that you all brainstorm a topic. It might be, for example, ideas for the next marketing campaign, or ways of handling customer feedback.

So, it goes something like this –‘lets brainstorm’ -then you all get together and throw a few ideas out. One of the ideas gets picked up and a discussion follows. During this process you may not have noticed that one of the more introverted members of the team is very quiet. At the end of the 15 minutes allocated, you have a direction to move on, however is it the best? and have all members of the team felt that they have been heard? I would bet that the answer is no these questions.

How can we improve the brainstorming experience?

Brainstorming requires rules in order that it works at its best.

These are rules based upon those identified by Alex Osborn in the 1940ties and are invaluable as guidelines for any divergent techniques.

    • Defer judgement– that is do not criticize or even comment on ideas as they are proposed. Any attempt at this stage in the Problem-solving process will end the free thinking need to come up with unique ideas. The time for judgement will be in the convergent phases.
    • Quantity breeds quality -The more ideas generated, the more likelihood of a great idea emerging
    • The wilder the better -by allowing brainstorming to continue and encouraging wild ideas to emerge, then there is more possibility of that breakthrough thinking. Wild ideas can often be used as springboard to something else.
    • Combine and improve ideas – build upon what others have already noted. Not all ideas generated need to be original, so use ideas already expressed to generate more ideas.
  • Take a break from the problem –The process needs time and it is important to allow this. Take breaks and change the type of brainstorming throughout the process. Allow up to 30-40 minutes.

Preparation for brainstorming

Before starting, re-state the rules, gain everyone’s agreement and ensure that participants have materials, pens, post-its, flipchart paper of boards to write ideas on. Post-its are a great resource because they can be more easily sorted and clustered once the process has finished.

It helps to do a warm -up first, for example, how many uses can you find for a brick, is a classic warm-up. There are many others and the more amusing ones are the better ones as they allow participants to relax and start to have fun.

Present a clear problem statement. It helps to have this phased as a ‘how to’. For example – ‘how do we improve customer sales in Europe’, or ‘how do we reduce our attrition rate’.

There are a number of varieties of brainstorming and it is useful to vary them in any brainstorming process

Classical brainstorming is a process whereby each person gives an idea in turn and these are noted on a board/flipchart etc. Continue with enough rounds to start generating ideas other than the normal ones that always emerge. The aim is to encourage wilder ideas that can then be used to break out of habitual thinking.

Classical brainstorming favours extraverts, and an alternative approach would be to do silent brainstorming.

In Silent brainstorming allow each person a number of post-its and encourage them to write one idea on each, and post these on the board. There is no discussion of sharing during the process.

Taking a break and random objects

When ideas start to dry up, take a break, encourage participants to go for a short walk, and come back with a random object they have found. When they are back ask them to present this object and then brainstorm how this object is like the problem.

Negative brainstorming /Reversal

This is my favourite! The aim here is to consider ideas that have not already come up, by taking a reversal of the situation. This form of brainstorming creates a lot of laughter once participants get into it and can generate more ideas.

  • Firstly brainstorm ‘How not to solve the problem’ – e.g. how to make sure we reduce sales or increase attrition rates. Post up all the ideas generated.
  • Once the ideas have started to slow down, cluster the ideas into similar ones and then find an idea to reverse this idea. For example, a cluster might include ‘Don’t tell anyone’; ‘Only tell the bosses’. The reverse each cluster to give a single positive idea, g. ‘Brief everyone early on.’

Collating ideas

Finally, when you feel that you have exhausted the brainstorming phase, collate, sort and evaluate the ideas generated in any suitable way, providing the original participants with copies of the results. One easy way of doing this is to put ideas on post-its which can be collected together and sorted into categories. It is very useful to have the team who were doing the brainstorming carry out this process, giving them a sense of ownership.

One of the dangers at this stage is to close down too quickly and discard any of the wilder ideas. The value in opening up and brainstorming is to encourage ideas that may not have been already been considered.

Closing down

The final part of stage 2 is to close down by selecting ideas which can be followed through and developed into an action plan.

I will write more about this in my next blog post.

PS. As I have a concern for the environment, and I love to use post-its I have checked our the sustainability of the post-it.  They are now made from recycled material and can be recycled. Check it out here. 

Barbara is an executive coach, leadership and creativity facilitator. She has coached women and men in a variety of corporate settings, and has developed a unique approach to using creative techniques in her coaching and workshops to enable change at a group or individual level. She has recently co-authored a book on creativity for leaders, called Creativity Cycling , with Dr. Tracy Stanley. which covers the process of CPS and techniques that can help challenge assumptions.

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