Brainstorming is everybody’s business – A practical guide to realize your streak of brilliance

Brainstorming Cups
The brainstorming cups. There has been a lot of research done on the efficacy of brainstorming and how it needs to be conducted in the recent years. I think it is one of the fundamental social aspects of information, both inside and outside workplaces and in the coffee shops of the world. It is ingrained in our popular culture. I drew the above sketch using Artflow. It is available on Android.

The conference room was buzzing with activity. It was the monthly idea generation meeting for gathering ideas and identifying the promising ones for the company wide cost reduction program. The program was gathering steam and the pressure was looming with approaching deadlines. Everyone is expected to contribute. Importantly, the idea generation and the subsequent project delivery activities are bundled into their performance objectives.

This is a typical scenario in many of the offices of the large global corporate companies and even smaller companies. Some of us can relate to this scenario. A colleague at some point, a fellow operations manager retorted ‘How do we expect us to be so creative in generating promising ideas with tight deadlines, my team is spent’

Many of us would contend with this typical scene and would have participated or facilitated it as leaders. Readers, we are talking about a ubiquitous process called ‘brainstorming’. A process that gets unfolded day in and day out in countless conference rooms, meeting halls, workshops and sometimes even virtually across the globe with a diverse group of people across different cultures participating in it.

I think the conference rooms around the world would die, lack lustre without them.

Brainstorming, as a social exchange of information is an age-old process. The mutual sharing of discoveries, knowledge and making connections is a prerequisite for our evolution.

This social exchange of information and a spontaneous contribution of ideas whether creative or not had existed even in historical times between the King and his council of ministers and in other places of congregation. In modern times, just like other social science terms it has taken the garb of ‘brainstorming’, a term used in modern workplaces. Thanks to Alex Faickney Osborn who first coined the word in 1953 along with a set of practices and principles.

We find vivid pictures of brainstorming in all forms in our popular culture. From the talk sessions that happen in the grand dining hall with floating candles in the Harry Potter series, to the ‘anything can happen over coffee’ coffee shops and tea shops around the world, we as people, whether strangers or not, unconsciously indulge in brainstorming. We are hard-wired to do it and it is ingrained in our popular culture.

It is not chaos nor it is madness but there is a method and rhythm to it. We will discuss it. There is an occasional ‘brilliance’ and other times it turns out to be a damp squib.

Nonetheless, we all embrace it affectionately as brainstorming. Literally, brainstorming does not mean to ‘storm the brain’. It is far from it. It seeks a certain harmony and rhythm. On the contrary, when you rest your brain, you perform better.

Being one of the most important ‘Social aspects of information’, there are criticisms as well as improvisations.

Most of the criticisms on brainstorming stems from the idea of looking at it as a standalone idea factory for churning out ideas on demand. Brainstorming is a holistic activity intended to deliver path-breaking results over a sustained period. It is high time that we looked at the process and not the problem.

There has been a lot of research done around the world on brainstorming since it was first popularized in 1953.

Researchers have done many experiments and written research papers and books on the efficacy of brainstorming. Some have prescribed better techniques and solutions. I have tried my best to include most of them in this guide.

I have also included some best practices from world-class companies as well as my own experiences of brainstorming on the job.

In this guide, we will explore and look at the following,

Content areas

What is Brain storming?
The challenges
The building blocks or good habits
Techniques and approaches – Keep it simple
Steps and checklist
An example technique for introverts and extroverts alike
Evaluation, selection and closure

You can return to the main content areas by clicking on the link at the end of each section.

Note: I have cited and referenced the content through inline links placed at appropriate places through out the content. In my opinion, it is one of the fundamental essence of the WWW.

What is brainstorming?

Brainstorming is a process of generating ideas as a group for problem solving.

By far, this has been the standard definition, but brainstorming also includes the process of successive iteration of ideas leading to insight and there by leading to innovation. By the way, the ideas need not be necessarily creative. All ideas are good and brilliant.

Successive iteration of ideas requires us to collaborate effectively with others and it happens over a period.

Successive iteration as a process allows us to see problems, generated ideas, and hunches in new light and gives a chance to look at it from others perspective as well.

The process of iteration refines the ideas further and brings them to a state where they are production ready. This entire back and forth flow of ideas, thoughts, discoveries and sharing is what makes ‘brainstorming’ a compelling case for everybody to participate and use it.

Alex Faickney Osborn popularized the idea in his 1953 book, ‘Applied imagination’. Individuals not able to generate ideas on their own apparently frustrated Osborn in those days. He had been working on the creative problem solving methods since 1939 and eventually came up with the idea of group ‘Brainstorming’.

Whether Osborn had come up with an idea on his own as an individual or had worked with others as a group is not known. That would be an interesting point to make.

Since 1953, there were several criticisms on his techniques for brainstorming. More recently, the one published in research gate shows that brainstorming groups do not necessarily generate more ideas, as much as individuals generate on their own.

The research finding points to the fact that individuals need to find enough space on their own to understand the problems and reflect before they sit for a brainstorming session. We will discuss this in the next section.

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Challenges to Brainstorming

The challenges and constraints to brainstorming are something that we encounter it as a process. Some are specific to certain individual traits and others are group oriented.

1. I am not just made for ideas

Firstly, I think this need to be stated. For many people around the world, brainstorming is a painstaking process.

We might have seen or experienced ourselves that either they remain silent in brainstorming meetings or they just mumble to themselves on their inability to rise up to the occasion. They just sit for long hours and wish that this ordeal would end soon.

People definitely want some lead-time to come up with creative ideas. This lead-time is rapidly decreasing and everybody wants new ideas in a moment and on demand. It is a mental process.

Information with respect to the background, history, challenges needs to be absorbed and processed and then coming up with creative ideas is altogether a different matter.

2. I am creative as an individual do we need group brainstorming at all

This stems from the fact of not being able to understand the true merits of brainstorming. Sometimes there are the challenges of falling into the perils of group think and group philosophies.

There are many criticisms circulating in leading business journals and magazines around the world.

3. The Quantity vs. Quality question

Many a times, brainstorming participants are disappointed that the amount of time they have spent gathering a huge list of ideas has gone lost in the organizational quagmire.

Their efforts have not fetched results. Sometimes there is a question, whether the ideas generated are relevant or not. The focus on ‘quantity’ has generated too many options, which may not meet the identified needs.

Not all participants’ ideas are taken up even though they are considered as valuable. There is no mechanism for reusing old unused ideas.

4. The need for closure and the brainstorming participants are not in the loop.

The initial brainstorming participants are not in the loop until the very end. Sometimes, they are not part of the idea implementation and execution plan and no action items assigned to them.

Often, many brainstorming sessions even after generating a huge list of ideas do not see the light of a proper closure leave alone the idea selection phase.
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The building blocks or good habits for brainstorming activities

It is important to be in touch with our natural human behavior and find the rhythm. We need to recognize the bonds that bind us and be more coherent.

An attitude of being open

Having an attitude of being open and to learn something however unsettling the shared knowledge, ideas or discoveries might be helps us to understand and respect others. Further, it gives us the clarity to project our own ideas.

There are always stressful situations and minefields during our interaction with others and specifically during brainstorming sessions. Sometimes we are hardwired to react to responses which are more rapid. We need to be open and accommodate others responses rather than being defensive. Cultivating an open mind and being aware of our own feelings, mental tendencies and skills are of utmost importance.

Creating a shared meaning, defining problem upfront, cooperation, commitment to a solution and listening are some of the essential skills that we need to habituate ourselves as participants and facilitators of brainstorming sessions.

The dichotomy of creativity – being an individual and being part of a group

Creativity best strikes when the mind is calm. Brainstorming is a creative process where you come up with newer ideas. How can anybody be creative? So what helps us foster creative thinking?

What makes one creative and others not, is a question that remained elusive for so many years. Researchers have come to known that it is not about an individual’s characteristics but there is something more.

It is the individual’s intrinsic motivation to excel in his or her career and leave a ‘mark in this world’ or ‘leave a dent in this universe’ that makes him creative. According to Otto, the author of ‘Art and Artist’ there is a drive to be unique and prove our work to the world. This uniqueness drives people into the path of creativity.

Another opposing force, which binds us all, is our need to belong to a group. We are after all social animals. We like the company of others and share our ideas and discoveries. We like the safety and companionship of the groups. We enjoy the similarities and common elements.

However, at the same time our individuality and dissimilarities within the group drives us to think differently and uniquely and which in turn promotes creativity.

A dichotomy of opposing forces and a contradiction of human behavior that we need to deal with.

This individual and group behavior dynamic comes to play distinctly in brainstorming sessions. Many experts recognize this contradiction.

Ethnographic research says that this distinction of individuality and group behavior is quite evident in individualistic and collectivist cultures across the world.

This does not mean to say that the brainstorming sessions is inherently quite different in United states which is primarily an individualist culture to that of the other Asian cultures, like India and China which are more collectivist by nature.

From my own experience, what I understand is that there is a common thread that runs across our world’s cultural fabric, which seamlessly connects us to our natural human behavior.

We find as individuals our own rhythm for collaboration in our work practices. We discuss ideas, share discoveries, poke jokes with each other, and yet find our space for solitary work.

We find people across all cultures exhibit this social behavior in coffee shops, bars, canteens, and in the public spaces of the world.

The crux is the same pattern of participant and facilitator behavior needs to be inculcated in a brainstorming session as well.

People need to find space to reflect upon their thinking, to understand the problem at hand for some time. Then they can regroup to share their ideas and discoveries.

This gives an opportunity to look at the problem from another pair of eyes. This also gives a chance to build on others ideas as well for further insight and successive iteration of ideas, which is so important for problem solving.

I think this behavior is critical to make brainstorming sessions a success.

Group Coherence

Strong coherence develops among brainstorming groups when there is good level of interpersonal attraction, teamwork and belonging among the participants. Such close bonds among members of the groups can be a good sign towards consensus decision making for idea evaluation and selection at the end of the brainstorming process.

Have space and then regroup

Several studies have proved and demonstrated that when individuals come together to solve a problem, their minds starts thinking similarly.

It affects the memory of everyone in the group. However, if they spend some time alone and find some quite space to reflect, they would come up with better ideas and alternatives. Once they do this and they can regroup and brainstorm, offer their ideas and alternatives.

They can then select the best possible alternative and outcome.

Some practices from world class companies

At Pixar, creativity and creative groups are at the heart of the company.

You can read our blog post 6 lessons for nurturing creativity from Pixar’.

At Pixar, empowering the creative teams runs high. They cultivate a sense of ownership among team members. They have formed a mastermind network among the senior directors of the company called the ‘Brain trust’.

In an environment of respect and trust, the directors have open discussions and conduct brainstorming sessions. It is an opportunity for the group members to fix problems and seek solutions while there is still time to correct and solve problems before it is too late.

At IDEO, employees use the concept of ‘Tech boxes’. Each employee owns a Tech box. The employees collect interesting items, materials, titbits and any items of importance in their Tech box. During the weekly brainstorming sessions, the employees discuss new items or additions in their Tech box.

This is a good way for them to discuss it with their colleagues and it serves as a reminder for them to look at their old stuff from a fresh perspective. They can take up ideas offered by others as well. This exercise also enables other team members to reuse and unused old ideas, which has been gathering dust for so long.

You can also read our blog post on ‘Collaboration of ideas through knowledge brokering’.

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Brainstorming techniques – Keep it simple

It is essential to know and understand ‘how our existing teams work and collaborate’ before choosing the right brainstorming method. This has a bearing on it. Usually, during the actual brainstorming sessions there is a good degree of overlapping of approaches.

Depending on how the group moves and behaves, it is advisable for the facilitator to be flexible. We need to remember that the result is to have a chunk of meaningful and insightful ideas to pursue and importantly, it needs to be a joyful experience for everyone.

I do not want to overwhelm with many methods and techniques. Just keeping it simple is the best way forward. I have used the same traditional names. You can find them below.

Freewheeling method

A traditional approach where everyone comes up with ideas and puts it on the table as they think of them. A flip chart can be used to write down all the ideas. The method is quite quick and may not be that inclusive of everybody’s thoughts.

Nominal group technique

This approach cultivates a broader involvement of the participants and encourages everyone to participate.

Participants spend few minutes silently writing down their thoughts and ideas. Then they offer their ideas or pass them when their turn comes. The approach is flexible as it gives some time for participants to settle down and contribute. The process of offering ideas continues until everyone has done it or passes it.

Larger groups can be split into smaller groups and the groups can take turns to offer their ideas.

A variation,

Use sketching

Participants can draw what they feel and think instead of writing it down. Scientifically, a large part of the brain is involved in visual processing. Therefore, when we draw pictures and when we start interpreting those pictures, a large part of the brain is involved for idea generation.

Sketches are useful when there are situations that you cannot express by words alone.

A combination of sketches and words to tell readers what it is and can help interpreters and facilitators wonderfully.

Affinity charting

This technique helps when we have a diverse, a complex set of ideas, and we want to make them more manageable. I have seen this technique, more often in corporate conference rooms where participants from diverse business units join the sessions. There are diverse set of perspectives from participants who have direct experiences on the job.

The participants usually submit their ideas on post-it notes and these are stuck on the board for everybody to see.

As the facilitator collects them, he or she categorizes them based on subject wise buckets or clusters. This enables to study the ideas from different perspectives and see how they fit in and whether integration is possible among the various buckets.

As a special note, the participants can choose to remain anonymous and they need not enter their names on the post-it notes.

Virtual brainstorming

The above methods can be followed through video conferencing and telephone conference calls as well. The facilitator can coordinate with the participants and teams sitting remotely across the world. Nevertheless, nothing can replace a face-to-face brainstorming session.

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Brainstorming Steps

  1. Invite participants for the brainstorming session. Gather and invite participants from diverse backgrounds, different disciplines, and functions.
  2. As a facilitator or a leader, distribute a brief description of the problem, the background, and history and challenges at least 3-4 days in advance to the brainstorming session.
  3. A clear description of the problem is vital as it helps participants to have clarity and helps them to focus on the problem at hand. A good prior preparation from the facilitator is necessary along with the booking of the conference room in advance.
  4. Conduct the brainstorming session by following any of the methods or a combination of them outlined and discussed.
  5. Gather as many ideas as possible and keep the ideas within the subject.
  6. All ideas are acceptable. There is no right or wrong idea and do not attach names at this point.
  7. Make a list of those ideas.
  8. Make a set of action items for implementation or for further discussions. Assign roles and responsibilities.
  9. Send a ‘minutes of the meeting’ for all the involved stakeholders and participants with clear action items.
  10. Formally arrange a follow up brainstorming session purely for idea evaluation and selection of the most effective and promising ones.

Check list for a brainstorming session

The following checklist takes into account, Osborn’s initial 4 rules on brainstorming for idea generation and overall creativity.

  1. Make sure that we address the interests of all the stakeholders and what we can implement together as a group.
  2. Look at different ways we can address the problem and take into account the stakeholders greatest concern.
  3. Nobody criticizes others ideas. All ideas are accepted, however unusual it might be. All ideas are brilliant. This allows members of the group to contribute to ideas without inhibition.
  4. Go for quantity. The greater number of ideas generated has a greater chance for some of them to effective and promising.
  5. Successive iteration is necessary to combine ideas and to look at it from a newer angle.
  6. It is necessary to have a brainstorming group, which is as diverse as possible.
  7. Keep the desired goal in mind and resolve the group’s tension with respect to the current reality and concern on ‘How do we get there’.
  8. Understand what will work and will not work and challenge the existing assumptions.
  9. Take and honor calculated risks.
  10. There will be no evaluations of ideas while the brainstorming session is on.
  11. Creation of new ideas is a respected and devoted exercise.
  12. Decision on new ideas will be taken up in another session.
  13. Respect ‘group work’ and ‘individual work’ both needs to go hand in hand.

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Need to define problems clearly
Need to define problems clearly
What are the Characteristics of a good problem definition?

It should be short and not more than 30 words. Posing a question serves the purpose well for example, what can we do about ? It should be quantifiable, measurable, and achievable and something specific. It should focus on problems and issues. The problem should not include a cause or a solution. I drew the above sketch using Artflow. It is available on android.

An example brainstorming technique for Introverts and Extroverts alike

Creativity also requires building elasticity within the left and right parts of the brain. When you build that elasticity, participants are able to think outside the box without anxiety and are able to come up with break through solutions.

Linda Conway Corell in her book ‘Brainstorming re-invented – A corporate communications guide for ideation’ introduces a new methodology called ‘Creative aerobics” that offers some promise during the brainstorming process.

The process uses four exercises for the user to complete any given task and come up with break through ideas. It is a process driven approach for building ideas and it builds on the previous steps.

Let us look briefly at the process steps. If you want to read more, you can find the book here.

You can also read our blog post: 24 simple approaches for generating new ideas at workplace

Let us quickly at these steps through an example.

Let us suppose, as a group you are brainstorming to come up with a new title or an advertisement slogan centered on the word ‘Automobile’.

Prior preparation: Study the problem at hand and absorb the given information. Email the group in advance about the problem with all the background information.

Prepare the group and take them through the below steps and assimilate and collect as much information as possible.

If the facilitator is well prepared, the entire session can be completed in about 45 minutes to an hour without spending long winding brainstorming sessions reaching nowhere.

1st step: Ask the group to make a list of all the facts about the word ‘automobile’. Facts can include both primary information, which is your direct experience and secondary information, which is the information drawn from books or other resources.

E.g.: – 1. Pollution 2. Machine 3. Transport 4. It has wheels 5. It runs on fuel … etc. (Make about 20 to 25 words)

2nd Step: Find new names or nouns for the listed facts (Make about 20 to 25 words)

Let us take the word ‘pollution’. Names for pollution: 1. Factory 2. Contaminants 3. CO2 4. Industrial waste…etc.

3rd Step: Find similarities between dissimilar things and list down the similarities. (Take about 10 mins. to identify and list down for about two or three word groupings)

For example, the group and can list down the similarities between ‘automobile’ and ‘Industrial waste’

  1. Unused old automobile parts, if not recycled, becomes an industrial waste.

4th Step: Find 2 word phrases and create a new definition

And/or

Find a list of verbs for the original word ‘automobile’ and make a list of common phrases using the verb.

For example, 1. Rolls 2. Move…etc.

Phrase for the word ‘Rolls’: 1. A rolling stone gathers no moss 2. All rolled into one.

Step 3 and step 4 makes a move from processing logic of the left-brain and invoking the creativity and intuition of the left brain.

Finally,

link up the words formed in steps 1, 2 and 3 with the phrases. Make a meaningful mix and match.

Select the best one out of the listed phrases.

For writing or presenting additional ideas, experiment with further combinations of words and phrases. This would be more than enough to present your work and doing the final wrap up.

The same method can be used for any kind of problem solving exercise with full group participation. When the facilitators use this method, members who find it difficult to come up with ideas when challenged need not feel so any more. There is streak of brilliance in everybody.

Another technique is to introduce brain writing for introverts simultaneously on post-it notes, pin it on the board, and go for the votes.

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Evaluation, selection and proposing closure

Many a times we have seen brainstorming sessions losing direction, the ideas remain only on paper and most of them get lost in the organizational quagmire. As a facilitator and a leader, it is important that we evaluate the ideas and select the most promising ones. Keeping everyone on the same page is a challenge.

Most often, the participants in the brainstorming session are representative members of various stakeholder groups and business units.

Information reaches faster through an organizational informal network than an official email on the minutes of the meeting.

Expectations from different functional stakeholders usually run high. Satisfying the stakeholder’s core interests and securing their trust is often daunting. Reaching agreements on evaluated ideas would be easier if we were to convince them. The group would be more coherent if we are able to achieve this.

Another important skill a leader needs to have is listening. A listening ear is important to understand and see how different ‘points of view’ fit together into the overall picture.

Reaching a common ground by listening to complaints and having good working relationships with stakeholders and participants is essential to have a coherent group. Having a coherent group is important to arrive quickly at reaching an agreement and proposing closure.

Achieving coherence through consensus

It is important that we understand the dynamics of consensus. By consensus, we mean that the brainstorming group will support the idea evaluation and be selected ideas and be willingly to carry out the action items. Consensus will seek to address the interests of the stakeholders ‘acceptably’.

The word ‘acceptably’ is important, as 100 % consensus for decision-making may be difficult.

It is usually that 75% of the group will tend to accept an evaluated idea, they are usually the people who are sincere and believe in it, and the rest will just go along with the decision.

An important thing to keep in mind is that if consensus is not reached then we need to be ready for alternate fallback methods. Some of them, which we can look at, are below.

  1. Voting
  2. Status quo
  3. Senior management can decide
  4. Third party can decide
  5. Luck can also decide. For example, tossing a coin or picking a straw.

Now, delving into the various methods is beyond the scope of this blog post. We will sure cover it in our upcoming blog posts.

An implementation plan

Having a detailed plan on how the selected ideas will be implemented is an essential part of the brainstorming session. This cannot be overlooked. Then plan could be in the same way as you would draft any project management plan with a set of activities with start and end dates and assigned responsibilities.

In general, we can address the following.

  1. The order of the activities that need to be undertaken.
  2. Who should do what.
  3. The materials and resources required to carry out the tasks and activities for idea implementation.
  4. Completion timelines

A simple worksheet.

Activities with MilestonesResponsibilityResources neededTimeline completion

Monitoring and support

Let us not overlook it. A well-executed plan can sometimes go wrong. Close monitoring and mid-course correction can turn the tides. A good idea is to engage some the brainstorming participants for the monitoring process.

In general, we can address the following.

  1. What are the measures of success
  2. What are the milestones for achieving the plan
  3. Who will responsible for monitoring and evaluating the plan.
  4. Final learning including do’s and don’ts.

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Endnote:

I have researched and referenced from authority sources and added my own experiences and thought process into this content.

I have provided suitable and appropriate links to referenced sources in line with the content. These links will help the reading audience to cross-refer without jumping back and forth on the content and each link opens to a window. In my opinion, this is one of the fundamental essence of the WWW.

Happy brainstorming.

Cheers.

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Ramkumar Yaragarla

I am 43 years old. Founder, Loving dad and Husband. Worked as an IT Business analyst and program manager in several Fortune 100 companies.Alumnus at the University of Warwick, UK. I love the WWW and write on Social aspects of information, Social collaboration, Digital Sociology, Digital Humanities and Work life balance. I enjoy playing on the beach with my 9 year old daughter. I am open to your suggestions and comments.
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