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Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Brainstorming is a popular tool that helps you generate creative solutions to a problem.

It is particularly useful when you want to break out of stale, established patterns of thinking, so that you can develop new ways of looking at things. It also helps you overcome many of the issues that can make group problem-solving a sterile and unsatisfactory process.

A brainstorming session requires a facilitator, a brainstorming space and something on which to write ideas, such as a white-board a flip chart or software tool. The facilitator's responsibilities include guiding the session, encouraging participation and writing ideas down.

Brainstorming works best with a varied group of people. Participants should come from various departments across the organization and have different backgrounds. Even in specialist areas, outsiders can bring fresh ideas that can inspire the experts.

There are numerous approaches to brainstorming, but the traditional approach is generally the most effective because it is the most energetic and openly collaborative, allowing participants to build on each others' ideas.

Step by Step Guide

1. Review the rules of brainstorming with the entire group:
         No criticism, no evaluation, no discussion of ideas.
         There are no stupid ideas. The wilder the better.
         All ideas are recorded.
         Piggybacking is encouraged: combining, modifying,
         expanding others’ ideas.

2. Review the topic or problem to be discussed. Often it is best phrased as a “why,” “how,” or “what” question. Make sure everyone understands the subject of the brainstorm.

3. Allow a minute or two of silence for everyone to think about the question.

4. Invite people to call out their ideas. Record all ideas, in words as close as possible to those used by the contributor. No discussion or evaluation of any kind is permitted.

5. Continue to generate and record ideas until several minutes’ silence produces no more.

Things to Consider

• Judgment and creativity are two functions that cannot occur simultaneously. That’s the reason for the rules about no criticism and no evaluation.

• Laughter and groans are criticism. When there is criticism, people begin to evaluate their ideas before stating them. Fewer ideas are generated and creative ideas are lost.

• Evaluation includes positive comments such as “Great idea!” That implies that another idea that did not receive praise was mediocre.

• The more the better. Studies have shown that there is a direct relationship between the total number of ideas and the number of good, creative ideas.

• The crazier the better. Be unconventional in your thinking. Don’t hold back any ideas. Crazy ideas are creative. They often come from a different perspective.

• Crazy ideas often lead to wonderful, unique solutions, through modification or by sparking someone else’s imagination.

• Hitchhike. Piggyback. Build on someone else’s idea.

• When brainstorming with a large group, someone other than the facilitator should be the recorder. The facilitator should act as a buffer between the group and the recorder(s), keeping the flow of ideas going and ensuring that no ideas get lost before being recorded.

• The recorder should try not to rephrase ideas. If an idea is not clear, ask for a rephrasing that everyone can understand. If the idea is too long to record, work with the person who suggested the idea to come up with a concise rephrasing. The person suggesting the idea must always approve what is recorded.

• Keep all ideas visible. When ideas overflow to additional flipchart pages, post previous pages around the room so all ideas are still visible to everyone.

Evaluating Ideas

There are a number of decision-making tools for evaluating your ideas. One I prefer is the effort-impact grid for looking at the cost and benefit. Each idea is placed in one of the quadrants shown below, based on group assessment of the impact and effort required to implement the idea.

• Ideas placed in quadrant 1 are easy and cheap but produce minimal benefit. They are appropriate when they can be included in annual plans or address existing problems.

• Ideas placed in quadrant 2 are easy and cheap and produce significant benefit. They are easy to implement quickly.

• Ideas placed in quadrant 3 are difficult and expensive and produce minimal benefit. Ideas from this quadrant should generally be discarded.

• Ideas placed in quadrant 4 are difficult and expensive but will result in significant benefit. If these ideas are considered, appropriate time and resources should be made available for their exploration.

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  1. Tim,

    Great post. You have a lot of valuable points here that would improve brainstorming sessions in a lot of plants. The quadrant is a great idea too. One method I've used is to have everyone write their ideas on post-it notes. That helps reduce the groans and other judgement before the ideas get on the table. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Hey Tim,

    I would add, with brainstorming, it is the facilitator's role to 'prime the pump' with wild and crazy ideas somewhere around steps 3/4. Without the 'out there' ideas, the group usually does not give itself overt permission to go down that weird and wonderful path. The facilitator sets the boundaries and in brainstorming you have to stretch them even beyond the absurd. When brainstorming what to do one coming weekend, the facilitator can suggest a trip to Disneyland (kinda out there), trip to Pago Pago (farther out there) or a ride on the Space Shuttle (yeah, that's out there) and see what reaction s/he gets. That is the point to indicate...'no judging, no stiffling'. The strangest ideas may wean to a logical option.