Brainstorming 101: A Primer

brainstorming Jul 17, 2018

A primer on how to brainstorming might seem as necessary as a primer on how to scratch an itch. How can you NOT know how to do it? It’s intuitive. Everyone knows how to do it, right? After all, we are constantly brainstorming…what to have for dinner, where to take the kids on their day off, which shirt goes with those pants, and so on.

However, when it comes to business, brainstorming often works best when rules are engaged and a framework is used.

The goal of brainstorming is to come up with solutions to a specific question, problem, or issue. It can be done alone or in groups. There are a myriad of techniques and tools that can be used.

The Rules

Visualizing a brainstorming session conjures up images of people sitting around a table, free-associating and tossing out ideas, while someone frantically writes down words on a large pad at the front of the room. In fact, you do not need a large group of people (although, depending on the problem, that could help), and you do not need to follow any set protocols. Indeed, there are only two rules that should apply to brainstorming:

  • Rule #1: Anything goes.
  • Rule #2: See Rule #1.

Or as Thomas Edison famously noted, “Hell! There ain’t no rules around here! We are tryin’ to accomplish somep’n!”

That means that there are no parameters, no “stupid” ideas. A non-viable idea could very well trigger a viable one.

The Process

However, no rules does not mean no process. And for a successful brainstorming session, you need to have a basic framework.

  1. Know the problem you are trying to solve or the question you want answered. Write it down. Keep it visible.

  2. When working in groups, limit the group size. Smaller groups mean that everyone will have an opportunity to participate. Five to seven people tend to be most productive. If the group is larger, only the most vocal are likely to share, so break it down into smaller groups.

  3. Make a point to give all members of the group have an opportunity to share. When someone is not sharing, the facilitator should offer the floor to the quiet folks so that they don’t have to compete.

  4. If this task is assigned to several people, make sure they are from different disciplines and, if possible, different backgrounds. Too much similarity, and groups are prone to groupthink which not only stifles creativity, but can also lead to unwanted consequences. President Kennedy recognized groupthink among his cabinet as a key factor for the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Thereafter, he assigned his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the task of playing devil’s advocate whenever the cabinet reached consensus on an issue.

  5. Figure out which techniques work best for you and/or your group. You are not required to stick to only one. (Remember Edison!)

  6. Set a time limit for yourself for your initial session, say 20-30 minutes. And I mean, actually set a timer. If you’re on a roll, you can ignore the alarm and keep going. However, you do not want to get frustrated in the process. The initial goal is to clarify the question.

  7. Once you are done your session, set your brainstorming aside, but keep it accessible. If this was a group activity, someone should make copies of the notes for group members. You will find that when you are doing something else, ideas will unexpectedly pop up. When this happens, write them down immediately!! When Albert Einstein was working on a problem that was particularly vexing and he couldn’t make any headway on it, he’d go sailing. Inevitably, an elegant solution would come forth during this down-time.

  8. Get feedback. If you are in a group and you each did the initial brainstorming solo, come together to explore the ideas that came out of your individual sessions. If you are doing this alone, then reach out to others for feedback.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash


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