Friday, May 11, 2007

Improve your brainstorming technique

Brainstorming is an well known method of ideation. It is often used to generate creative ideas in problem solving or to develop new products or services. Though the technique existed for several centuries, the term "brainstorming" was coined by Alex Osborn in 1930’s. Today brainstorming is widely used all over the world to generate a large number of ideas within a short period of time.

Given its wide popularity and wide spread usage, most brainstorming sessions are not really used to its full potential; mainly because of the following reasons:

  1. Wrong person running the brainstorming session
    Not all people have the required skills to run a brainstorming session. The person who runs the session must have: the ability to elicit ideas from the participants, the ability to guide the group to focus on the issue at hand, and must have the stature & respect of the group. If the person does not have the required abilities, the session may lose track and result in a wasted session.

  2. Lack of focus during the session

    In a group setting, it is very likely for the discussion to digress into other areas and lose focus on the main problem. The energy in the room and the heated discussion on a wrong topic is still a wasted effort. The session must have a prime reason - and every participant must focus on the main topic.

  3. Failure to establish rules for the session

    Every brainstorming session must have some ground rules. These rules are discussed later in this article. The onus for establishing the rules is on the person running the session. The rules must be established at the very beginning of the session.

  4. The room chosen for the session is inadequate

    Brainstorming requires fairly a large room to capture and display all ideas. Use of white boards, flipcharts, gaint post-it notes etc., is essential during a brainstorming session to capture and display all the ideas generated. The room should be large enough for all the participants to see other’s ideas. If the brainstorming session was to help improve a product, then it help to have the product or its mock model of the product in the room. For example while brainstorming for a marketing plan for a perfume, the session was greatly benefited by having the perfume, the competing product & associated marketing messages of the competitive products in the room.

  5. Not all the right persons are present

    For a successful brainstorming session, people who have knowledge in that area must be present. People who are present in the session must be creative individuals and must have intimate knowledge about the issue on which this session is being held. Having the righ people in the session is the key for a successful session.

Basic rules of Brainstorming

Every activity should have some rules to channel the energies in a particular direction. I agree that in a creative world, following rules is often seen as way to destroy creativity - but one must still follow the rules when needed and also know when to break the rules. In general the rules to follow for a successful brainstorming session are:

  1. Go for quantity

    More ideas the better. Encourage all participants to propose as many ideas as possbile. Do not limit the number of ideas being presented.

  2. Encourage wild ideas

    There should be no limits on the ideas, encourage all ideas irrespecitve of its feasibility. It has been found that the wild ideas often has its roots in a practical day-to-day issues and other participants can build on such wild ideas
  3. Be visual

    Demonstrate the idea if possible instead of describing it in words. Drawing an idea on the board or making a visual prototype or illustration is worth the efforts - as the saying goes "A picture is worth thousand words" Creative individuals often tend to think visually and can associate themselves with an visual rather than a verbal description.

  4. Defer judgement

    There are no bad ideas or good ideas in a brainstorming session. Participants must not make comments or judgements on the ideas being presented. Creative ideas are like new borm babies, it needs protection from initial judgement. Ideas need protection and nourishment to become a strong force later.

  5. One conversation at a time

    Having more than one conversation at a time is the surest way to waste time & resources in a meeting. Brainstorming session is no different. All participants must maintain their focus on the task and refrain from engaging in other activities during the session.

  6. Build on other people’s ideas

    Participants must be encouraged to build on other people’s ideas. Moderator must ensure that participants do not feel that their ideas are being plagiarized when other members build on their idea. The key here is to set an environment where one feels free to copy from other person’s idea in a brainstorming session.

These rules are ment to be followed and broken as and when required. The moderator should know when to enforce the rules and when to have exceptions and break the rules.

Seven steps for effective brainstorming

Brainstorming has become so wide spread that people have almost made it a standardized process. In the book "The Ten Faces of Innovation", the author Tom Kelly writes about seven steps for effective brainstorming. Tom is a General Manager at IDEO - a design firm that has developed several hundreds of innovative products. BusinessWeek rates IDEO as one of the top innovative firms in the world. ( I would recommend reading his book if you are interested in knowing about innovation)

  1. Sharpen your focus

    Brainstorming session to solve a particular problem must have the problem statement well defined. A vaguely defined problem statement or a vague objective will lead the participants to stray and waste time & energy during the session.
  2. Mind the playground rules

    Participants should be aware of the ground rules for that session. Participants must also know that they are expected to follow the rules and they can break the rules only when there is a strong reason to do so.

  3. Number your ideas

    This is a simple step, but often not practiced. When capturing the ideas on a board or on paper, number the ideas instead of using bullet points. This helps the participants to quote an idea - "The idea/suggestion No.6 can be improved by ....." This helps in better documentation and aids in better facilitation of the process.

  4. Jump & build

    Participants should take an active role during the session. Participants must be encouraged to draw/sketch their ideas or even build a crude model from the available materials (pens, pencils, paper, tape, pins, clips, wires etc.) This visual display will encourage more ideas from participants and lead to greater number of ideas

  5. Remember to use the space

    If the session is held in a fairly large room, use all the space available to display all the ideas - either on boards, flip charts, paper models etc.

  6. Stretch First

    Brainstorming is a mental exercise. Just like athletes stretch before the game/race, participants should also do the same. Some participants like to stretch out their bodies, draw deep breaths, first. I would recommend that participants do some homework the night before the meeting and come prepared for the session. In addition, it will be very useful if the moderator can start off the session with a simple mind stretching exercise. I would recommend doing an exercise of random word analogy or forced comparison etc., among all the participants before starting the session.

  7. Get Physical

    Having some physical activity during the session is very important. It has been observed that participants who have some physical activity often generate more ideas in the session than the people who are confined to the chairs. Some physical activity encourages people to think better - I call it "Thinking on the foot".

Use multiple tools

Brainstorming technique can further be improved upon by utilizing it with other creative tools. Brainstorming is best when it is used to generate ideas, but the process can be improved upon when brain storming is combined with other creative tools such as:

  • Multi-voting
  • Lotus Blossom
  • Six Thinking Hats®
  • Lateral Thinking ®
I will write more about these tools later in this blog. These tools are used to refine the ideas generated during the brainstorming session and it helps to select the ones for implementation.

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