How to Brainstorm 2.0

Originally published 2 Feb 2014

Brainstorming is a great way to generate new ideas. It allows a company to take a new direction, to find better study habits or determine your next outfit for that upcoming party. But what if I told you that we have been brainstorming the wrong way? Although most of us understand the basics of brainstorming, we often forget about some of the more delicate parts of the process. In this article, brainstorming will be taken apart to discuss everything from the technique and idea generation to synthesis and follow-up. The process is divided into three parts; 1) alone, 2) together and 3) synthesis. To be the most effective brainstormer is to know how it works.

Alone: Sizeable chunks to be visually solved on your own 

Thinking about how to improve the profits for a company has many aspects to it, not only revenue but also costs, customers, suppliers, etc.. The first start to brainstorming is to divide a problem (read: opportunity) into sizeable chunks. The topic of concern preferably should be divided into no less than three and no more than seven pieces. This is enough to make each piece small enough to handle whilst keeping the number of pieces also manageable. Thinking about your next party outfit could be divided into: type, colour, size, and material. How can you divide the ‘better study habits’ example?

Having made chucks it is time to start the brainstorming process. Unlike to what is normally expected, you will not be collaborating with the rest of the group (yet). Brainstorming, in essence, is a process that best works on your own. Being in a group does increase the number of ideas that are available, but at the same time has some very large drawbacks. The more extraverted (but equally smart to introverted) people take more of the available time to speak up. And ideas that you are not so sure of can get lost when you dare not to speak up. Or when you speak up your ideas will get shot down immediately, preventing you from proposing radical ideas in the future.

Thinking about a problem on your own prevents groupthink. In the initial stage of brainstorming everyone is best left to think on their own. Research has shown that this allows for more extensive generation of ideas. When you think about the number of ideas in a mathematical way, it also makes sense. When the first person in group discussion might have 10 ideas (and dares to say them all), the second probably had some similar ideas and will now maybe only name eight, the third only five, the fourth only three and the last one only one idea. This totals to 27 ideas, but when everyone is left to generate ideas on their own you will end up with 50 ideas, almost double that of the group brainstorm.

Generating ideas on your own is best assisted by using visual representations of your problem. A mindmap is the perfect tool to use for a brainstorm. Put your topic in the centre and write down every idea that comes to mind around it. In writing down your ideas feel free to write down anything that comes to mind, however realistic or not (see more tips below at idea generation). Next to using words to describe your problem, also feel free to use images to support your ideas or picture a future situation. Present in the room therefore should be markers, a3 or a2 paper and post-its (third phase). Taking your time to generate extensive mindmap allows you to optimally utilize the first step in brainstorming.

Before continuing to the idea generation phase of brainstorming, a note about your surroundings should be made. Working in a messy place does not help your productivity, things get lost and your mind will never be at ease when there is too much clutter in your immediate area. This is also true for brainstorming. The location you are at should be free of distractions, free of rumble and other things that might distract you from creative thinking. Next to having a clean and fresh place to brainstorm, it is advisable to have this place be somewhere else than your normal working environment. Finding an alternative location allows people to get free from the constraints that sometimes (or often) come with being (and thinking) in the office. What would your favourite brainstorming location be?

Brainstorming at an external location starts with mindmapping the problem on your own. This process should last about five minutes per problem and one should feel free to write down everything possible. To help you in generating ideas are the tips in the next paragraph. Only when all ideas are written down per person, per problem, you can enter the next phase of brainstorming.

Idea Generation

Ideas about your next party costume can run in various directions. These tips will help you come up with creative ideas that will boost the quantity of the brainstorm output.

  • Unlimited funds: What if you had all the money in the world? What about an outfit made out of diamonds?
  • Time travel: What will the value be in 1, 10, 100, 1000 years time? Will people still think it is something worth wearing then?
  • Teleportation: What if people in another place were facing this problem? How would someone in China think about party costumes?
  • Rolestorming: How would your customers, employees, competitors think/act/like? What would your best friends come up with?
  • Reverse thinking: What would you normally do in a situation? Think the opposite. What about wearing a female costume?
  • Exaggeration: What if it is 10, 100, 100 times as large of an idea? What if you teamed up with friends to wear complementary costumes?
  • Sense change: Per sense think about the impact of your idea. How will the costume feel/look/smell?

Sometimes ideas have to be implemented within a short amount of time, but even then feel free to take breaks. In a business brainstorm, plan it around your lunch break. When not actively thinking about a problem your mind actually does continue to process. And in this process it is still connecting dots, dots that might before have not been connected and allow you to come up with an original idea. Even this morning I was reading a book about trust, and without actively thinking about my thesis made me connect it with that topic and now has gotten me a whole new and exciting idea to write about (leadership boundary management effectiveness moderated by trust).

Together: Connecting ideas into categories and combinations

The second phase of brainstorming is where you get together. When working in large groups it is advisable to sit together with about three to four people per group. When working in smaller teams it is always useful to have at least two groups, and preferably three groups. After coming up with many ideas individually it is now time to get them together. In connecting ideas there are two steps; 1) categorization and 2) combination.

Categorization of ideas means that your group takes on the effort of making distinct categories in which ideas fall. Getting back to our costume example, under material you can categorize; synthetic, cotton, wool, etc.. During this phase it is perfectly ok to have new ideas pop up and to be categorized in the right place. Combining ideas is the second part of the connection-phase. Ideas that are similar or complementary can be added together to form combinations that incorporate multiple categories. In the ‘better study habits’ example can you think of categories and meaningful combinations between them?

Synthesis: Coming to conclusions with creative concepts

After connecting ideas within your group it is now time to test your ideas. Until this point the number of ideas has only been increasing, when connecting and combining these have been put together, but in no way did the amount of ideas decrease. In the deviation-phase idea elimination finally has to happen. From your combined ideas you select the best few ideas (around three works great) to present to the other groups. In the selection it is now time to get back to reality and assess whether some ideas or not to elaborate or expensive. Of course still keep an open mind and think of ways to avoid writing off ideas to quick. For instance when thinking of a diamond costume for the party, you can of course also use glass or plastic as alternatives.

To best represent the ideas of your group to the others you can make use of the visual tools you were given. Use post-its to concisely write down your ideas and explain how you have combined the categories and ideas to generate this idea. Tackle objections before they arise by explaining why you think the idea is obtainable. When not presenting have an open mind towards the ideas of the other groups, and ask intelligent questions to test their ideas. From all the presentations and discussion you will end up with one or a few concepts that are the result of your brainstorm. These great ideas will let you stay ahead of competition, make you look amazing at the next party and help you form better study habits.

A problem can be effectively tackled if you know the three phases of brainstorming. Get started with an individual brainstorm and use the idea generation tips to come up with as many ideas as possible. Get together in small groups to categorize and combine your ideas. And finally present these ideas to the other groups and end up with one or a few concepts worth working with. Feel free to try out these steps on your next problem!

Follow-up: Ownership and an action plan

Alright, you now have some great concepts, what to do with them now. Putting them in a locked cabinet is not advisable. Sitting on them a few days however could not hurt. As with the initial phase of brainstorming, waiting a few days and not actively thinking about your concepts might spark some new insights. After these few days you do need to take action. Make an execution plan for your ideas. Define the concepts in S.M.A.R.T. goals, write down how you are planning on implementing them within a specific timeframe. Give feedback to your teams on this plan of action and involve all relevant parties in getting this plan started. Also never forget to make someone responsible and give ownership to the person you want to be in charge of the plan.

Variations: Online and offline alternatives

The process described in this article is based on a synthesis of online material on brainstorming and creative problem solving. The method is applicable in a wide range of situations and with little tweaks can be applied from product design to housing problems. Below are two useful variations, both online and offline.

  • Online: Use tools like ThinkBuzan or Mindview to create mindmaps in an online environment. Export them to word or pdf files and share them with everyone that is working on the same problem. Then use skype to have a conference call and connect your ideas together. Meet with the different teams (on skype or offline) and synthesize new ideas when first interacting online before you get together. Using these programs can help you start a brainstorm without having to physically get together.
  • Offline:  Stand during meetings. This gets everyone in an active mood as opposed to the passive sitting we normally do. It also limits the time we take for meetings in general, when standing you are more aware of the time you spend. Standing is of course also healthy and helps blood circulation after sitting the whole day. To maximize on the effects of standing during meetings, get some standing tables at your office and get some paper, markers and post-its attached to the table to always have something to write on.

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