HOW TO BRAINSTORM: THE BASICS

The vast majority of people who engage in a brainstorming activity waste time, argue unnecessarily and fail to generate the ideas they’re seeking.  They end a session more confused than when they started and all because they don’t really know how to brainstorm.

What is Brainstorming? Brainstorming is an accelerated decision making process.  It is about advancing your thinking and then taking action.  It’s about harnessing all of your skills, experience, knowledge and understanding and then turbo charging this for a set period of time.  Effectively brainstorming is a period of heightened thinking during which alternative ideas are explored and options broadened before conclusions are drawn.  Such dedicated thinking time often leads to improved outcomes and better decisions which would never have been reached without this dedicated thinking time.

There exist frameworks, tools and brainstorming techniques designed to maximise your mind power.  Successful brainstorms often follow pre-defined systems that deliberately stimulate simultaneous critical and creative thinking.  These usually limit the length of thinking time too.  This in itself encourages spontaneous responses which are often more revealing than those previously considered.

By far the best way to brainstorm as a group is using the principles of parallel thinking.  Parallel thinking dictates that everyone is right all of the time because of the parallel perspective from which they approach the situation.  Parallel thinking prevents people from coming into direct conflict with each other’s opinions.  Competition is re-directed towards the generation of netter thoughts and the conversation is conducted in a more constructive and collaborative manner.

How best to brainstorm.

  1. 1.       Set the parameters of the process:

Cheerfulness fosters creativity.  As any parent knows, a child is much happier when the rules are clearly defined.  Adults in business are not dissimilar.  It is important to clearly define the parameters of your brainstorm before your being.

  • How long will you brainstorm for?  The pressure of reduced time will encourage you to share your primary thoughts freely and creatively.  In this way your subconscious mind speaks more freely because your conscious brain doesn’t have the time to confuse or control your initial reactions.
  • What brainstorming technique will you use?  We naturally recommend the Whether Forecast™ framework however other parallel thinking tools and brainstorming techniques such as the 6 Thinking Hats are readily available.
  • Where will the brainstorm be held?  The brainstorming environment needs to be quiet an uninterrupted.  Bean bags and brightly coloured walls do NOT help (or necessarily hinder) the brainstorming process.  A creative environment is a state of mind.  Give yourself space to think without distraction.  Switch off phones, close the door and concentrate exclusively on the task in hand.
  • Who will be present during the process?  Make sure all participants are aware of the parameters of the process before you begin.
  1. 2.       Define the subject of your brainstorm.

Begin with the problem rather than the end objective.

“What are our options or what’s our objective?” you might hear somebody ask, or worse still “what are our ideas?”.  In doing so they are instantly limiting the scope of alternative exploration.  If you focus on considering options A, B, or C you’re forgetting to generate the X, Y  and Z ideas you’ve yet to think about.

Start by getting clear about your current situation.

  • What are the challenges?
  • What are the problems?

From here you can start to extend your thoughts and your understanding.  As your perspective broadens so too will the likelihood of reaching the right result in the end.

  1. 3.       Start with a clear piece of paper and document your thoughts.

Write down your thoughts – all of them, and all of the contributions made by everyone else involved in the brainstorm, preferably in mind map form.  This is an important part of any brainstorming exercise.

Often when we think without writing down our thoughts we don’t give ourselves enough time to hear them.  Thoughts whizz in and out of our heads at such speed that they can be as confusing as they are enlightening.  By stopping to give yourself enough time to document your thoughts, you give yourself a chance to summarize your understanding of them too.  Seeing them visually displayed on a single page will help you prioritize and order your actions.  It will also improve your power of recall too.

Creating a record of a brainstorming session is as important as minuting a meeting.  The mind map that you create during your thinking session becomes a record of your thoughts at that time they occurred to you.  Effectively this is a bench mark against which you may later measure you progress.  It is also proof of concept in the creation of original ideas.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of mind maps then these are spider-like diagrams that extend though a series of branches and nodes as your thoughts evolve.  When drawing a mind map by hand always use a plain piece of paper as lined paper will interfere with your creative thought flow.  Many mind map applications are readily available with MindManager being among the favourites.  We’ve recently used poppet to document a live brainstorm and this was also a very effective way to record a thinking session.  Remember to add the date to any documents you create AND, it you want to spread your thoughts further, you can always share your maps on Biggerplate.com the world’s biggest mind map library.

  1. 4.       Value all ideas equally and record thoughts as they occur.

The importance of recording your thoughts is mentioned above.  During any brainstorm you are urged to accept all ideas as being of equal value in their initial presentation.  Thoughts that might seem crazy or far-fetched can easily be dismissed to early if this rule is not observed.  Radical ideas though often unlikely to be realized as such, provoke and stimulate alternative avenues of thought.  A lady who suggests she’d like to be a fly in the wall in a nursing home suddenly spots the opportunity to extend her hairdressing business.  Someone who wishes they could mind read quickly identifies an urgent need to survey their market.

By recording all thoughts (including the weird and wonderful ones) we allow our eyes to ponder on them as we proceed through the brainstorming exercise and in so doing, further thinking occurs that broadens our scope in the real world too.

Suspending judgement entirely is not always an easy thing to do.  Inherently we judge our own thoughts before we speak them and experts in particular, are conditioned to further value their ideas even before they’ve become consciously aware of them.  That’s ok.  An ideal brainstorming environment creates a place of trust in which individuals feel free to share the premature evolution of ideas by means of extending group contribution and greater collaboration.  Never ridicule such thinking in others or dismiss it as stupid or silly when it comes from within you.  There is often much to value to be derived from crazy, creative thinking.  Make sure you write such thoughts down.  Who knows where they might lead at a later date?! 

  1. 5.       Do not be tempted to alter the time frame.

Having decided how long to spend brainstorming, stick to this time frame.  Knowing that you have to complete the entire exercise in a set period of time adds extra pressure to the thinking process.  This in itself gives the subconscious mind time to share more of its inner workings.  The limit on time stops us from being sidetracked by any one stream of thought.  It encourages us to keep up our concentration and it add a degree of competition to the brainstorming commitment that overall appear to improve the results.  If the time frame on a brainstorm starts to drift, so too do the ideas.  This often makes drawing an active conclusion more challenging and participants are likely to be disgruntled if more of their time is consumed than had been anticipated.  This in itself will lead to less engaged and motivated group members so make sure you finish on time!

  1. 6.       Conclude with a commitment to action.

This is perhaps the most important and most overlooked part of any brainstorming session.  The idea of a brainstorm is to derive better conclusions.  Effectively brainstorming is decision making on steroids so make sure you end your session with a few clearly defined decisions.

It might be that more information is needed, tests need to be carried out, questions asked and avenues explored before further conclusions can be drawn.  Agreeing to delay a decision is a decision in its own right.  Just make sure that all members including yourself end your thinking session knowing what needs to happen next and when you’ll have it done by.  Thinking helps you make a decision.  Without a decision you won’t take action BUT, without action, you’ll never get anywhere at all.

  1. 7.       Reschedule time to review this again.

In taking action, you build momentum.  With momentum comes greater sustained action over time.  Thinking is an evolutionary process.  Ideas evolve.  As you gain knowledge, as you explore and gain greater experience, your perspective on the situation also begins to change.  This affects your understanding and interpretation too.  It is important that you are constantly thinking, concluding and correcting your course of action if you truly intend to get to where you ultimately dream to go.

Set aside regular time to brainstorm and review your situation.  This will help you manage and accelerate your progress as your ideas begin to grow.

Best of luck evolving your thinking and materializing ideas, please feel free to share your thoughts and ask your questions