Brainstorming is a way for a group of people to explore a subject. It gives the group new perspectives and ideas.
I created this post in collaboration with 14 others. They were participants in an “unconference” called BarCampMilwaukee in early October 2009. First I researched the topic for an afternoon and synthesized it. Then our group used this research and brainstormed the act of brainstorming for an hour. I further synthesized our results below:
Preparation: What to Do Before you Brainstorm
- Explain the problem and its history clearly
- Invite people with different backgrounds and expertise
- Write the objective of the session prominently
- Lay out possible criteria for solutions, but don’t set too many limits.
- Set clear time limits for the session.
- Distribute rules to participants
Rules: Give these to Everyone Ahead of Time
- The more ideas the better. Brainstorming is about generating as many relevant ideas as possible. Don’t edit yourself.
- Criticism is not allowed. Don’t assign value to ideas. Don’t evaluate their practicality either. The group can do this afterward when they organize the results of their brainstorming.
- If you are passionate don’t overpower the group. Instead channel that energy to encourage others.
- Build on others’ ideas
- Turn phones off or set to vibrate
- Keep the session fun, playful and absurd
- Wild ideas are wonderful
- Encourage everyone
- Groups of 5 or 6 people may work best
- Session under 30 minutes
- Participants should be comfortable
- Watch the clock
- Keep the discussion somewhat focused. Help the group come back to brainstorming if they start to criticize, evaluate or discuss implementing ideas too much.
Techniques to Generate Ideas
- Consider brainstorming something absurd first. This can start everything off in a good mood. It also sets an example for good brainstorming as the leader can point out the rules and guidelines when relevant.
- Use Post-it notes. Leader asks a question. Participants write answers on post it notes even if they speak them aloud. They place them on a wall and arrange them in clusters. Then they suggest literal and metaphoric titles for each cluster.
- Explore ideas from different perspectives. What would a 19th Century farmer or a house wife on the West Coast think?
- Explore scenarios. What would we do if we had only half our marketing budget? What if we had double the budget?
- List ideas with different qualities. What ideas would cost $1 to implement? What about $1 million? What if we had 16 people on our team? What about 4 people? How could we accomplish our goal if we only had 6 months? What about 2 weeks?
- List cliches about the subject. For example, while discussing the implications of technology people always say, “technology isn’t inherently bad, but it can be used for bad.”
- List movies and novels which depict the subject. Dr. Dan Novack used this technique well to explore possible futures of humanity.
- “Cube” the subject. Explore it in 6 ways: describe it, compare it, associate it, analyze it, apply it, argue for and against it
- Ask the journalistic questions. Who, what when, where, why, how?
- Use creativity software. Some software can suggest new ways of looking at ideas and problems.
How the Facilitator Can Revive a Slowed Session
- Read every 3rd idea
- Keep a few ideas private as backup
- Ask everyone to stand up
- Rearrange the furniture
- Continue the discussion while walking outside as a group
How to Use Technology While Brainstorming
- Cellphones provide little or no benefit. Turn them off or set to vibrate.
- Possible guideline: allow people to use laptops as long as they would not be embarrassed to show the group what they were doing
- Maybe one person can have open laptop to research questions the group has
- Maybe people could use laptops to access the Internet if the sessions slows down. Taking a break for 5 minutes to surf the web may revive the discussion.
Tools to capture ideas
- FreeMind – Pros: free, open-source, light weight; Cons: 2-dimensional
- CmapTools – Pros: free; Cons: 2-dimensional
- Outining software – Pros: simple; Cons: limited structure, 2-dimensional
- ZeFrank’s ‘Brain Crack’ episode – Inspiration to move beyond brainstorming and to implement ideas. Remember we often judge ourselves by what we think we can do, but others judge us
by what we’ve actually done.