Brainstorming can be a fantastic method of generating original ideas. But many organisations aren’t doing it properly – they’re not having a brainstorm, they’re just having a normal conversation where people prefer to suggest ‘safe’ ideas rather than anything unfamiliar, and where group-think or dominant personalities can skew the discussion in one direction without exploring other possibilities.
Done properly, brainstorming is quite different to an everyday discussion. It creates a space where everyone’s voice is heard, and where new ideas are given the space to germinate properly.
The essential rules are:
Suspend all analysis and judgement, so that everybody’s half-formed thoughts are given a chance to develop properly. This is vital – you need to say things even if you think they sound a bit daft or they might not work, because hearing them just might spark off a great idea in someone else’s mind. Likewise, you’ll benefit from hearing everyone else’s half-baked notions, because they might spark a ‘eureka’ moment in your own mind. And that’s the true power of a brainstorm.
It’s difficult to switch off our analytical or judgemental thinking – typically we are educated and trained to use our critical faculties far more than our creativity, and it’s habit-forming. During a brainstorm, if you find yourself thinking any of the following:
“That won’t work because…”
“I won’t say this out loud, they’ll laugh at me…”
then you just have to remind yourself, “That’s not what we’re doing right now” and get back into a frame of mind where those analytical habits are switched off.
It’s this suspension of judgement that distinguishes brainstorms from everyday discussions, and it’s what makes a brainstorm a highly valuable technique. Analysis and judgement can (and should) happen later – but without that initial expansion of ideas and thoughts, the quality of the end result would be diminished. Normal discussions often go forward with the first good idea that one of you had. Brainstorming helps you select the best idea that all of you had.
Group composition and size
Ideally there should be a mix of people with different specialities or viewpoints, numbering at least 5 or 6 to get sufficient diversity of thought, but no more than 10-12 so that everyone can still be heard.
A clear objective
Define the objective carefully: not so vague that the whole thing lacks direction, but not so narrow that it makes a number of presumptions about how things should work generally. Define your objective only as the desired end result, rather than a specific method of getting there – you’ll be surprised at the alternatives that can develop.
Produce lots of ideas
An expansion of our thinking increases the probability that all angles have been covered and that several good ideas will emerge.
These are the basic rules for a classic brainstorm – but research into how the human mind generates ideas and solves problems suggests that this can be improved on, significantly. Look out for Part II of this blog…