Brainstorming the Right Way – Part II


Part I of this blog took us through the basic rules for a classic brainstorm, including the suspension of all judgement and having a clear objective. 

I’m going to add to that list now.  Research into the way the human mind develops ideas and solves problems has highlighted two additional rules that will make brainstorms even better:

  1. Allow time for everyone to have some individual reflection on the challenge before the group brainstorm begins.
  2. Design your overall brainstorm process to allow a gap (minutes or hours) between the individual reflection and the group brainstorm.

To support this, there are two factors to consider:

Group versus individual

In this research it was found that brainstorms preceded by a period of individual reflection on the same challenge produced higher quality ideas than brainstorms without that individual reflection – so work some individual reflection into your brainstorm process. 

Brainstorms aim for breadth – a diverse group working collectively to produce many ideas, without going into any single idea in any real depth.   Individual reflection, on the other hand, enables more depth of thinking, without necessarily breaking the rule about suspending judgement.  It also makes it easier to avoid classic pitfalls of collective brainstorming such as group-think or the domineering boss.

Individuals might worry about their ability to develop ideas on their own, but in my experience they just need a little bit of structure to the exercise to help them get started – personally I find the ‘random word’ methods of Edward de Bono very supportive for idea-generating on your own.

Conscious mind versus sub-conscious mind

The way the human mind works at creating new ideas and solving problems is a fascinating area of research.  We have the conscious mind (the thoughts that we’re aware of) and also the sub-conscious or non-conscious (the brain work that we’re not consciously aware of, but is going on in the background).  Researchers now believe that the brain’s most imaginative problem-solver is the sub-conscious mind – and we need to give it a chance to get to work.  The best way to do this is to stop the conscious mind from making a lot of noise about it. 

To do this, focus on an objective consciously for a short time – and then forget about it.  Think about other things, tackle other problems, and this will make it easier for the sub-conscious mind to work on the original objective.  Even though we’re unaware of it, the sub-conscious will be playing with ideas in an abstract way, combining different thoughts and potential solutions, and developing a new path to the answer.  If you do this and then return to conscious thinking about the objective some time later, you’ll get better answers than if you’d consciously focused on it all day.  This has been shown in research to provide better results in many kinds of situation ranging from consumer decisions to clinical diagnoses. 

Perhaps these are connected – maybe the individual reflection was shown to be an advantage simply because it also meant there was also a time gap between the individual reflection and the group brainstorm, so allowing the sub-conscious mind to do some work on it. 

But it is clear that if you want a really great brainstorm, don’t think of it as one meeting.  Plan it as a creative process with several stages – allow for each participant to do some individual reflection, have a gap to allow the sub-conscious to go to work, and then come together for the group brainstorming session.

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