How to brainstorm your way to better ideas, stronger teams, and exciting solutions

Brainstorming

Sarah Sullivan

Creative Artworker

Posted on September 22, 2015

There’s nothing much more frustrating than feeling stuck. When our minds draw a blank, especially when pressure is on for us to solve a problem or come up with new ideas quickly, stress isn’t far behind. This is the point at which team relationships begin to suffer, and when we’re at risk of losing confidence in ourselves.

Back in 1953, a man named Alex Osborn presented a new way to break through barriers and paralysis in our thinking – brainstorming. Since then, the word has been so widely researched, used and practised, that it’s now synonymous with creative planning. You will undoubtedly have used it as a technique yourself.

But why is brainstorming considered so useful? And could you be making better use of it as a strategy?

First, let’s refresh our understanding of what brainstorming is and why we should use it.

Why we brainstorm

Brainstorming is a flexible, creative way to solve problems, make decisions, generate new ideas, explore concepts, and pull together diverse input into a cohesive whole. You can use it alone, but its value comes when used as part of a team.

Brainstorming, at its heart, is about getting as many thoughts as possible out of people’s head and down on paper, to explore as many different possibilities as you can.

The benefits to a team, if used well, are surprisingly valuable for such a simple, easily overlooked technique. Teammates feel less inhibited and are more likely to contribute. They generate more ideas, solve problems more positively, mutual respect and confidence blossoms, everyone feels more invested in decision-making, and creativity is encouraged to grow.

Rules of brainstorming

Even though the emphasis is firmly on creative freedom, brainstorming comes with well-established rules. If you’re going to make the best use of its potential, it’s well worth sticking to them – pin them up somewhere visible before you start.

Rule 1: Aim for quantity. Behind brainstorming lies the belief that “quantity breeds quality”. The more ideas that are contributed and explored, the more likely you’ll end up with something transformative and effective in the mix.

Rule 2: Don’t criticise. In brainstorming, we reserve our judgement and analysis of ideas until much later in the process. At early stages, all ideas have value, so if you don’t like it, don’t say so. People need to feel free to contribute without fear of judgement for the process to work.

Rule 3: Encourage unusual suggestions. Often the best new ideas come from the most unlikely sources. Contributors should try to think outside the box – and out the door and around the corner if they want to. The whole point is to try to break free of restrictive and predictable patterns, habits and assumptions, so the more unusual, the better.

Rule 4: Combine and improve ideas: Individual ideas may not always seem to hold much value when standing alone. But by combining them with others to form something bigger and stronger, ideas can gain weight and usefulness far beyond the initial thoughts that sparked them.

The process

Brainstorming traditionally follows a process, of which the free-flowing ideas-generation stage forms a critical part. To do that, and to work with those ideas at later stages, you’ll need somewhere to record suggestions. Get everything down on paper and dismiss nothing along the way. Use big sheets of paper, flip charts, sticky notes, coloured pens – anything you can you think of that will help.

The following process provides a good plan to follow:

  1. Define and agree your objective
  2. Freely brainstorm as many ideas and suggestions as possible within a time limit
  3. Categorise, combine and condense ideas to make weak ideas stronger, rather than simply throwing them out
  4. Begin to assess and analyse their likely effects or results
  5. Start to prioritise/rank what’s emerging most strongly, measuring them against your objective
  6. Agree what happens next, make a plan of action and agree a timescale
  7. Manage, monitor and assess its implementation

Techniques

So, beyond “getting things down on paper”, what format should brainstorming take? What’s the right way to do it?

The truth is that there isn’t one right way. Dozens of different techniques and tools have sprung up over the decades. There are springboards to get ideas flowing, different ways of recording ideas, and new ways to help the contribution process of brainstorming to go more smoothly.

Mindtools offers a useful array of brainstorming resources for teams looking for fun or creative new ways to brainstorm. These are especially worth a shot if you’re struggling to get teams engaged with more traditional brainstorming styles, or if you’re still hitting walls when problem-solving.

The trick is to keep trying and find what works for your team.

Finally, here’s four things that help

1. A good chairperson

An exciting brainstorming session relies on someone to encourage everyone to take part, feel valued, and to make sure no ideas are dismissed or scorned. A skilled chair and facilitator can also gently stop ideas getting too side-tracked down one train of thought too early and make sure dominant personalities aren’t blocking others from contributing.

2. A comfortable, creative environment

The best ideas flow when people feel relaxed, comfortable and free to join in. Pick an environment where everyone can sit comfortably, move around with ease and see each other, then fill it with plenty of stationery and resources that encourage people to take part. Refreshments never go amiss, either.

3. Time

Ideas need time to build momentum. Set a limit on the time you’ll spend, but try and avoid hurrying people unnecessarily. For extra-long sessions, make sure everyone has a chance to break, recharge and switch focus from time to time.

4. An attitude of play

Above all, make it fun! For brains to explore their creative potential fully, they need to feel unpressured, safe and free to explore. The restrictions of stuffy, formal, corporate thinking is what we’re trying to break away from, so don’t make it too much like everyday work.

Good luck!

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