What is Brainstorming?
Brainstorming combines a relaxed, informal approach to problem solving with lateral thinking. It encourages people to come up with thoughts and ideas that can, at first, seem a bit crazy. Some of these ideas can be crafted into original, creative solutions to a problem, while others can spark even more ideas. This helps to get people unstuck by "jolting" them out of their normal ways of thinking.
Therefore, during brainstorming sessions, team members should avoid criticizing or rewarding ideas. You're trying to open up possibilities and break down incorrect assumptions about the problem's limits. Judgment and analysis at this stage stunts idea generation and limit creativity.
Evaluate ideas at the end of the session – this is the time to explore solutions further, using creative approaches.
Why use Brainstorming?
Conventional group problem solving can often be undermined by unhelpful group behavior. And while it's important to start with an analysis of the specifics of the problem, this can lead a team to develop limited and unimaginative ideas.
By contrast, brainstorming provides a free and open environment that encourages everyone to participate. Quirky ideas are welcomed and built upon, and all members are encouraged to contribute fully, helping the team develop a rich array of creative solutions.
When used during problem solving, brainstorming brings team members' diverse experience into play. It increases the richness of ideas explored, which means that you can often find better solutions to the problem.
It can also help you get buy-in from team members for the solution chosen – after all, they're likely to be more committed to an approach if they were involved in developing it. What's more, because brainstorming is fun, it helps team members bond, as they solve the problem in a positive, rewarding environment.
While brainstorming can be effective, it's important to approach it with an open mind and a spirit of non-judgment. If you don't do this, people "clam up," the number and quality of ideas plummets, and morale can suffer.
To run a Brainstorming session effectively:
Step 1: Prepare the Team
First, set up a comfortable environment for the session. Make sure that the room is well-lit and that you have the tools, resources, and snacks that you need.
When everyone is gathered, someone should record the ideas that come from the session. Post notes where everyone can see them, such as on flip charts or whiteboards; or use a computer with a data projector.
If team members aren't used to working together, consider using an appropriate team building exercise, or an icebreaker.
Step 2: Present the Problem
Understand the problem to solve, and work out any criteria that you must meet. Make it clear that that the meeting's objective is to generate as many ideas as possible.
Give people plenty of quiet time at the start of the session to write down as many of their own ideas as they can. Then, ask them to share their ideas, while giving everyone a fair opportunity to contribute.
Step 3: Guide the Discussion
Once everyone has shared their ideas, start a group discussion to develop other people's ideas, and use them to create new ideas. Building on others' ideas is one of the most valuable aspects of group brainstorming.
Encourage everyone to contribute and to develop ideas, including the quietest people, and discourage anyone from criticizing ideas.
As the coach, you spend your time and energy supporting your team and guiding the discussion. Stick to one conversation at a time, and refocus the team if people become sidetracked.
Although you're guiding the discussion, remember to let everyone have fun while brainstorming. Welcome creativity, and encourage your team to come up with as many ideas as possible, regardless of whether they're practical or impractical. Use thought experiments such as Provocation or Random Input to generate some unexpected ideas.
Don't follow one train of thought for too long. Make sure that you generate a good number of different ideas, and explore individual ideas in detail. If a team member needs to "tune out" to explore an idea alone, allow them the freedom to do this.
Also, if the brainstorming session is lengthy, take plenty of breaks so that people can continue to concentrate.
More idea generation techniques
Allowing Everyone to Contribute
Imagine that you've gathered your team together for a much-needed brainstorming session, focusing on the idea or theme for your long-term solution.
Bill, the most talkative and forceful member of your team, immediately asserts that a TV game show is the best idea to use. Others follow on to contribute ideas that go along with Bill's. Ten minutes later, the group is immersed in planning ideas for an innovative and humorous TV game show. No one else has submitted any other options, once Bill had set the direction.
It's all too easy to start a brainstorming session with good intentions, but then to overlook or miss potentially great ideas, simply because one assertive person sets the tone for the entire meeting.
This is why a tool like Round-Robin Brainstorming is so useful. This method allows team members to generate ideas without being influenced by any one person. You can then take these ideas into the next stages of the problem-solving process.
Here, we'll examine Round-Robin Brainstorming in detail, and we'll look at different variations, so that you can pick the right one for the circumstances.
How to Use Round-Robin Brainstorming
Round-Robin Brainstorming is very straightforward:
Step 1 – Gather your team together around a table. Give each person index cards so that they can record their ideas on individual pieces of card.
Step 2 – Acting as coach, help the team decide on the specific part of the problem that the team wants to come up with solutions. Be specific about the objectives of the brainstorming session. Answer factual questions, but discourage discussion. The goal in this step is to allow individual people to think creatively without any influence from others.
Step 3 – Have each team member, in silence, think of one idea and write it down on an index card.
Step 4 – Once everyone has written down an idea, have each person pass their idea to the person next to them. Everyone should now be holding a new card with their neighbor's idea written down on it.
Step 5 – Have each person use their neighbor's idea as inspiration to create another idea. Then ask each person to hand in their neighbor's card, and pass their new idea to the person next to them to repeat step 4.
Step 6 – Continue this circular idea swap for as long as is necessary to gather a good amount of ideas. When the time is up, gather up all the ideas. You can now collate them, eliminate any duplicates and discuss them further as required.
Advantages and Disadvantages
The biggest difference – and advantage – is that your team uses other people's ideas to generate even more ideas, without being influenced by assertive or vocal members of the team. Another advantage of this approach is that it also ensures that everyone in your group gets an equal chance to present their ideas. If your team has shy or low-confidence members, this method can help them feel more comfortable.
A disadvantage of Round-Robin Brainstorming is that it isn't anonymous. When team members pass ideas around the room, they might hold back simply because they know the person next to them will see what they have written. Another disadvantage is that each person gets inspiration for their new idea from the ideas of only one other person, rather than from the entire group.
Random Round Robin
You can make Round-Robin Brainstorming anonymous by gathering the ideas at each stage, shuffling them, and then passing them out again. (Rather than having team members pass their ideas to the person next to them.).
Verbal Round Robin
Instead of writing ideas down, you can also use Round-Robin Brainstorming verbally. Seat your team members at a table, and discuss the current problem. Then, go around the table and allow each member to state one idea. Write down each idea for further discussion. This is often faster than the written variation. However, some team members may be hesitant to present ideas in front of the group. Help avoid this by letting everyone know that no idea is unworthy of discussion. This can also be a useful Spontaneous training.