Brainstorming – The Art of a Good Think

Brainstroming - the art of a good hard thinkBrainstorming during meetings is often seen in an unfortunate light. Like many productivity exercises they have a very clear purpose that when used inappropriately can often lead to being less productive than simply chatting about problems. They are also incredibly effective and when used correctly can not only produce fantastic ideas but actually bring teams together and get them invested in a project. So what is brainstorming and when is the most appropriate time to use brainstorming in a business meeting?

Brainstorming is both a group and individual creative activity that has the main goal of developing a wide range of ideas or solutions to a predefined problem. As the name suggests the main technique follows a fairly rapid output of ideas that are presented onto one shared canvas. There are no "wrong" ideas and critique only comes at the end of the session. The culmination of the ideas from as many different perspectives leads to the generation of more inspirational ideas and creative solutions. As such it is a fantastic way to get people "unstuck" in an ideas process. Here are our tips to get great brains storming.

Get the fundamentals right

  1. Decide whether brainstorming is the right process for your meeting. Brainstorming is only really useful during the early creative process – the ideas stage. It is not useful for analysis of solutions or decision making. These processes come after brainstorming once all ideas have been fleshed out. Predefined ideas or solutions are unlikely to lead to idea generation as participants will be distracted by existing solutions or generation of new ideas will conflict with the predefined solution.

  2. Define your problem clearly and understand the goals related to the problem. Like all problem solving understanding the end goal and defining the problem clearly are important steps to solving problems – almost as important as the solution itself! In brainstorming you should aim to discuss the problem but be sure to avoid discussing a solution. That’s what the brainstorm is for!

Preparing a brainstorm

  1. Create the right environment. Brainstorming requires all participants to have the opportunity to participate and contribute ideas. Therefore the room layout should allow each participant to be facing one another. Circular table layouts like round tables and U shaped tables are great for this purpose. Failing that, remove the tables and sit in a circle!

  2. Get your equipment ready. Clipboards, note pads, coloured pens, big marker pens etc. There are the standards you come to expect but also think about some additional materials. Do you need computers or a display/projector to project the problem? Sometimes it is useful to have a permanent visual cue that is associated with the problem as this can often spark visually associated ideas and remind participants about the nature of the problem. Also think about how many resources are needed – if your group is quite large then you might need to provide a clipboard for every pair of participants.

  3. Book an external meeting room. Sometimes taking participants away from their natural environments can refresh ideas and give participants better focus. Meeting rooms and training venues can also provide the much needed space and help you organise (and provide) the right equipment for your meeting.

  4. Assign a facilitator. In every brainstorm meeting you should have a facilitator to help control the creative process. They will be there to introduce the brainstorm, ensure the participants are abiding by the rules of the meeting and be the meeting’s time keeper. They can also be the meeting secretary who is responsible for documenting and logging suggestions. It is important that the facilitator keeps the flow going but does not directly contribute or influence ideas.

During the meeting

  1. Get people thinking by asking them to brainstorm on their own. Studies have shown that people are better at generating ideas when given the opportunity to brainstorm, even on their own. Therefore, given the opportunity to have a think before they get into a group brainstorm participants will be able to generate some early ideas without being influenced by others.

  2. Make sure everyone is heard. Go around each participant asking for their contribution if possible – generate as many ideas as possible! Get all participants involved and try and to create an enthusiastic attitude amongst the group.

  3. Encourage participants to develop each others’ ideas. A different perspective on an original un-fleshed idea can produce alterations and inspiration for new ones.

  4.  But don’t spend too long on one idea. Again the main idea purpose is to get as many ideas as possible – if one idea/solution is getting a little bit too much focus try and move on. You can always return make an analysis post brainstorm.

  5. Be creative – no idea is a bad one. Encourage crazy even impractical ideas wherever possible. This serves two purposes – first it reiterates no idea is a bad one and supports the flow of creativity. Secondly it enforces the principle of having absolutely no criticism or evaluation during the brainstorm – a very important factor to follow.

Some additional tips

  1. Make sure there are plenty of refreshments.

  2. Invite strangers to the brainstorm. This might sound quite odd but it has some logic especially when it comes to diversifying the creative output. Try inviting work colleagues who you might not ordinarily include in meetings or work with. They could be loosely related to your project/problem especially if the project requires the output of several different departments. Either way, a group with a varied skill-set will ultimately lead to a more diverse brainstorming outfit which will (hopefully) be able to give a different perspective on the same problem.

  3. Play ice breaker games. If you find that the meeting is not flowing as you hoped then try a few ice breaker games to break the tension.

  4. Tailor the brainstorm to the group size. The tips so far have been quite general in regards to group size however we would suggest that you can have a very good session with around 5-10 people. If you have a smaller group size then you might need to concentrate on maintaining a flow of ideas by getting into the brainstorming process as soon as possible. Very large groups may need a conference style approach with the main facilitator taking a more active approach at the front of the conference. 

Brainstorms have had some bad flack in the past but they remain a valuable resource when getting groups engaged in a problem and aligned with the solution. They can also be a lot of fun for participants and be a pretty good bonding experience if done right. Just remember that brainstorms are not for every problem.

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