At some point everyone has a need to come up with a new idea. Whether it’s for a new fund-raiser, or a better process at the job site, or to solve an unexpected problem, brainstorming is one of the best ways to get the job done.
In this post we’ll get you ready to run your own brainstorming session and arm you with twenty creative ways to make the skys open up and start the ideas raining down.
Ideas About Brainstorming Ideas
Brainstorming is the classic approach to coming up with new ideas and solving problems. You can do it by yourself, but it works best when done as a small group so you can leverage the creative instincts of other people.
For idea generation, one plus one can often equal three or more when it comes to creativity. But once there are two or more people involved, an effective session requires some organization, some leadership. Here are the key steps you need to follow to make your session a productive one. Start by preparing well.
To structure your session to be effective, you want to get the right people in the right environment with a clear task to accomplish. Here is what you need.
The right people. Diversity is key. If everybody thinks like you, it’ll be tougher to come up with something original. Invite people with different mind sets, experiences, and perspectives into the group. If you produce something, you might want someone from engineering, sales, marketing, production and management in the room for their valuable and varied points of view.
The right number. Eight to twelve people is a good number; more starts to become unwieldy; fewer may not generate as many new ideas.
The right place. Pick a place where the group is free from distraction and able to focus on the task. In the room you will need one or more ways to capture and display ideas for all to see: large whiteboard, easels, projector, or wall space you can cover with butcher paper.
The right environment. The setting should be a comfortable one for all, where people can speak freely without fear of rejection or ridicule or judgement. Choose positive, open-minded people who are willing to suspend judgment and cooperate with each other.
The right attitude. Engender a playful attitude; let the session be fun. One way to set the tone is to change the furniture in the room in an unexpected way: put the table in a corner, or remove all the chairs, or sit everyone in a circle. Breaking the normal way of doing things is a great way to set the tone for finding new ways to think.
The right facilitator. You will want someone to guide the session. Maybe that’s you, but it doesn’t have to be. Look for someone who can remain neutral, keep the group focused and moving forward.
Get the word out. When everything is set, send out an invite with just enough information that people can come to the session prepared to contribute. Be careful not to overdo it – too much information can start to narrow their thinking.
Running the Session
Once you have everyone in the room, it’s good to lay down just enough structure to focus the group.
Set a goal. Set either a time limit or a numerical goal for number of ideas. It could be one hour or fifty new ideas.
Set the ground rules. Something like this:
- Keep it fun
- Don’t interrupt
- Welcome unusual ideas
- Try to combine and improve ideas
- No criticizing or judging
- Everybody’s ideas count
Do an Ice Breaker. If people in the room don’t know each other, you will need to break though their social reserve as soon as possible. Having an icebreaker will get the group talking quickly and also help get their brains working. Here is a list of 40 Icebreakers for Small Groups that you can use.
Start with the problem statement. It’s important to be clear about exactly what all these new ideas are going to be for. Read the problem statement and briefly provide necessary background so everyone starts with the same focus. Maybe display the statement continuously somewhere in the room as a reminder.
Empower the Introvert. One of the problems with a group setting is that the more outgoing people can tend to dominate; the quieter ones may have some great ideas that never get heard. Two ways to get around this:
1. After the problem statement, have everyone take the first 10 minutes to come up with maybe five good ideas on their own; write them on five slips of paper. When time is up, put all the ideas in a box, draw one at random, discuss, repeat.
2. During open discussion, the facilitator should purposely solicit input from the quieter members of the group.
Capture the ideas. On a large visual display, the facilitator should write down the ideas for all to see. This visual cue of an idea may lead to others, and will provide a written record for later. We’ve used everything ranging from a white board, projector, or even a tarp with 5×8 cards stuck to it using tape. One of the best ways we have found is to use giant Post-it Self-Stick Easel Pad notes – as each page is filled, just tear it off and stick it to the wall.
Emphasize quantity over quality. You want to get the ideas flowing, so focus on getting as many out as possible.
Support, don’t criticize. Keep the mood in the room positive and supportive; no judging. Have people build on each other’s ideas. Help each other revise and improve on ideas.
Open Up The Skies
Sometimes the discussion will bog down or become overly focused on one idea. The facilitator needs to keep things moving by changing the topic, getting others to speak, or using one of the ideas below.
- Consider the opposite. Turn the problem on its head. The Greeks eventually captured Troy by not attacking the city.
- Remove an obstacle. What would happen if you had infinite money, or time, or help, or could turn off gravity? Consider how removing a major impediment would change the way you could solve the problem.
- Add an obstacle. What if you had only $50? Or one hour? Or had to communicate in a different language? Changing assumptions will help change perspective and generate new ideas.
- Give People Roles to Play. How would the problem look for the perspective of the customer? A foreigner? The boss? A parent? Someone on the assembly line? Assign roles to people and have them visualize their experience – it will change their perspective and add insight to the discussion.
- Introduce Randomness. You can force creativity by adding an unexpected random idea or thing into the equation. The site at watchout4snakes generates random words or phrases for you, and you can specify the kinds of words or phrases you want. This one at CreativityGames will give you groups of random words that you can manipulate on the screen to encourage more ideas. Or just pick up a dictionary and pick words at random.
When you hit your goal, end the session. Thank everyone, and let them know what’s next. Will you have another session to identify and refine the top ideas? Maybe it would be good to develop some criteria to screen and evaluate all those good ideas so you can select the best option.
Brainstorming – The Takeaway
With good preparation and the right environment, a brainstorming session can be a great way to generate new ideas to solve problems. The keys are to have a clear problem statement at the beginning, get lots of ideas flowing no matter how silly, and have a way to capture them as they come out so that others can see and add to them. With the right approach, as a leader, you will be one step closer to solving your problem, or coming up with the next great thing.
I’ve posted a video about brainstorming that includes some interesting examples of creative problem solving. Also, check out one way to incorporate brainstorming into a larger planning session for maximum effectiveness.
Question: What techniques have you see for getting the creative juices flowing in a brainstorming session?