Brainstorming – 7 tips

I was invited to a brainstorming session a couple of weeks ago, I jumped at the chance – I love brainstorming sessions, I tend to come out of them with more ideas for my own work as well as contributing some to the session.

But this one fell flat and I’ve been thinking about what went wrong and what makes a good brainstorming session. Here’s what I’ve come up with;

Timing
Choose a time when participants have some energy to be creative; Friday last thing might not be the time of the week when people are feeling their most energetic or creative – or it might be a good opportunity if you can move them to a different environment and finish the week on a high.
Environment
Go somewhere different, or do something different to make the participants feel they’re outside the office and away from their work. One friend spent 50 euro at IKEA to buy everything needed to create a picnic environment for his brainstorm.
Participants
Choose a mixture of participants; you want a mixture of approaches, ideas, thought processes. Try to have a mixture of introvert and extroverts – but make sure the introverts get a chance to be heard. If the brainstorm is about a creative issue, for example a product name, make sure there are people in the group from the target audience – and make sure their voices are heard.
Purpose
Make sure the purpose of the brainstorming is clearly defined; “re-imagining how we work” or “naming the new product”.
Process
Be very clear on the process – even if not all steps are disclosed to the participants up front. The process should include;

  • set ground rules – everyone’s ideas are valid, no ‘black hat‘ reactions, no blocking, no evaluating of ideas
  • a briefing, outlining the purpose, the context, and how the outcomes of the brainstorm will be used
  • an exercise to switch people’s thinking out of their daily grind mindset, I’ve used masks to reinforce that we needed to look at the question through different eyes
  • an exercise to generate ideas – this should be a no holds barred free for all idea session
  • order ideas – group or order the ideas, for example if the exercise is around naming a product you might group the names into types such as “emotional”, “descriptive” and “new word”
  • discuss – it’s important to discuss how everyone arrived at their ideas, sometimes this will help convince at the next step, or help people think of new direction

Outcomes
I always go into a brainstorming hoping we’ll get the perfect answer, sometimes that doesn’t happen. It’s important that you drive towards the goal but don’t force it; if the right answer doesn’t come out of the brainstorm be positive about what has been offered and reinforce what the next step will be.
Fun
Do something original to make the brainstorm fun. Our meeting rooms have glass walls and after the brainstorm were I used masks I had several people ask if they could join the next session. Dare a little, it will be appreciated.

The best brainstorming session leaves everyone feeling positive about the project, and invested in the outcome – even if it wasn’t “their” idea that was chosen.

What was the best brainstorming you’ve been to?

image Brainstorms at INDEX: Views /Jacob Botter/ CC BY 2.0

Thinking outside the box

CM2009_04_box“Thinking outside the box” refers to thinking creatively, outside the usual parameters, finding original solutions to a pressing problem. It’s often used by managers to inspire innovation – if only it were that simple!

The phrase turned up in the 60s and 70s and is traced back to a famous 9 dot puzzle first published in 1914 which instructs you to connect a grid of 9 dots with four straight lines – if you haven’t seen the puzzle before it’s presented  here (with the solution).

Initially the puzzle seems impossible to solve until you realise that you don’t have to restrict yourself to the area within the nine dots. Once you think outside that box you can solve the puzzle easily.

If you’ve seen the puzzle before then try thinking of how you could connect all nine dots with fewer lines, can you do it with just one line?  (It is possible; in fact there is more than one solution.)

The phrase may not inspire innovation within companies but it has inspired cartoons. It has also been linked to Pandora’s box and used to inspire some wonderful art. A fluid explosion of colour called “Thinking outside pandora’s box” by Tim Parish, cheeky fabric art by Susan Else, and subversive photography by Holger Eleby.

So it seems to be a term that’s well understood and that does inspire artists and cartoonists. How useful is it in the business world?