We are often called upon to research issues, develop solutions and generate ideas. Sometimes we do these tasks individually while other times we do them collectively, as part of a group or project team. In either case, there are various techniques which have been used for years that can still be used to engage our creative powers. These techniques have all sorts of titles, but they can all be categorized as “brainstorming techniques”. I would like to share some of the “brainstorming techniques” I’ve used to shift my thought processes into a more creative and open mode. Through my years of experience, I have found some of the common reasons to introduce brainstorming techniques into a group discussion are to:
- Foster open communication- all suggestions are welcome, even the crazy ones!
- Engage individuals who might be too shy or intimidated to offer suggestions
- Overcome traditional methods of approaching discussions to achieve results that may never have surfaced
- Introduce individuals to methods that overcome “thought blocking”, enabling them to witness more creative ways of thinking individually
- Build upon each other’s ideas only after all suggestions have been recorded and, hopefully, generate unique and new, workable suggestions by building upon the initial ones
- Build team rapport by fostering team buy-in as everyone is involved in the discussion
Anytime you are brainstorming in a group setting, try to limit the size of the group between five to seven individuals. There are techniques designed for larger groups, but I will begin this “brainstorming techniques” series with a focus on the smaller groups. These techniques may also be used for individual brainstorming.
To foster a good, effective brainstorming session, some good old traditional planning must be completed beforehand. Following are a few concepts that have worked for me:
- The more diverse the group’s backgrounds are, the better the brainstorming environment. So, invite people from all levels and backgrounds. If everyone thinks alike, then you are going to have trouble getting unique suggestions.
- Use non-sterile environments. Traditional conference rooms do not easily lend themselves to the mind-frame being encouraged, so feel free to “dress them up (or down)” beforehand!
- Provide nourishments – snacks or a meal, depending on the time-of-day, length, and budget. Food is a great reward!
- Think “creatively” about taking or recording the pertinent elements of the session. If using paper flip-charts- write in different colored markers. If using PowerPoint or a similar program, keep the presentation engaging by adding personality and flair! Be ready to step into a “meeting control” mode to ensure that creativity is not stifled by someone. Use humor and the following “rules” to help you do this without developing a controlling tone.
- Someone must be assigned to record the elements as they are suggested. This person should not be from a “leader group”. Doing so might influence the environment you are trying to foster in this brainstorming session. But, do keep in mind that it is hard to contribute while being the note-taker, so you might consider trading off this role periodically using a timer or a suggestion counter such as a roll of a die.
- If the invited individuals are not very familiar with each other, consider using an “icebreaker1” exercise to get everyone to relax and get into a creative mood!
- Begin the session with a simple explanation of the “problem”. Do not color it or mention any assumptions unless those must be taken into consideration. Remember that “brainstorming” is used to collect a large quantity of ideas and suggestions. These will be used as input to another later process in determining which of the suggestions warrants further investigation.
- Did I mention providing food and drink?
- Allow for “quiet time”! Quiet time should be called to permit individual reflection and idea generation to ensure that everyone is ready to contribute.
To create an atmosphere in which participants are willing to contribute, you must establish some ground-rules. Here are some of the ones that are fairly common:
- Egos are not welcome.
- Keep an open mind.
- There shall be neither criticism nor rewarding of others’ opinions or ideas.
- There aren’t any dumb ideas. At least in the beginning stages, we are looking for a quantity of ideas, not just quality.
- Thou shalt not judge! We are here to explore all opinions, no matter how far-fetched.
- Don’t stay focused on any one idea for too long. Use a timer of some sort. Expanding upon ideas will be done later, following the brainstorming session.
This month’s brainstorming technique is: Provocation. It is both a “brainstorming” and “lateral thinking” technique. The idea behind this particular concept is to transform our habit of thinking from within the normal established patterns to something that starts with what most would consider an unusual statement.
For example, if your project has a goal to create a new solution to an existing, outdated traffic control system, you might consider a normal question of, “What types of new technology can we use to improve our current traffic control system?” A provocative statement would be one such as, “Why not enable the vehicles to control the system while providing tactile and audio feedback to the driver?” This provocative statement might cause thinking to be done from a set of completely different perspectives. I hope you agree that the statement sounds a lot more fun to explore than the “normal” one! That is the point of the provocative technique! Once you make the statement, you should begin to investigate what might make it work, what is needed to support that thought. Along those same lines, you might consider what benefits might occur as well as what circumstances might make this statement actually sensible. You see, as hard as it might seem, you are moving your thinking into a completely unknown zone from which new insights, questions, and solutions will arise. This is precisely what you want to happen. The more far-reaching and unattainable the question, the more open and creative your suggestions should be.
The provocation brainstorming technique is just one of many that have been used for years. In the next issue, we will explore another time-tested technique that is uniquely suited to ensuring that all participants of the group contribute to the brainstorming session.
Do you have any brainstorming techniques that have worked well? Please feel free to comment.
1For more creative icebreakers, follow this link.
John Schaefer is a Senior Consultant at SDLC Partners, a leading provider of business and technology solutions. Please feel free to contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions on this blog post.