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On their dictionary website, Webster’s defines brainstorming as a way of developing new ideas through "intense group meeting encouraging uninhibited and spontaneous contributions from all members” Over time, enough books and articles have been written about the idea of brainstorming that it would take weeks to read them all. Enough brainstorming rules and ‘best practices’ have been created to confuse anyone who tried to follow them. The end result is that most of us have, by now, endured a bad brainstorming experience that was neither unrestrained nor spontaneous, and yielded few good new ideas. Some readers of this article may have to endure bad brainstorms periodically if they have management that have bought into some of the bad ‘best practices’ that are out there. Others may have simply given up on the concept of brainstorming altogether as a waste of time.
It’s interesting to note that on Merriam Webster's website, they trace the origin of the term ‘brainstorm’ to the late 1800s, at which time it apparently referred to a “severe mental disturbance”. One of the definitions given is "a violent transient fit of insanity." Brainstorming is a bit crazy if we go about it the wrong way, and still expect good results.
So, how do you make brainstorming a productive innovation tool? How do you actually extract value from it and make it a valuable part of your innovation processes?
First, don’t worry so much about “the rules”. In my experience, a lot of the rules are somewhat counterproductive with respect to generating great new ideas. And, frankly, if you’re working with a group of people that can’t function in a brainstorm without rigid rules, how creative are those people really going to be?
A common rule is “there are no bad ideas in brainstorming”. Ummm…. I don’t know where this concept comes from, but I’ve never been in a brainstorm that didn’t produce at least one bad idea. This can be a very destructive rule, and lead to a lot of wasted time. There ARE BAD IDEAS IN BRAINSTORMING. The key is to acknowledge that an idea is off topic, or not heading in the right direction, try to build on it positively if you can, and then move on. As a session starts to wind down, focus on eliminating ideas that are bad, or even just okay, so that you can conclude with a strong list of winners.
Another relatively common practice, if not a rule, is that the leader of the session should mostly facilitate while letting the participants generate ideas. In my experience, brainstorms are much more productive and powerful, if the leader dynamically leads the session and contributes ideas while building on the ideas of others. This, of course, requires a moderator that thinks quickly on the spot – of course, if your moderator doesn’t think quickly on the spot, maybe he or she shouldn’t be leading a brainstorm.
Of course, there are some ‘best practices’ that do make sense, so long as they don’t become so burdensome as to quash the creative energy of the process. A few guidelines I try to keep in mind include:
1. Defining and understanding the goal of the brainstorm is important. If you don’t know where you’re trying to go, you won’t get there. Make sure that the goal is well communicated to participants. If you’re really trying to develop a new product to compete with competitor X, be clear with the group about that goal.
2. Everyone should come prepared to the session. All participants should know about the goal and the general topic space a few days in advance. That way, they can be thinking about solutions in advance. Spontaneity is great, but it can start happening prior to the session.
3. Get a diverse group together. Try to pull people from several different disciplines. Don’t just have a brainstorm with six engineers, or six scientists, or six designers. Try to get several points of view.
Good brainstorming technique is not about rules or best practices. It requires dynamic, on-your-feet thinking, and the ability to operate in a more unrestrained and spontaneous way.
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