Brainstorming technique for innovation, creativity and problem solving – a business strategy

Introduction to Brainstorming

 
Brainstorm imageBrainstorming as an approach or technique can be an effective way of generating many ideas on a specific issue which can then be filtered and reviewed to determine which idea or approach is the most appropriate.

Brainstorming as a technique is most effective with groups of between 8 and 12 people performed in a relaxed environment.

 

History of Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a technique often used by groups, but can be done alone (although this is not as effective) to generate a large number of ideas for the solution of a problem.

The technique was first documented in the late 1930s by Alex F Osborn in his book called Applied Imagination. In this publication Osborn proposed that groups could double their creative output with brainstorming.

While brainstorming has grown over the years to become a popular group problem solving and creativity technique, there has been little evidence of its effectiveness for enhancing either quantity or quality of ideas generated.

Although traditional brainstorming does not necessarily increase the productivity of groups (as measured by the number of ideas generated), it often provides benefits, such as boosting morale, enhancing work enjoyment, and improving team work.

 

Purpose of Brainstorming

Creative group facilitation technique that encourages participation from all group members.

Graphical representation of Brainstorming

 

Brainstorming

 

Description of an approach

A typical brainstorming session will require:

  • A facilitator
  • A suitable brainstorming space – light, plenty of space, natural daylight
  • Something to write ideas on, preferably a white-board, flip chart or Brown Paper. 

The responsibilities of the facilitator include:

  • Guiding the session,
  • Encouraging participation
  • Capturing (in writing) the ideas.

Brainstorming works best with a varied group of people. Even in areas involving specialists people from outside of the sector or industry can often bring a fresh idea or approach that inspires the thinking of the experts.

 

Ground Rules for effective brainstorming
In the classical approach to brainstorming there are four basic rules. These rules are designed to reduce social inhibitions among groups members, stimulate idea generation, and increase overall creativity of the group:

  1. Focus on quantity: It is not the quality or practicality that is important – just sheer number of ideas. It is believed that quantity breeds quality. The greater the chance of producing a radical and effective solution.
  2. Withhold criticism: Any judging at this stage inhibits lateral thinking and may inhibit some group members from participation.
  3. Welcome unusual ideas: New perspectives are welcomes and assumptions suspended.
  4. Combine and improve ideas: This also encourages building on the ideas previously generated. In this case “1+1=3″.

Conducting a brainstorming session

The facilitator leads the brainstorming session and ensures that ground rules are followed. The steps in a typical session are:

  1. A warm-up session, to expose novice participants to the criticism-free environment. A simple problem is brainstormed
  2. The facilitator presents the problem and gives a further explanation if needed
  3. The facilitator asks the brainstorming group for their ideas
  4. If no ideas are forthcoming, the facilitator suggests a lead to encourage creativity
  5. A nominated person (s) capture the ideas in real time – using the words of the person presenting the idea (to avoid filtering)
  6. All participants present their ideas, and the idea collector(s) records them
  7. To ensure clarity, participants may elaborate on their ideas
  8. When time is up, Everyone takes a break (of at least 15 minutes.
  9. The facilitator organizes the ideas based on the topic goal and encourages discussion
  10. Ideas are grouped and categorized
  11. The whole list is reviewed to ensure that everyone understands the ideas
  12. Duplicate ideas and obviously infeasible solutions are removed (or parked for use in another session)
  13. The remaining ideas are considered and where possible built upon
  14. The group work through the remaining ideas and prioritize possible solutions for implementation
  15. The facilitator thanks all participants and gives each a token of appreciation.

 

Some of the techniques and vehicles to which brainstorming can be used:

Classic brainstorming

The group is responsible for focusing its attention on a problem or question for a limited period of time, no longer than 90 minutes. The objective is to generate as many solutions as possible. With the group select the five best ideas, the criteria for judging them and score them on a scale of 1-5. The best idea is the one with the highest score.

The Challenge

The problem is exaggerated or made more difficult than it really is which forces the problem to be addressed from a different perspective and gets the group to think creatively about solutions.

What If?

Each member of the group is asked to pose a minimum of three “what if?” questions about the problem/question/topic. For example, the question is, “How do we reduce employee turnover”, “what if we doubled everyone’s salary?” This technique enables the consideration of hypothetical solutions that are not part of everyday thinking.

Role Playing

Ask colleagues from a different department, other firms or countries how they would solve the problem. An original solution may be developed by viewing the problem from a different professional perspective.

The Wrong Way

Instead of generating ideas or solving problems, the group deliberately tries to generate poor ideas or ways to make the problem worse. For example if trying to improve client retention, ask “What could we do to ensure clients never purchased from us again?” By focusing on poor client service, the focus is on the issues that matter most to the client, which generate ideas that are better positioned to solve the problem.

Metaphors

A metaphor is a word or phrase that symbolizes something other than its literal meaning. An example of using metaphors when brainstorming is, when seeking to energize the maintenance team visualize them as a football team, how would you improve their performance? By applying metaphors, you may gain a fresh perspective on the problem.

Word Associations

Instead of generating specific solutions or ideas, the group simply generates whatever word or phrase that comes to mind. For example, if the group is discussing ways to improve the interior appearance of the main office, they might generate words like: “fabric”, “colour”, “paint”, and “texture”. Later these key phrases can be used to develop action plans.

Risky Options

This brainstorming technique encourages wild and risky approaches to problems. Normally members of the group may be afraid to suggest unusual or risky options because they are overcome by the fear of failure or group criticism. You may even provide a prize for the riskiest option.

The Hunter

Group members play “the hunter” by scanning through newspapers, magazines, literature etc. hunting for random ideas that might have a bearing on the problem they are trying to solve. This technique can be used equally well with small groups and individuals.

Brainstorming and epilepsy – political correctness run amok

In the press some have claimed that the term “Brainstorming” may be derogatory to epileptics. The word ‘brainstorming’ is not offensive to the vast majority of people with epilepsy, according to a survey carried out by the National Society for Epilepsy.

The word has been used since the 1940s to describe the method of problem-solving or generating ideas where all present at a meeting make spontaneous suggestions.In the survey, 93 per cent of people with epilepsy did not find the term derogatory or offensive in any way and many felt that this sort of political correctness singled out people with epilepsy as being easily offended.

Ref http://www.epilepsy.org.uk/node/1078

Alternative words thought-showers, blue-sky thinking, Boardblast

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About Mike Morrison

Mike Morrison is a consultant and change agent specialising in developing skills in senior people to increase organizational performance.
Mike is also founder & director of RapidBI, an organizational effectiveness consultancy.

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