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The Art of Brainstorming

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Brainstorming is a widely used, powerful tool for creative problem solving and breaks away from rigid, process-driven thinking. However, there are some important lessons to learn before you dive into your first brainstorming session. Although using colored markers and over-sized pieces of paper can be fun, it’s important to be prepared and organized so you can get the most out of your next brainstorming meeting.

Here is a list of some of our most valuable recommendations to help you prepare for your next brainstorming session:

Idea Expansion vs. Idea Creation

“Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas” states well know psychologist, Keith Sawyers in an article published in The New Yorker.

Brainstorming sessions should be a time where participants provide their perspective on a set idea, rather than forcing them to generate new ideas. By setting a specific goal at the beginning of your session (i.e. find 10 ways to improve the website for users) participants will use their creative thinking to evolve and extend an idea into a valid solution.

Creativity is also a delicate process and can’t be forced, so using the brainstorming to expand on an existing idea gives purpose and structure to a session. A good tip is to ask participants to brainstorm individually before sharing with the group.

Be careful with criticism

Cliff Kuang of Fast Company believes that criticism is an important part of the creative process, while others believe that criticism should not be allowed in a brainstorming process. In fact, both viewpoints are correct. Criticism is important to refine an idea, to point out weak areas and to highlight potential problems.

However, in a brainstorming session, it is very important that criticism remains constructive and should not attack an idea or suggestion to avoid discouraging participants from contributing freely. You might alternatively decide to prohibit any form of criticism and, as the saying goes, “let the creative juices flow”. However, after brainstorming, when it comes down to creating workable solutions, criticism can be a very useful tool.

Designate a moderator

It’s great when there is a free flowing exchange of ideas in a brainstorming session, but there has to be some structure to ensure ideas stay focused and that everyone has a chance to contribute. It is very common that brainstorming sessions take on a life of their own and talk strays to subjects completely off-topic.

You might also find you have some louder participants talking constantly with the more timid participants not having the chance to contribute. This is where a moderator comes in handy. The moderator’s job is to introduce the topic, ensure that each person contributes and monitor the direction of conversation. This person can also be responsible for taking notes and creating a summary of the session.

So you’ve brainstormed, now what?

If you invest time and effort in a brainstorming session, then you would hope that the new ideas would come to fruition – but this is not as easy as it seems. The biggest brainstorming mistake is not having a framework for integrating new ideas into the workflow.

Although not all ideas produced during a brainstorming session are successful, the ones that are should be immediately integrated so they don’t get lost or forgotten. A helpful technique is to write a summary of the brainstorm immediately after the session. Evaluate, prioritize and designate ideas to team members who will turn the successful ideas into pilots or prototypes. Remember, brainstorming is only the beginning and are only useful if there is a framework for implementing them.

New brainstorming techniques

If you find your current brainstorming format is not really giving the right results, then try one of these techniques by mindtools:

The Stepladder Technique: This method integrates participants into a brainstorming session one by one, and helps to prevent members getting overpowered by louder group members.

Reverse Brainstorming: This tool starts with a current problem and tries to trace back to the root of the problem. This is especially helpful when it’s difficult to identify solutions to a specific problem.

Rolestorming: This is a really helpful technique to look at problems from several angles. During a brainstorming session, the group, or an individual, will take on the role of a competitor, customer or colleague and will brainstorm on the idea from their perspective (i.e. what are their challenges, needs, values?)

Get digital

Since we are in the digital era, it’s logical that we start leveraging digital brainstorming apps for more efficient (and environmentally friendly) sessions. There are endless numbers of apps for collaborative work and task management that include brainstorming features. But we have put together a quick list of our top six easy-access, brainstorming-specific apps:

Bubbl.us: This is an incredibly simple tool for basic mind mapping and available for free online.

MindNode: Although this is only accessible on Apple products, it’s a clutter-free interface that allows you to easily connect ideas for excellent over-view.

Solvr: This is an incredibly simple free tool for solving problems and allows participants to collaborate and solve problems online.

Mind Manager: This classic mind mapping software is based on the mind mapping method by Tony Buzan and allows the user to edit a hierarchical set of ideas around a central concept. The software runs on Windows and MacOS. There are also apps for iPhone, iPad and Android with reduced functionality.

Paper: Another iPad app, but is impressive in its use of illustrations, drawings, notes and diagrams for note taking. It’s especially useful for visually-inclined users.

FreeMind is a free mind mapping application. As a Java application, FreeMind is portable across multiple platforms. 

Evernote: This is one of the best note taking tools available with image and audio integration and very simple drop-and-drag functionality.

Brainstorming is a valuable tool to unlock creative potential whether you use it for informal discussion or integrated problem solving. In all cases, brainstorming can only be effective if you are prepared and focused. So, now you have the tools, get out there and brainstorm!

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Interested in more information about brainstorming? Check the website: Project of How!

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