The Step by Step Guide to Brainstorming
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
Preface: Brainstorming Is Not an Effective Creativity Tool
Before you read the article below, there is one thing you should know. Brainstorming is not a very good way to generate creative ideas. This has been demonstrated in a number of scientific studies performed over the years. To learn more about why brainstorming does not work, read this.
The article below was first written in 1997. Since then and, particularly, since 2004, I have learned a great deal about how individuals and groups generate creative ideas. You can read some of my findings here. In 2011, I completed development of an alternative to brainstorming: anticonventional thinking (ACT). ACT addresses the inherent weaknesses of brainstorming and is modelled on the way artists, musicians, scientists and other creative people develop ideas.
Meanwhile, I leave the original text of the Step by Step Guide to Brainstorming below for archival purposes.
The (Original) Step by Step Guide to Brainstorming
Brainstorming can be an effective way to generate lots of ideas on a specific issue and then determine which idea – or ideas – is the best solution. Brainstorming is most effective with groups of 8-12 people and should be performed in a relaxed environment. If participants feel free to relax and joke around, they'll stretch their minds further and therefore produce more creative ideas.
A brainstorming session requires a facilitator, a brainstorming space and something on which to write ideas, such as a white-board a flip chart or software tool. The facilitator's responsibilities include guiding the session, encouraging participation and writing ideas down.
Brainstorming works best with a varied group of people. Participants should come from various departments across the organisation and have different backgrounds. Even in specialist areas, outsiders can bring fresh ideas that can inspire the experts.
There are numerous approaches to brainstorming, but the traditional approach is generally the most effective because it is the most energetic and openly collaborative, allowing participants to build on each others' ideas.
Creativity exercises, relaxation exercises or other fun activities before the session can help participants relax their minds so that they will be more creative during the brainstorming session.
Step by Step
Define your problem or issue as a creative challenge. This is extremely important. A badly designed challenge could lead to lots of ideas which fail to solve your problem. A well designed creative challenge generates the best ideas to solve your problem. Creative challenges typically start with: "In what ways might we...?" or "How could we...?" Your creative challenge should be concise, to the point and exclude any information other than the challenge itself. For example: "In what ways might we improve product X?" or "How could we encourage more local people to join our club?" Click here to read Dr. Arthur Van Gundy's The care and framing of strategic innovation challenges (PDF document: 537kb)
Give yourselves a time limit. We recommend around 25 minutes, but experience will show how much time is required. Larger groups may need more time to get everyone's ideas out. Alternatively, give yourself an idea limit. At minimum, push for 50 ideas. But 100 ideas is even better.
Once the brainstorming starts, participants shout out solutions to the problem while the facilitator writes them down – usually on a white board or flip-chart for all to see. There must be absolutely no criticizing of ideas. No matter how daft, how impossible or how silly an idea is, it must be written down. Laughing is to be encouraged. Criticism is not.
Once your time is up, select the five ideas which you like best. Make sure everyone involved in the brainstorming session is in agreement.
Write down about five criteria for judging which ideas best solve your problem. Criteria should start with the word "should", for example, "it should be cost effective", "it should be legal", "it should be possible to finish before July 15", etc.
Give each idea a score of 0 to 5 points depending on how well it meets each criterion. Once all of the ideas have been scored for each criterion, add up the scores.
- The idea with the highest score will best solve your problem. But you should keep a record of all of your best ideas and their scores in case your best idea turns out not to be workable.
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