When I first started working, it was for a multinational corporation. Meetings and profit margins were the order of the day. It was exciting times, save for one confusion. Whenever there was an issue or a problem , someone would say “Alright, let’s brainstorm about this!”
And the group would get together…and have a meeting. No different from a financial meeting, product review meeting, team meeting…you get the picture. Where was the brain ‘storm’ in all of this?
I know better now.
Dazzle them with blinding ideas
The idea behind brainstorming is quite literal – it involves hijacking the brain from working the way it normally does when confronted with a problem. What’s normal, you ask? It’s how we think about a problem, how we sift through information and form logical links, discard improbable ideas, and come to obvious conclusions. This happens quickly and often unconsciously.
The normal way of thinking works just fine most of the time, but there are some occasions when having an edge really makes the difference from being adequate to extraordinary. And that’s where brainstorming is useful. When you’re looking for unique, unconventional, over-the-top solutions or ideas.
The process in a nutshell:
- Write out your question, issue or theme on a board or flipchart paper. It’s important to be clear- keep it simple, one issue only.
- Get a group together, no more than 8 people. (Tip: for diversity in ideas, try having a mix of people with different outlooks, from different departments or teams)
- Ask the group to think about the problem, give them a minute or two only. Time restrictions force people to say what they’re thinking without applying internal censors or logic.
- Brainstorm for 25 – 30 minutes only. Do not exhaust the issue by prolonging the exercise.
- Write down what people say on the board/ flipchart. Make sure the notes are visible to all. (You might want to use a mind map)
- No criticism or censorship.
Brainstorming is the act of forcing thoughts and ideas out without too much internal processing. For this to happen, we need to create conditions that ‘allow’ it:
- Start the session with an unrelated exercise. Show the group a paper clip, a stapler or a pair of scissors (anything ordinary), and ask them to think of its possible uses. Let them know you’re looking for crazy ideas, push them to suspend logic. Accept all ideas- the crazier, the better. Set the tone for the brainstorm by encouraging an anarchic way of thinking. (It can be quite liberating for the group!)
- One important aspect in facilitation is the role of the room setting. We don’t always have the luxury of space or furniture. For brainstorming, you don’t need much to create an environment that inspires closeness and trust. You can achieve this by creating a cozy setting with chairs arranged in a semi circle around a board or flipchart stand. You’re now in a tight circle that appears to be almost conspiratory.
- Depending on resources, if possible, introduce a change of scenery. Take the group out of the office, for the brainstorm. This signals to the group, that you’re looking for solutions that are different (not obvious ones). This is good for teams that already work closely together, who need fresh perspective on old problems. It may be under a tree at the car park, a park or a beach (if you’re so lucky!).
Brainstorming can be a rewarding exercise, if it is taken for what it is – a method to get wild ideas that challenge the status quo. I say that because when you start brainstorming, you are now exposing the group to an ‘anything goes’ mode. Some of the ideas generated may challenge the way the team usually works. It’s important to ensure that all the ideas be included at first, so as not to disrupt the process.
What do we do with the crazy ideas?
This is a question that needs to be answered, based on the needs of the organization, team or individual with the problem. What’s needed is a plan. Here are some suggestions:
- Vote with the group who came up with the ideas. Give each person two votes, and go with the popular choices.
- Prioritize. Go through each idea with the group. Remind them of organizational limits and ask if the ideas fit in with the workplace. Eliminate as you go down the list. (not the most democratic, but it is inclusive)
- Analyze the ideas, prioritize and ask small working groups to build on the ideas in a separate activity.
Brainstorming is fresh and invigorating. Yet not everyone will appreciate this method, no surprise really. We all have our preferred work habits. If introduced in small doses as a part of a larger activity, even the harshest critic should be able to see the benefits of a good brainstorm.