Brainstorming, nonetheless the popularity of the term, is one of the most challenging collaborative activities to carry out in a small group. While most people think they know how to brainstorm, very few have really gotten the basic rules needed to make a brainstorming session work effectively.
Photo credit: Darko Novakovic
For example, one of the most common mistakes is the one of criticizing or listing the reasons why an idea suggested by someone else is not good. This should be avoided at all costs, since this is a powerful turn-off for anyone.
Rather than approving or disapproving other people ideas it is much more important to leverage the suggestions (bad and good) of others to come up with new and more relevant ideas. That is: no need to stop and say "excellent!" or "no, this doesn't work".
Allow all ideas to come out freely and with no censorship or judgment, as each and every one of them can serve as a spark for one of your brainstorming minds to hook up and fire the winning idea.
Here some specific suggestions you can use to make your brainstorming sessions more productive:
by Ken Thompson
"Start with a well-honed statement of the problem."
The more focus you have at the start of a brainstorming session, the more likely that the participants will contribute useful and relevant ideas to it. Make a special effort in clarifying beyond doubt what the mission is and what needs to be found.
"Don't start to critique or debate and encourage wild ideas."
Never criticize or put down someone else idea just because it doesn't fit your expectations. Use other people contributions to spin off new ideas and do not waste any time criticizing or explaining why someone's else idea is not good. Just keep contributing new stuff with a positive, constructive attitude.
"Go for quantity - 100 ideas per hours is good!"
The more ideas you can collect in a brainstorming session the better. Spend time after the session to identify, single out and number the most valuable ones. Better: during the brainstorming session as new ideas come up number and note them down on a public board visible by everyone so that other can keep using and referencing them in the process.
"When the energy starts to fade, a facilitator should build on an idea or take a jump."
If at any one point during a brainstorming session you feel the energy and the contributions are slowing down, take the one best idea that has emerged so far and take it up for dissection, analysis and as a spin-off for more ideas.
"Capture the ideas in a medium visible to the whole group."
Mind-mapping and visual storyboarding of your brainstorming outputs can be tremendously effective. Especially when you can use the talent of one of your brainstormers to convert simple concepts and ideas into immediately recognizable icons and images.
"Warm up if the group are new to each other or don't regularly brainstorm or likely to be distracted by other pressing matters."
Breaking the ice and warming up the conversational spirit among brainstormers is of the essence to obtain good results. Playing some intellectual game or running a joke competition before brainstorming can often give the right "zing" to the team that needs to focus later on new ideas.
"Encourage diagrams, stick figures (2-D), mock-ups and models (3-D)."
Visualizing new ideas is very effective. The more you can involve your body and the rest of the team in doing so as well, the more peculiar and effective the results that can stem from this process.
Originally written by Ken Thompson for Bioteams.com and first published on January 6th 2006 as "7 Secrets of Better Brainstorming". Edited, formatted and extended with personal comments for each of the seven points, by Robin Good.