How to Brainstorm
What Exactly is Brainstorming?
Brainstorming is one of the best ways to get your creative juices flowing and produce new and innovative ideas. It is the starting point for new products and processes, or for solving difficult problems. It should not, however, be confused with planning and organizing. Once you have brainstormed, you have just begun your work.
Brainstorming can be done all by yourself, but it’s better when done with a group of diversely minded people. Starting with a problem to be solved or an opportunity to be explored, you generate as many possibilities as you can in a short “storm” period. Either alone or in a group, here are some ground rules that will help you be more successful.
It seems counterintuitive, but to be the most creative, usually you need some constraints. It is only then that you will be forced to truly rely on your ingenuity. I am reminded of Igor Stravinsky, who wrote in Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons:
“Well, in art as in everything else, one can build only upon a resisting foundation: Whatever constantly gives way to pressure, constantly renders movement impossible.”
In essence, if you hold a total “free for all,” you are likely to waste your time just wandering around aimlessly. So you will need to set up some boundaries. Not many, but enough to help you maintain focus.
But I’m not saying anything new here. There are dozens of articles out there with rules for brainstorming. What I have done is to boil them all down to just the essentials for your consideration.
Set the Stage
First and foremost, set the stage for engagement. Don’t do anything else while you are brainstorming. Don’t allow interruptions (e.g., text messages, YouTube videos, pop-up notifications, etc.). Stay on point. If something irrelevant comes up in the discussion, put it in the “parking lot list” rather than spending time and energy on it in the moment. Above all else, keep the atmosphere upbeat: don’t allow negativity and energy-draining commentary to suck the life from the room.
State Your Objective
State your objective clearly, and stick to it. Don’t try to brainstorm about new product ideas at the same time as ways to cut the budget. If necessary, remind people of your objective, or post it in the room where everyone can refer to it during the session.
Taking turns around the room (assuming you are brainstorming in a group setting), let the ideas flow without judgment. This is the part of the process that makes people think that there shouldn’t be any rules. However, the idea-generation phase must be allowed to flow without criticism, ranking, or evaluation of any kind. That includes eye-rolling. Even the slightest criticism can change the mood from active involvement, to self-editing. Don’t allow comparisons either, as these can be a disguised form of criticism.
Use Your Right Brain
Allow your right brain to take over. That means that precise word choice and exact spelling are irrelevant at this point. Be silly. Be outrageous. Don’t be rigid and well-formatted. Everyone should contribute ideas, saying “pass” if they need a bit more time at any given moment. The process continues until everyone has said “pass” in sequence, or if there is a time constraint that has been reached.
And don’t worry about execution details. Save those for later. There will be plenty of time to worry about costs and implementation details later. The objective is to get a lot of ideas out there.
Don’t worry about the past. Even if the idea has been considered before, today is a new day. Don’t hold back just because it’s been suggested once before. The time may be right now. Just get the ideas out there, and evaluate them later.
Once you have generated a long list of ideas, then, and only then, can you begin to evaluate your list. Start by combining like ideas, and eliminating the obviously impractical. Now is the time to rank your ideas, and begin the process of researching implementation details. If you have done your brainstorming well, you will have a lot of follow-up work to do. That is the mark of a good session.
For More Information
This book goes into much more detail on how to brainstorm, including information on how to evaluate ideas, and prioritize the most useful concepts.