What is brainstorming?
Brainstorming is a way of generating loads and loads of ideas on a particular subject, especially when you have a problem that you don't know how to solve, so it can also be called "idea generation." It gives you a way of getting a fresh look at the problem and many different possible solutions, even some that you might think of as "silly," but which could be turned into a useful solution or way of helping.
There are many ways of brainstorming, including the use of a mind map, but the classic technique uses a group of people and a whiteboard or flip chart. Other ways of brainstorming include the use of yellow stickies (Post-it notes or similar).
How to Brainstorm - Beforehand
To brainstorm solutions to a problem, you first need to state what the problem is: it could be "how to sell more widgets", "how to go on holiday with no money", "how to decorate the house on a very low budget", "how to learn a foreign language quickly", "how to choose an outfit for a fancy dress party", basically any question you can ask that has more than one possible answer.
Preferably, you need a group of people. Probably between 3 and 8 is best, not too many, not too few. With more people, some get left out (or feel left out) and don't contribute. With fewer people, you don't get the mix and sudden flashes of inspiration that can come when one person's ideas spark another idea in someone else. But if there's only you - don't be afraid to try it out just by yourself - you may well be very pleasantly surprised by the results.
You also need EITHER a whiteboard and pens OR a flipchart and pens OR a handy wall and some yellow sticky notes. The sticky notes (e.g. post-it notes) are easiest for subsequent sorting.
Have you brainstormed before?
Have you ever been involved in brainstorming before?
4 Rules of Brainstorming
Brainstorming ground rules
There are four ground rules for brainstorming. These are:
- Quantity NOT quality. You want to get as many ideas being provided as possible, even if some of the ideas seem silly - just get them down or shouted out.
- No criticising. In this stage, you do NOT criticise the ideas (or the person) in any way. It is ok to ask for clarification, ie, could you say a few more words about that, but NO "that won't work" and no "but how would we do it?". Don't worry about how to do it, or how much it will cost, etc at this stage - that comes later.
- Piggyback ideas. That means that one person's idea(s) sparks an idea in someone else. For instance, someone might say "hold regular coffee mornings" and someone else might "piggyback" on that and say "have an end of year party", someone else might "piggyback" on that and say "have a post-audit party".
- Be creative. Wild and whacky suggestions encouraged. There is NO criticism or evaluation at this stage and ALL suggestions should be put forward, with a huge emphasis on creative, off-the-wall, whacky ideas.
It can be useful to write the ground rules out and pin them up where everyone can see them, so they can be pointed to if anyone starts to criticise a suggestion. All suggestions and all contributors should be given equal weight.Everyone's contribution is worthwhile and should be respected as such.
Video of Brainstorming Rules
Brainstorming - ACTION!
OK, let's get down to it.
1. If you are using a whiteboard or flip chart and pens, then you will need someone to be scribe or notetaker. If you are using a wall and sticky notes, then everyone needs a pad of sticky notes and a pen or pencil.
2. The scribe writes the question at the top of the whiteboard or flipchart pad or the organizer prints it on a piece of paper for sticking on the wall.
3. You can "warm everyone up" by asking a warm-up question, such as, "How many uses can you think of for a paperclip" (or a foam coffee cup, or a tennis shoe etc).
4. Get everyone to shout out suggestions, eg, for a paperclip, suggestions for uses might be:
- hang a picture
- pick your nails
- eat snails
- open it up and unclog the shredder (turn the power off first!)
- use it as a plant tie
5. Once everyone is warmed up and excited or at least, reasonably enthused, start on the "real" question.
6. The scribe or organizer reads out the question and asks for everyone's contribution, then writes it on the board or flippad. If you are using a wall, everyone writes down their own suggestion on a sticky note and the organizer asks participants to read out their suggestions, then in turn, to stick their notes on the wall.
7. Once you have a lot of suggestions, or the rate of suggestions is falling off, ask for a few more. Quite often the last suggestions "squeezed out" can be the best.
Brainstorming - Organising the Results
- Now, you need to organise the suggestions. This is easiest with the sticky notes and wall method. Ask people to go up to the wall and organise the sticky notes into similar groups, so all the sticky notes that make similar suggestions are grouped together. Just move the sticky notes round to do this. One person may want to put a sticky note in one group and someone else may want to put it in another group. If so, just duplicate the note, so one can go in each group.
- With the flippad or whiteboard version, the group needs to go through the suggestions and say which ones should be grouped together and whether any are duplicates which could (with the suggestor's agreement) be removed. Different coloured pens or highlighters are useful here.
- Once the suggestions have been grouped the first time, now by agreement in the group, you need to find a "name" for each group. It could be something like "use blue widgets to plug the holes."
- Once you have a name for each group, see if you can group some of these groups together, using the group names you created in step 3. So you might have two group names: "use blue widgets to plug the holes" and ""use yellow widgets to plug the holes". Find a name for that group. It might be "Widgets for plugging holes".
- Continue this way, trying to make one overarching group name that includes everything suggested but you may not be able to do this.
- Once you have grouped everything as far as you can, it's time for a break.
Brainstorming - Results
Once all the suggestions have been made and grouped as far as possible, it's time to evaluate them. Up until now, there has been no criticism allowed, no negativity, no "that won't work". But now, it's time to sort out the useful from the not so useful. If this is being done as part of a business session, it is often the top group that works on this by themselves. If it is being done by a social group, then it is better for everyone to keep working at it to reach consensus.
Evaluating the session does NOT mean throwing out all the whacky, off-the-wall suggestions. These have a use and it's not just to get others to piggyback useful suggestions onto them. With having grouped all the brainstormed suggestions into categories, it's necessary to look at all those suggestions and see if you can make a helpful combination solution to your problem from them.
For instance, the category "plug leaks with widgets", might include the categories, "plug with blue widgets" and "plug with yellow widgets". Whoever is looking at this category needs to consider how this category fits with the overall question put up at the start of the session and how the suggestions made within this category could be used to solve the problem. You may end up using only yellow widgets, or only blue widgets or some entirely different, combination, maybe green widgets.
If there are a lot of categories, you could get different groups to work on each one and then have a wind-up session at the end where each group presents their findings for general agreement.