Well, it goes without saying that we are more interested in what we should do to have a more effective brainstorming. However, it’s not that bad of an idea to look at how we usually do it, and what’s wrong about it.
How you shouldn’t do it…
Back in those days when I was employed at a large German company, time and again, there were meetings in which brainstorming took place. It usually went like this: The inviter briefly described the topic, went to the flipchart and started writing down his/her ideas. Then, he looked around and added some of the input from the other participants, but – strangely enough – not all of this input. Some of the input was simply “swept aside”… It is not really a surprise in this kind of setting that further ideas were expressed by only a few participants in the meeting, namely those who believed that their ideas would make it to the flipchart despite the censorship of the inviter. In the end of course, the ideas were not very diverse, and there were no surprises either!
How it works…
True brainstorming (i.e. storming the brains of many) can only work if all participants are on a level playing field and interact with each other on an equal basis. The participants of a brainstorming session must feel secure in order for their brains to work in the direction of the actual issue. What is also needed is: moments of silence!
Therefore, I try to reserve time of silent brainwriting when facilitating brainstorming sessions. This means that all participants write down their ideas on post-its for a couple of minutes. Once this brainwriting phase is finished, the post-its are put on a metaplan board or a flipchart, visible to all participants. This is done in rounds – each person in the meeting gets their own time slot, all other participants just listen. Comments from others are not welcome, only genuine questions of understanding are allowed. The magic spell is: “Hold back criticism”.
Brainstorming is all about volume, i.e. quantity rather than quality. Because the weirdest idea expressed by one person can inspire another meeting participant who then comes up with an idea that may not sound so weird at all.
After this silent brainstorming session, during which each participant has had the opportunity to write down everything that has already lain dormant in them, and during which everyone has seen and listened to the ideas of the other participants, it makes sense to see further ideas that might evolve. What is inspiring other participants? What comes to their mind now that they have had the stimulus of the ideas of their co-workers? Again, the participants need silence to make up their minds and write down their new ideas before all new stimuli are again presented for all to see and hear. This is called “Building on the ideas of others”.
These rounds of writing down notes in silence and then making them visible for all others can be continued until the brains no longer produce anything new.
Very often, restrictions help generate additional ideas. While it may sound a bit strange in the first place to restrict the scope of thinking in order to elicit more ideas, it works. Such restrictions urge participants to leave their own box and think in new dimensions. For example, if you force yourself to think about how you can make money as an organization without charging money for your main product, you will definitely come up with new ideas. Restrictions may be as simple as: there is no money for investments, or the solution must not be digital, and so on.
Good brainstorming can be successful when you follow the 10 simple rules set out below:
- The problem to be solved must be understood by all participants
- The right people who really can contribute - even if it is just a different perspective - must be present
- The session is led by a facilitator
- The brainstorming session is truly open to any outcome
- There are periods of silence to think alone and write down notes
- Everyone will have their say and can contribute their ideas on an equal footing
- Criticism is held back!
- There is idle time and space to build on the ideas of others
- Some rounds are subject to restrictions
- At the end it needs to be clear how this wealth of ideas are processed further: there will be a selection, ideally a selection by all of those involved, followed by prototyping and the related user tests that show whether the selection was right or not.
I’ll be happy to support you if you need a facilitator for your or your team’s next brainstorming session! Of course, the presented brainstorming format works remotely as well as in a physical meeting!
This text first appeared in my newsletter 'Innovation on Wednesday'. It is published every other Wednesday. For subscription click here