What is brainstorming, and how can it help problem solving?

How using the team’s ‘collective brain’ helps organizations innovate and inspire.

What is the meaning of brainstorming?

What is the meaning of brainstorming?

Brainstorming is a way of bringing team members together to share ideas, solve problems and generate inspiration. It should be a creative, inclusive activity where issues can be dealt with, new products and services developed and plans of action established.

It can also be a way of exploring – thinking about reframing issues in terms of questions rather than answers to encourage new ideas. A recent survey showed that 85% of C-suite executives agreed that their organizations were bad at diagnosing problems, and tended to switch too quickly to ‘solution-mode’. Brainstorming can be a way of avoiding inadequately thought-through fixes in favor of genuine innovation.

From a psychological point of view, academics have identified three main sources of innovation using ‘the collective brain’:

  • Serendipity – the brainstorming team comes up with a solution by accident while thinking together about something different

  • Recombination – innovative ideas come about by putting things that already exist together in new ways – think the wheelie suitcase

  • Incremental improvement – where something that already exists is improved, idea by idea

What are the benefits of brainstorming?

What are the benefits of brainstorming?

A good brainstorming session should be carefully structured and managed to encourage the free flow of ideas. This can allow everyone involved to:

Share perspectives

Bringing in people from different aspects of the business, including different job levels, departments and specialisms, allows the group to look at ideas and solutions from new angles. A diverse group provides different priorities, views, experience and skill sets.

Encourage new ways of thinking

A brainstorm can often be a completely new way of thinking for team members who are used to working within more formal frameworks. Being encouraged to come up with lots of new ideas within a more relaxed structure can be a challenge, but can also have unexpected and positive results.

Build team relationships

Uniting people in pursuit of creative solutions encourages team building. Resolving an issue as a team can boost morale and motivation, and even create new working relationships.

Grow knowledge

Brainstorming alongside people from different areas of the business allows participants to build their knowledge and understanding of what other team members and departments do.

Reach collective decisions

Any solution or ideas that come out of a brainstorming session will already have a certain amount of consensus or support from a – preferably varied – group. Some ideas will be immediately understood, others may need development. Some may be popular and others less so. But all this can be dealt with as the brainstorming session progresses, avoiding doubt about the level of support for initiatives later on.

Boost both quality and quantity of new ideas

Asking a group to come up with lots of creative ideas in a short space of time without judgment or elaboration means you’re likely to get more ideas. And at least some of them will be good. Using the whole group to talk about as many ideas as possible will also stress-test potential solutions.

Increase inclusivity

Putting together a brainstorming session from varied areas and levels of the business is a way of allowing multiple voices to be heard, rewarding everyone with increased feelings of belonging.

Resolve problems or raise new ideas at speed

One strong brainstorming session can bring up any number of new ideas, ready-made with team support and potential possibilities for development.

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When is a brainstorm a good idea?

When is a brainstorm a good idea?

Brainstorming isn’t just useful for creating or improving products or services. It can also be used to resolve internal or external business issues, look at client briefs with fresh eyes and think about how to use new tech or business developments to the full. And it can be really helpful to get people together in a room or virtually to find new ways forward when routine and formal processes have created a ‘block’.

How to brainstorm effectively

How to brainstorm effectively

A brainstorming session will be less formal than a regular meeting, but it still needs to be structured. To be effective, participants need to both understand the purpose of the session and feel empowered and confident to contribute. Let’s break down the ingredients of an effective brainstorming session, step by step.

Step 1: Prepare

Decide who will participate in the session. It’s advisable to include a diverse mix of people to bring fresh and varied perspectives. Try to include at least one or two people who have no direct experience of the issue at hand to bring an ‘outside’ perspective which isn’t clouded by experience. This will help avoid groupthink.

Once you’ve decided who will take part, think about the tools you’ll use. Will you need virtual meeting rooms, for example, or mind-mapping software? Set this up in advance.

Set a brief and distribute it ahead of the session to encourage participants to do a bit of thinking ahead and bring some ‘starter’ ideas.

Along with the brief, distribute a timed agenda. Having an agenda (and being strict about time) will help make sure no one person or idea gets bogged down in detail.

Step 2: Introduce

At the start of the session, reiterate what it’s for – what issue, problem or topic it’s targeting. Make clear what you want the output of the session to be and how long you’ll spend on each idea. You can always revisit strong ideas later.

It’s absolutely key to emphasize the freedom to contribute and encourage people to feel confident. Make sure everyone feels included and that they know that their ideas – however left-field – are welcome.

Step 3: Initial brain-dump

Focus on quantity not quality. The more original ideas that come up, the better. And welcome the crazy. Things which may sound off the wall at first may start to look more valuable and inspiring once they’re unpacked.

Make the session visual by using a whiteboard, sticky notes (physical or virtual), colored pens, etc. Many creative people think visually, and using physical and visual tools will maximize their input.

Step 4: Narrow the scope

Now you’ve got your initial bank of ideas, use group discussion to cut them down logically and see whether they stand up to challenges.

And don’t forget to record your results by taking pictures of those all-important sticky notes.

Brainstorming don’ts

Brainstorming don’ts

To make sure your session is a success, there are a few things to avoid.

  • Criticizing or raising objections

    Initially, reward ideas with a positive response, or if none is forthcoming, move on. Try to withhold criticism if possible. It should always be constructive and polite and can come at the end of the session when ideas are being narrowed down.

  • Lack of balance

    Try not to allow the meeting to focus on one aspect of the issue, favoring those whose ideas follow a single train of thought.

  • Anchoring the first good idea

    It’s easy to get carried away with what might look like a solution, but the purpose of brainstorming is to introduce as much varied input as possible.

  • Making your session too long

    Brainstorming can be demanding, and an overlong session can be demotivating resulting in a loss of both quantity and quality of ideas. Set a time limit and make sure everyone knows how long the session is going to be, and end it on time.

6 brainstorming tips

6 brainstorming tips

Here are some more ideas for an effective brainstorming session.

1. Switch processes

Research shows that 60% of people respond best to visual stimuli, 30% work better with written material and 5% are at their best when learning and contributing is tactile. Use a combination of activities, from visual, (mind maps, colored drawings), to written, (lists, bullet points, sticky notes) to practical (handling relevant items/products, moving round the room) to get the most from everyone.

2. Brain writing

Each participant jots an idea down and passes it on. Everyone has an opportunity to add an additional point to the first idea.

3. Speed writing

The group is encouraged to write as many ideas down in a given (short) space of time.

4. Round robin

Move around the room to ask each person in turn what they think. This can work well with a less confident group.

5. Role-playing

This also works with more reserved participants who can often express themselves better when asked about how someone else might think. Encourage the group to imagine what someone well-known but unconnected, or a fictional character, might do in the same situation.

6. Change the scenery, or use a new location

A different environment can free the brain to think more freely.

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