Brainstorming: how to start

Whatever industry you work in, sooner or later you will need to generate new ideas. Dreaming up new products and services is an important part of any commercial venture. But there’s more to creative thinking than pure innovation. These days careers depend on an ability to conjure up something original.

Even if you work in a stable business where little changes from year to year, eventually you’ll rub up against a problem or challenge that requires you to think outside the square.

Imagination comes naturally to many people, but not everyone has the gift. The good news is that even people who think they lack creativity are capable of coming up with fresh insights — it’s partly a matter of practice, but it also depends on finding clever ways to shed the creativity-hindering baggage.

Brainstorming is one of the best tools for doing this. It’s a technique that has often proved its worth over the past 60 years or so and has evolved into an essential workplace discipline. Most of the world’s leading companies use it everyday. So do artists, writers, actors and other people in creative professions who need to generate fresh ideas by the truck-load.

Although you can buy software designed to speed or smooth the brainstorming process, it’s possible to brainstorm without any tools; all you need are two or more active brains, some ground rules and a little imagination.

The first brainstorming sessions took place in the advertising industry more than 60 years ago. In the 1930s, an advertising executive called Alex Osborn found himself becoming increasingly frustrated with the way meetings called to develop advertising strategies often stymied and not helped develop fresh ideas.

At the time, be-suited executives would troop into a room for a formal business meeting and then carefully work through an agenda. The strict managerial hierarchies of the day meant that junior executives would defer to their seniors; speaking out of turn could be a career-limiting move. Not surprisingly many people were too frightened to speak out so they kept their bright ideas to themselves.

Often, concepts would be discussed in a highly combative way, so that the last man left standing (in those days it was always a man) would get his way. Usually this would be the most senior person in the room or perhaps the person with the most aggressive personality. Alternatively people would come to the meeting with great ideas, but the politics of the meeting saw them work towards a compromise — in the process the ideas would be so diluted that there was little substance left.

Osborn had a master’s degree in philosophy and a great interest in the mechanics of imagination and creativity. He realised that the barriers to inspiration needed to broken down so he devised a simple set of rules.

The process defined by Osborn’s four rules was known as a “brainstorming session”. His basic set of four ideas remains the core of modern brainstorming today and its application now goes way beyond advertising. You’ll find brainstorming being used in every area of commerce, in government and even in academia.

Sydney-based problem solving facilitator John Sleigh teaches companies how to use brainstorming, he also conducts sessions. He uses Osborn’s four main rules and adds the requirement of recording all contributions so that they are clearly visible to all participants. He says, “You really need a flip chart, a white board or better still, an electronic white board. When I started out in the 1970s we used to clip sheets of butcher’s paper to a table and write ideas there with a marker pen. In some ways the paper flip chart is the most user-friendly brainstorming tool of all.”

When Sleigh runs a brainstorming session he starts by asking participants “what are the issues?” He says, “I just stand there and get people to call things out. People who have done it before have no trouble with this. All the ideas are written on the flip chart or white board so that everyone can see everything.”

The next stage is to get people to think about possible ways of solving the problems; the rule is that absolutely anything goes. Sleigh says running a brainstorming session is different from conducting a formal business meeting and people sometimes have difficulty adjusting to the style. It requires a little training, but that shouldn’t take more than an hour. He says once people are freed of convention the ideas flow thick and fast.

If the brainstorming session is specifically geared towards solving a problem, Sleigh gets participants to define success and failure in their own words. He asks them, “What does good look like?” and the answers also go on the flip chart. Then, “What does bad look like?” All these replies and the other to earlier questions are made into one long list of ideas, the second half of the meeting is what he calls the “tidy-up”; a process of sifting through these ideas, imposing order on the elements and looking for improvements.

Sleigh says the first part of the brainstorming process is about getting people’s thoughts to diverge; the second part is to make them converge.

It’s possible to conduct a good brainstorming session with just three people, but experts agree that it tends to be more effective with a larger group of people. If you’re organising a session inside a large organisation, it’s important to get a range of people at different levels and with different responsibilities to take part because you want the subject to be looked at from as many angles as possible.

A relaxed atmosphere is essential. Some organisations have special brainstorming rooms with bean bags or comfy chairs and begin sessions by playing mood music or serving tea and biscuits. You want people to feel that they can say silly things, so one useful technique is to start the session by doing something slightly crazy like giving everyone a funny hat. A more sober but equally effective loosening up might be to start by asking people to describe their favourite pet.

There are many different styles of running a brainstorming session. Some leaders ask people to think privately about matters for a set period before switching to a group session. Other go straight to the group. In some organisations the process is a chaotic free-for-all. In others everyone is asked to make a contribution to the discussion before someone can speak a second time. Some managers have tried technical solutions that work somewhat like an online discussion group operating in real time. There are also idea-generating software packages like Idea Fisher which stimulate free thinking. All of these approaches are valid, brainstorming is not a one-size-fits-all technique.

Perhaps the hardest part of running a brainstorming session lies in knowing when to stop. You need to make sure you generate enough ideas, but it’s good to halt the session when no more new material is forthcoming. One strategy is to impose a fixed time limit on the meeting and work towards a deadline — this can concentrate minds wonderfully. Half an hour should be enough for most sessions, but you might need a little longer if you have a large group of participants.

Most brainstorming sessions wrap up with a list of the better ideas. Depending on your goals this might be the single best suggestion, a top three, top five or even ten items.

This post is an edited version of a story I wrote in the early 2000s for the now-defunct Communiqué magazine.

Brainstorming Links

Brainstorming.co.uk Be warned this site is plug ugly (it still has a mid-90s web look and feel). However it is  useful offering a free brainstorming tutorial and a good jumping off point for beginners.

Edward de Bono Famous for inventing lateral thinking, Edward de Bono promotes alternatives to traditional thought processes. There’s a wealth of material here, but it primarily exists to sell books and consulting.

Idea mapping is a powerful brainstorming tool for sorting through and organising thoughts. You can use it for something as simple as writing a homework essay.

Top Ten Brainstorming Techniques A list of smart ideas to get your brainstorming sessions cooking.

What’s wrong with brainstorming? A constructive criticism of brainstorming.

The Four Rules of Brainstorming

  • Defer Judgement: recognising that good ideas could often wither on the vine, Osborn told meeting participants not to criticise anything that someone else said — at least not during the early stages of a meeting. This means that people can feel confident about putting tentative ideas forward for discussion without fear of being made to feel stupid.
  • Free-wheeling: Osborn knew some of the best ideas come from left-field. So he encouraged people to throw every idea into the mix, no matter how wacky. In fact, he believed the more left-field the idea the better. He is famous for having told participants at an early meeting that it is far easier to tame a wild idea than to make a tame idea wilder.
  • Quantity is important: the more ideas that come up, the greater likelihood that one or more of them contains the best answer. One aspect of creativity is that quantity can be the same thing as quality. Osborn encouraged people to think up lots of ideas and sift through them afterwards.
  • Consolidation and Cross-fertilization: Osborn understood that some of the best creative breakthroughs occur when a second mind builds on an earlier idea or when two different ideas are combined in a new way.

Your Brain

If your brain was a PC, optimising its performance would be easy. You’d start by backing-up important files, cleaning out the recycle bin and defragging the hard drive. Then you’d search for unnecessary bits of code swallowing valuable processor cycles. Next you’d check all your important programs and drivers are up to date. After that you’d schedule regular preventative maintenance breaks to stave off problems before they appear. Finally you’d install a decent anti-virus program and a firewall to keep everything safe from harm.

Thankfully, human brains do most of their necessary maintenance work on autopilot. That’s good news because with as many as 100 billion neurons to play with, your brain is considerably more complex than any existing computer and it doesn’t come with much documentation. However, there are things you can do to improve on the autopilot and keep your grey matter ticking over at maximum efficiency.

The first is to ensure you get enough good quality sleep. Research studies show that even a small amount of sleep loss has a devastating effect on divergent or creative thinking. At the very least, it will take longer to find key insights and reach decisions. Exactly how much sleep you need depends on your own body, but you should target a minimum of eight hours before any creative work.

Your diet can have a major impact on your ability to think. Most experts agree that a well-balanced nutritional diet helps thought processes. Unlike most body cells, brain neurons don’t reproduce so not eating properly can literally kill your creativity.

Brain neurotransmitters are largely made up of amino acids; you can replenish these by eating eggs, fresh milk, liver, kidneys and cheese. Other good sources are cereals, some kinds of nuts, soybeans and brewers’ yeast. There’s some truth in the old wives’ tale about fish being good for the brain. It has a chemical called Di-Methyl-Amino-Ethanol which is linked to learning, memory and intelligence, it can also increase alertness. Avoid carbohydrates, they tend to cause drowsiness.

Caffeine is a sure-fire way to get the brain moving quickly. Research shows people think faster and clearer after a cup or two of coffee. Be wary of drinking too much, it’ll make you edgy and interfere with sleep.

Exercise and fresh air are great for creative thinkers. This can, but doesn’t necessarily, visiting the gym. Many creative workers, journalists included, find creative inspiration simply by taking a long walk — just walking around is great if your find your creativity is blocked. You may also find it easier to think creatively if you switch off external stimuli.

Lastly, like a knife, your creativity will stay sharp if you use it often, but not so often that it become blunt. Train yourself to think creatively in bursts and give yourself rest periods in between.

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