A perfect (brain) storm

8 August 2011 After the storm

We are going to ease into our discussion of useful practices for establishing a solid and successful organisational program with a fairly common one – brainstorming.

In fact you might think it is so common that it’s not worth mentioning at all, but I disagree. Brainstorming is one of the most underutilized, misunderstood tools in the development of intellectual infrastructure – or maybe it’s just that intellectual infrastructure and then everything that supports it is completely undervalued too… We’d better ignore that tangent today!

According to the Merriam Webster online dictionary, brainstorming is “a group problem-solving technique that involves the spontaneous contribution of ideas from all members of the group”. I would identify the key words here as being ‘problem-solving’, ‘spontaneous’, ‘ideas’ and ‘group’.

This definition is interesting in its simplicity. It focusses the act of brainstorming on generating and collecting ideas, plain and simple.

Some people think of brainstorming as not being limited to the scribbling of ideas on the whiteboard and post it notes. They think it includes the next steps of prioritizing ideas and then deciding how to move forward.

I see it slightly differently. Brainstorming is simply about generating ideas within a given problem space. It is about not judging – critical thinking should not be used except as a means of generating new ideas. There should be no ‘that won’t work’, no ‘that’s not within scope’, no ‘hey you’ve said your quota’. It should be confined to creative thinking only; a discussion about what to do with these is not part of the brainstorm and should be kept apart.

And the problem space that you want to brainstorm about – well it can be anything you want! Birthday party ideas or what to grow in your garden or, in the context of this blog, what your organisation’s mission, goals and principles could be.

So how to brainstorm?

1. Get ready

The physical tools you might use are probably as varied as your potential workshop participants. Post it notes, whiteboards, butcher paper, adhesive fabric spray, textas, blue tak… It really comes down to where you’re doing the brainstorm, what you have at your disposal and what will facilitate the greatest flow of ideas from your participants. If you’re brainstorming at the beach, take sticks – and if budget permits hire an aerial photographer or a darn good satellite. If you’re office-bound some online group brainstorming software may take your fancy or any other medium that is practical and fun.

2. Set the boundaries

This is the bit that takes most preparation time, but can make the difference between a successful brainstorming session vs a complete and painful belly flop. Before igniting the flow of ideas, consider the following factors and how you will present them to your team.

  • Time limit – this should be easy. Set the amount of time based on how much time it is worth your organisation to commit to the brainstorm, taking into account the cumulative pay of participants and the value of any potential ideas given the subject matter and decide. Maybe not quite so easy would be a flexibility mechanism. If the flow of ideas has stopped five minutes early, can you end or should you be prompting the group to explore some other dimension? Or, if you’re on a roll, does everyone need to agree before you extend the time. This is something that should probably be addressed before EVERY meeting, but I think for a successful brainstorm where everyone participates in as much good faith as possible it is definitely worth clarifying this up front.
  • Ground rules / principles. See paragraph 6. No critical thinking. No erasure of suggestions. No diversion from the subject at hand. (but maybe I’m a bit inflexible about this sort of thing?)
  • Last but not least is context. It is for you, the leader of the brainstorm, to have planned what will happen with these ideas, what the next step is in your project. Don’t bring people along and expect amazing ideas to be contributed to a void. You need to be very clear on the problem you’re trying to address (whether it’s a ‘problem’ per se or more opportunity-seeking), so participants can focus their creativity on generating ideas rather than trying to understand what you want. And you need to be very clear on what will happen next with the ideas (whether it be you take them away and analyse them by yourself, or whether you will analyse them as a group, and possibly even what criteria and supporting information they will be analysed against). It is sooo easy for a brainstorm to be derailed before turning up anything interesting by someone wanting to get down into the details of implementation. So pre-empt it! Get process out the way early so that it doesn’t disrupt the storm.

3. Go (and Convene)

And hopefully you’ve set the scene enough to be set and go and ride the wave of ideas that catapults toward you! You will need to umpire, but it’s about getting the flow ideas going and enforcing the ground rules and time limit (including stopping any critical thinking in its tracks) rather than approving / disproving the suggestions themselves.

4. Afterwards

After the brainstorm I suggest you do what you said you would do with the ideas and provide feedback to the participants (although this again should go for any meeting). There is not much worse for an employee’s morale than the feeling that some platinum ideas have been contributed, but nothing is heard about them ever again – or worse, heard that they have been used months down the track without giving credit.

So there you have it folks. How to run a perfect brainstorm.

What do you think?

To what extent can you keep critical thinking out of a brainstorm? And do you think there are any cons to doing so?

What do you think?