The brainstorm is often perceived as the Holy Grail for answering questions that arise in business. But did you know there are right and wrong ways to brainstorm? An unfocused brainstorming session can be a waste of time but conducted properly, can have huge benefits. Here are 6 tips for better brainstorming.
1. Separate your thinking. Creative thinking and critical thinking use different parts of the brain. Don’t put your brain under more pressure than it needs by constantly switching from the right brain centre of creativity and imagination to the stricter left-brain centre of critical and analytical thinking. Do the creative thinking in one sitting, take a break, and then choose the best options. Make lists – then make choices.
2. Suspend judgement. Following on from point 1, if it’s so important to separate creative and critical thinking, it follows that while you are brainstorming for ideas that the critic is kept in the background. So suspend judgement on ideas – no criticism at all. When people criticise ideas they block the flow. Imagine the situation where an idea is put forward and immediately someone tells you why it won’t work. Not only does that put a negative blanket on proceedings, it also subdues people into not wanting to put their ideas forward for fear of criticism. It’s also important to avoid telling people how wonderful their idea was. Doing so inevitably leads to more similar ideas coming forward and therefore can stifle creativity. It can also suppress ideas from others. They may have had a great idea and were just about to put it forward when another idea is heaped with praise. They then reason that their idea was probably not in the same league so don’t put it forward. Lost ideas are a tragedy! This introduces the third form of critic – self-judgement. Individuals in brainstorming sessions often see others as being better able to come up with ideas so don’t put their own forward for fear of ridicule.
3. Build on ideas. Some great ideas often come along when a ‘theme’ of ideas gathers momentum. Somebody may mention ‘direction signs’ as an idea. Then the theme continues around signs, such as warning signs, warning labels, sticky labels, coloured labels, coloured packaging, flavoured packaging, etc… And so it goes. As soon as the theme runs dry move on to something else.
4. Seek out the ‘wild ideas’. Some of the greatest solutions ever have come about as a result of the crazy, wild ideas that have surfaced in brainstorming sessions. A colleague was working with a glassware company. Glasses were wrapped in newspaper, inserted in a card sleeve and packed into a box. The problem was that people on the packing bench would frequently stop to read the articles in the newspaper! Productivity was on the way down. In the brainstorming session designed to find a solution, the wild idea came from an exasperated participant who suggested that they should “Poke their eyes out!” Maybe not the best idea as it stands!? But what is the underlying principle? What’s ‘up’? The ‘up’ here is, “how can we stop them from seeing”. A few options were considered before someone suggested employing people who might be vision impaired. And that is exactly what the company did. And they gained more than they anticipated. Not only did the new recruits not stop to read the paper, their improved tactile ability reduced breakages and the company received some very positive PR as a result of employing people who were finding it difficult to get work.
5. Go for quantity. The more ideas you have the more likely you are to find a good one! Really strive for as many ideas as possible, and remember not to judge along the way. Limit your brainstorming sessions to just four minutes. Yes – four minutes only. Your brain is just like a muscle. If you went to the gym you would typically lift a certain weight perhaps 12 times. You couldn’t keep lifting it up and down for an hour. In exactly the same way, your brain can’t keep brainstorming for an hour either.
6. Be clear what you are brainstorming about. In particular, don’t just brainstorm on possible solutions. Before you get to solutions it’s best to brainstorm first on ‘what’s the issue?’ then follow up with ‘what’s the ideal future?’ – and then finally on to solutions. Through this entire process, make sure you keep the thinking separate; creative then critical, make lists then make choices.
If you follow these principles the quality of your brainstorming sessions is just bound to improve. You will come up with a lot more ideas and have more to choose from. And you’ll save a lot of time into the bargain.
Ken Wall is the creator and CEO of consultancy firm The Thinking Network™ (www.thinkingnetwork.com.au)
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