Brain Food: Crash course in ... brainstorming

Your business needs some bright ideas. Everyone's got their head down for much of the time and the spark of creativity has turned into a damp squib. Maybe it's time to try a spot of brainstorming.

by Alexander Garrett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It's not just for neophytes. Far from being a recent invention, brainstorming, according to Wikipedia, was originated in 1953 by advertising exec Alex F Osborn in his book Applied Imagination. For the politically correct, it's a 'thought shower'.

What's your problem? Brainstorming can be used to address both problems and opportunities, says Peter Clayton, director of Infinite Innovations and its website www. brainstorming.co.uk. 'The main thing is to have a clear understanding of what you're trying to achieve through your brainstorm.' The technique is for ideating rather than decision-making, and it's useful for creating concepts and picking identifying names.

Pick your brains. According to the Design Council, groups should ideally consist of between six and 10 people. It may not be practical for people to shout out their ideas within a larger group. The more diverse the individuals, though, the better.

Keep it chilled. Brainstorming works best when the participants are relaxed and don't feel pressurised or intimidated. Choose a neutral venue such as a hotel room (OK, put down some bean-bags if you must) and pick a facilitator who people will warm to. 'If it's run by the manager and they are an authoritarian figure, people are sometimes scared to put ideas forward,' says Clayton. 'Pick someone who's fun, sociable and creative, even if they are not the owner of the session.'

Kickstart the thinking. If you simply say what you're looking for and ask for ideas, you won't get much. Use techniques such as random word or picture generation to get the creative juices flowing. You can even buy software to do it for you.

Rule everything in. A key principle of brainstorming is that no idea should be considered too wild or silly to be aired. 'Explain to people that their idea might be a solution or simply a stimulus for somebody else's idea,' says Clayton. Criticism of other participants should be strictly discouraged.

Make a record. You can offer whiteboards or flip charts, or get people to write on paper (if they're shy), or appoint one person as a scribe; you can even video the meeting. But it's vital that you get all the ideas produced in the meeting written down.

Aftermath. Scott Berkun, an American project management and design consultant, says: 'The most important thing about a session is what happens after it ends.' There's nothing worse, he argues, than for a team to see its creative thinking fall into a black hole. Winnow out the list of ideas to the five or six best and inform the participants on progress in investigating these further.

Do say: 'Tell us what comes into your head - we'll decide later if it's useful.'

Don't say: 'The person who comes up with the most stupid idea has to wear this hat.'

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