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Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a well-known group creativity method.

What is brainstorming?

Brainstorming is a group-based technique for developing innovative solutions. The idea is that talking about a problem with others will generate new thoughts and ideas that no individual would have thought of on their own - it promotes synergy by getting people to collaborate positively. However, brainstorming is not just having a casual conversation with your teammates. It is directed very specifically to addressing a particular issue that must be stated up front for every participant to understand. Proper brainstorming is also systematic, in the sense that there are rules to follow. Rules can be hard to follow, but following them is important to get a positive result from the session. Brainstorming can also be very tiring - it is a high-energy activity requiring active engagement by all participants for a successful session; participants must be willing to fully engage in the activity, or it is unlikely to produce positive results.

A brief history of brainstorming is available. Note its popularity in many different fields and disciplines; this is a sign that it is a good and natural way to create ideas in a collaborative way.

When should a team brainstorm?

Brainstorming, if successful, will result in many, many ideas, some of which will be great, and others of which will be terrible. Even though a brainstorming session can be done quite quickly, it can take a lot of time to analyze the results and identify the “best” ideas. Also, brainstorming a vaguely defined problem will rarely, if ever, produce a successful result.

So, brainstorming should be used when:

  • there is enough time to carefully analyze the results; and
  • the problem to be brainstormed is quite well-defined1).

How does a team brainstorm?

Here's a quick procedural guide for brainstorming.

  1. Make sure everyone on your team is available for the brainstorming session.
  2. Make sure there is a clear goal for the brainstorming session - a specific question that needs to be answered.
  3. Appoint a discussion facilitator and a secretary. The job of the facilitator is to make sure the team as a whole follows the brainstorming rules (summarized below). The secretary's job is to write down statements that a majority of the team thinks are important. Since the facilitator and secretary have extra chores besides just participating in the brainstorming, they are usually not expected to contribute as much to the brainstorming itself.
  4. Have a warm-up period, during which the team discusses the overall project. This typically lasts between 5 and 15 minutes.
  5. Set a time limit on the brainstorming. Brainstorming sessions that last more than one hour will make people very tired. 30 minutes is usually a good duration, but the actual time depends on the nature of the team members, and the difficulty of the question to be answered. Make sure you leave some time at the end, to summarize the discussion and identify the key points that were the most important results of the session.
  6. Begin brainstorming. Follow the rules (see below). The goals of each participant are:
    • to suggest ideas for solutions that will work
    • to suggest ideas that will stimulate others to come up with their own ideas
  7. Stop when you've hit your time limit, no matter what.

Special Notes about the Facilitator

  • The facilitator is not a leader in the usual sense. The facilitator does not direct the group or impose his will upon it.
  • Instead, the facilitator makes sure that the rules of brainstorming are obeyed, and tries to keep the discussion focused on answering the question that was asked at the session's outset.
  • If the facilitator is also the leader of the group (the “boss”, or group leader, or manager, or CEO, or instructor, or teaching assistant, or chairperson,….) then he must intentionally not contribute his own ideas to the brainstorming session. This can help prevent bias in the results toward the “company line”.
  • If the brainstorming session starts to lose energy, it is up to the facilitator to find a way to revitalize it, maybe by asking the group to consider a different aspect of the question of study.
  • Facilitators are strongly encouraged to read about how to lead brainstorming sessions.

Special Notes about the Secretary

  • The secretary must spend time watching the other participants for reactions. It is usually very evident when a very good idea or a very bad one has been thought of. You want to capture them both in the record of the brainstorming session, perhaps by putting an asterisk beside them. However, the secretary must not forget than even the typical or mediocre ideas deserve to be noted.
  • Try to write down each idea without also writing down your bias about it. Act as if you were an investigator or a reporter and had to write “just the facts”.
  • Make sure everyone in the team gets to check your notes for accuracy; make sure everyone has a copy of your notes when you sit down to consider the ideas more critically (after the brainstorming is finished).

The rules of brainstorming

  • Withhold Judgement of Ideas: Don't waste time and brains trying to knock down everyone's ideas during the session. Focus on coming up with alternative ideas, or build on the ideas of others to improve them.
  • Encourage Whacky Ideas: You'll never know how high you can reach unless you aim for the top. Do not settle just for conventional ideas. Accept bizarre or unconventional ideas, so long as they are not patently impossible (e.g. “Let's implement a faster-than-light drive for this SUV.”) The whacky idea itself may not survive, but it may promote some other team member to come up with a truly successful idea.
  • Quantity Counts: You can choose the best ideas later. Brainstorming is the time to generate as many different ideas as possible and not worry about which ones are good. The worst idea in the world might promote a chain of thought that will lead to the best idea. And that best idea would have never been thought of if the worst idea hadn't been there first.
  • Build on the Ideas of Others: Don't be afraid to base your ideas on the ideas of other team mates. You are all working together - you are not in competition. Instead of knocking down someone's idea because you see a problem with it, come up with a new idea that builds on it by correcting the problem that you perceive. This has been clearly demonstrated in the research (such as [CS14]).
  • Every Person and Every Idea has Equal Worth: Everyone around the table must be treated equally and participate equally. Every idea must be given the chance to pass or fail on its own merits and not on the bias or prejudices of the participants.

Building on the ideas of others is perhaps the most important rule in brainstorming. Research clearly show this is the case ([CS14]). An introduction to this research was written up at Fast Company.

Further notes on these rules are available online.

Other brainstorming resources

There is a great deal of information on brainstorming available on the Web. See Salustri's diigo links on brainstorming for some other web resources. The best resource on the web for brainstorming is probably Brainstorming.co.uk. When you look through those links, you'll find a lot of repetition: these are the underlying principles of brainstorming that are the most important.

Also, don't fear using your team member's personality type indicator results to choose the roles (e.g. leader, scribe, etc.) that need to be assigned for good brainstorming.

REFERENCES

CS14. a, b J. Chan and C. Schunn. 2014. The Impact of Analogies on Creative Concept Generation: Lessons From an In Vivo Study in Engineering Design. Cognitive Science. DOI: 10.1111/cogs.12127. (link)
1)
A “well-defined” problem does not have to be “specific.” For instance, “How do we prevent the spread of SARS in hospital emergency rooms?” is a well-defined but quite general problem that would be suitable for brainstorming.
design/brainstorming.txt · Last modified: 2020.03.12 13:30 (external edit)