Brainstorming is a simple process for quickly generating a lot of new ideas. Whether individually or with a group, you note down every idea that comes to you – evaluating and analysing them later. By working in this way, you can develop a rhythm as you build on ideas, collaborate as a group and become free to suggest anything without worrying about how good or bad it is. When done well, it can be a really powerful tool which inspires innovation, challenges existing ways of thinking and uncovers new solutions to old problems.
As a personal exercise, it gives you the mental freedom to think through options and scenarios, and in groups, it gives everyone a chance to get their ideas out, raise each other up and consider ideas you’d never have had on your own. It can be an uplifting and exhilarating experience. However, if the session is run poorly, it can end up being an awkward, uncomfortable and counterproductive waste of time.
We’re sharing some tips for making your brainstorming sessions the best they can be. Whether you’re the one in charge or you’re just joining in, they’re essential for creating the right atmosphere for success.
Individual or group brainstorming?
It’s said that group brainstorming can come up with more ideas, but individual brainstorming tends to generate better ideas. This may be because time focussing by yourself lets you think things through in more depth. In groups, there are more people to suggest ideas, so one idea may not get the spotlight for long before attention moves on. On the other hand, when sharing ideas as a group, there’s a wider range of opinions and experience, which helps dig deeper and build them up more than one person could on their own.
When planning a brainstorming session, take a moment to consider the pros and cons of both of these methods. A middle ground approach is to put together a group but ask them to brainstorm on their own in advance so they can come prepared to share their ideas. This creates a stronger starting point for the group, than relying on in-the-moment inspiration.
Pick your time and place
Where and when you have your brainstorming session can have a huge impact on its success. Whether on your own or with multiple people, you want to pick a time of day that will help you maximise your focus, feel relaxed and get everyone’s brain working at its best.
Consider your group and how long your session is going to be. Right before lunch might not be the best time, if you’re all going to be hungry and low energy. Similarly, you want to block out enough time to get a good amount of ideas down before anyone has to leave for another meeting.
You should also find an appropriate space for your session. With a larger group, you want a private room where you’re away from outside distractions and judgements – and you aren’t going to distract other people trying to work! Even if you’re working by yourself, you want to remove distractions to let your mind roam.
Encourage all ideas
The most important rule of brainstorming is that all ideas, suggestions, thoughts and opinions are allowed and actively encouraged. Write down everything that’s suggested. Afterwards, you can analyse and evaluate everything you wrote down, perhaps ultimately using elements of several ideas, but the core principle is that you write it all down.
When everyone’s calling out ideas, even the seemingly ‘silly’ ones can have value. You should recognise that different people work in different ways, and they may need to get the basic, unrealistic or juvenile suggestions out of their system before digging deeper. Also, even a quick joke may spark an idea in someone else.
Brainstorming should be a loose and free flowing process, where no one has to second guess themselves. All ideas should be treated equally, so no one’s afraid to say something they’re unsure of. The less restricted you feel, the easier it is to suggest something revolutionary.
Avoid making any immediate judgements
A group session may have someone acting as leader. This may be a project manager or senior team member, or simply someone acting as scribe. While it may be beneficial for them to guide the discussion and keep everyone on track, they’re not there to judge.
If there’s praise or criticism for particular suggestions, this can quickly change the feel of the room. People may feel awkward sharing ideas that go against the general consensus of the group, which severely limits creativity and stifles alternative voices. It’s vital to remember that you want to end up with the right idea, not the most popular one.
This is also true of an individual brainstorming on their own. If you’re telling yourself that one idea is better than another, you won’t let yourself progress beyond that one.
After the session, you should take all the ideas and work through them to find the right one. But that waits until afterwards – the current exercise should encourage new thinking. There are no good or bad ideas, just ideas.
Let everyone contribute equally
Just as there can be favouritism (even subconsciously) towards certain suggestions, there can also be bias towards things said by certain people. Just because the company director said it, doesn’t make it any better or more valid than the contrary opinion put forward by the least experienced member of the team.
Additionally, while it should be a relaxed atmosphere where everyone can feel encouraged to call out ideas as they get them, there may need to be some kind of structure or rules. In this kind of environment, it’s easy for some personalities to take over – particularly more outgoing or louder members of the group. Less confident or introverted people may get talked over and ignored if they don’t want to call out or fight to be heard.
When leading a session, you should keep track of whose been speaking more and less. Ask people if they have anything else to add or even impose a ‘hands up’ rule to speak can make it an easier environment.
Stimulate the brain
Just like an athlete getting ready for a race, muscles need warming up to perform their best. No matter how good you or your group are, sitting in a room and staring at a flipchart isn’t the most inspiring way to generate exciting new ideas. Icebreakers can be a great way to get everyone warmed up. Everything from brainteasers, getting to know you questions and physical activities help kickstart the brain.
When brainstorming on your own, you can still do this. A few minutes spent on a puzzle or writing some notes down to engage the brain can help the brainstorming process immensely.
A change of scenery can often spark new feelings and thoughts, as can physical movement. Games, such as throwing a ball to someone and they have to say the first idea they think of, word association games and even going for a walk can trigger new modes of thinking.
Make it fun
There aren’t many opportunities where you get to be as truly creative and unrestricted as in a well-run brainstorming session. It should be fun and relaxed. Not only will this help make it an enjoyable experience for everyone involved, but an easy-going atmosphere can create better results.
Our brains function best when we’re happy and relaxed. It’s hard to force someone to have good ideas, and they’re equally likely to freeze up when put under that kind of pressure. However, when people enjoy (and even look forward to) a brainstorming session, they’ll be much more likely to feel confident and free to dig deep and give their best ideas. This is good for them and good for you – the better the ideas from the brainstorming, the better your future strategies and plans can be.
Whether you’re trying to proactively develop a new plan or reacting to a sudden issue, a successful brainstorming session gives you plenty of ideas to work through and find your answer. Remember to write everything down, listen to everyone and create a relaxed atmosphere, and you’ll get plenty of ideas in no time.
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