When to use it
Brainstorming is probably the best-known creative tool. It can thus be used in most groups, although you will probably have to remind them of the rules.
It is best done using an independent facilitator who manages the process (so the group can focus on the creative task).
Typically takes around 30 minutes to an hour. Can be shorter or longer, depending on the difficulty of the problem and the motivation of the group.
How to use it
Prepare the group
Although brainstorming is one of the oldest and most recognised creative tools, although surprisingly few people know Alex Osborn’s original four rules, so do remind them (see next section).
Define the problem
Describe the problem for which ideas are wanted and ensure everyone understands it. It is very easy for people to head off in the wrong direction.
A good way of doing this is to write it down on a flipchart page and tape it to the wall.
Ideas are now created and collected. This is usually done by people calling them out and the facilitator or scribe writing them down on a flipchart. This person should ideally be someone who can write both legibly and fast, as they need to keep up with the torrent of ideas.
It is useful for all ideas to remain visible to help trigger further ideas, so when the flipchart page is full, rip it off and tape it to the wall where everyone can see them.
All people should remember and follow the four rules of Brainstorming, as below. The facilitator should step in if any of these are broken.
- No criticism or debate, which are convergent activities and can inhibit people from giving ideas.
- Quantity over quality, because quality assessment is also convergent. It has also been shown that the best ideas arrive unpredictably spread out over time.
- Freewheel, which means using one idea as a stimulus for the next. Like the ‘Random word’ tool, this helps you out of ‘stuck rut’ thinking, leading you in unexpected directions. It also encourages people to think about each others ideas.
- Mutate and Combine, where ‘Mutate’ means to deliberately distort and modify existing ideas and ‘Combine’ means to deliberately try to build new ideas from combinations of existing ones. Again, these helps you out of ruts and makes people work better together.
Wild ideas are just fine in most brainstorming sessions. They keep things moving, stimulate deeper thinking and can lead to other ideas that may just work.
When facilitating this, ensure everyone follows the rules – it is very easy to get bound up in your own ideas – and also that all people can contribute. Watch the quiet ones in the corner – they often are the people who come up with really good thoughts that, if others hear, can lead to even better ideas.
When ideas start to wane, you can take a break and start again or move to reducing the list to those which will be taken forward.
Separate from idea generation is idea reduction. Sometimes this is best done another time, another day or even by another group. Usually, however, it is done immediately after the idea creation session.
There are a number of ways of reducing ideas such as everyone voting for favourites or just discussing and seeing what comes to the surface.
Problem: How to reduce road accidents
Jim: Less cars
Joan: Less people
Jill: Teach people to be careful
Jack: Teach drivers to be careful
Jim: Make drivers more careful
Jill: Put dead people in the road
Jennifer: Put policemen at every junction
Jack: Put cameras at every junction
Joan: Put cameras in every car
How it works
Brainstorming works when people use each other’s ideas to trigger their own thinking. Our minds are highly associative, and one thought easily triggers another. If we use the thoughts of others, then these will stop us getting trapped by our own thinking structures.
Giving out half-thought-out ideas or strange suggestions is normally socially frowned on and leads to people holding back in normal situations. Brainstorming deliberately gives permission to be ‘stupid’ and ‘child-like’.