I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent in conference rooms or workshop sessions “brainstorming” new ideas. I don’t know, because I’ve blocked those times out of my mind.
One of three things usually happen in a “typical” brainstorming meeting:
- The most extroverted people share their ideas while the introverted nod along, limiting their thoughts
- People only share ideas they think the boss will like
- Everyone would rather be doing “real” work than thinking up forced solutions
All that said, I really do believe there is power in brainstorming–both as individuals and as a group. But it has to be loosely organized. There are rules, and they can be stretched without being broken.
First, Let’s Get In The Creative Mindset
The best brainstorming meetings start before anyone enters the room.
For instance, it’s hard to jump from a meeting about budgets directly into thinking about the grandest of possibilities. Your mind will be constrained and you won’t be free-flowing; you’ll probably be guarded and cautious. So how do you shed some of those inhibitions to let the best ideas float to the top?
- A walk helps with creativity. Take a quick break to release stress and let yourself and your subconscious take in some fresh air.
- Consume different things. Stuck with The Economist? Pick up Better Homes & Gardens. Always watching CNN? Flip to the Travel Channel. Just find something else. If you’re always reading and consuming the same information, you’ll want to make new associations. It may help you to glance through a magazine, an image website or something completely unrelated to what you’ll be brainstorming about to have a fresh state of mind.
- Break your routine. I don’t know exactly what this means for you, but find a way to do it before you brainstorm. This could be going out for lunch, running a quick errand or using the office ping-pong table for the first time. Breaking your routine will free you from a typical rut and put you in a different frame of mind before brainstorming.
Rules…Err, Guidelines…For Effective Brainstorming
No one likes rules, especially when you’re supposed to be “creative” and let the creative ideas flow, amirite? (I’m right). Ok, so no rules. Just “guidelines” (feel better?). These are important because they help guide discussion, and ensure everyone has a fair shot at being heard during the brainstorming session. You want to be productive with your brainstorming and actually make the time productive. Here’s how to make that happen. Big hat tip to this book for these guidelines.
- Focus on quantity, not quality
- Don’t criticize until it’s time to prioritize
- Encourage big ideas
- Build on ideas from others
With that in mind, let’s get started with some of the top brainstorming techniques.
1. Personal Idea Pad Quadrant
This is what people mean when they say “think outside of the box.”
By associating unrelated concepts together, you’re able to tackle the problem from new ways.
But how do you this? What triggers those unrelated concepts? This is what makes or breaks brainstorming.
Henry breaks down the challenge into four different quadrants, and then asks you to combine words and ideas from one quadrant to another.
This is an example from the Accidental Creative website:
Here’s how it works:
- Start with a challenge. This is the problem that you’re trying to solve.
- Solution. What immediate solutions have you thought of that could solve the challenge? These are the typical ideas that have come to mind or even something you’ve tried in the past.
- Role or WW( )D? That’s What Would (BLANK) Do? Here’s where it gets interesting. Who do you think could solve this problem for you? This is usually a celebrity or well-known person in your field. Let’s say you want to market a new social media platform but for dog owners. (Yes, they exist). Who could solve that problem for you? Mark Zuckerberg. But also Cesar Milan. Or it could be a generic role, like the president of the largest pet owners Meetup in your area. You get the picture. This is also known as “figuring storming.”
- Nutshell. This is one word or phrase that sums up the challenge in a new way.
- Assumption. List out any of the reasons or assumptions that people have with the problem and the challenge. What are some of the complications or factors that add to this challenge?
- Combine! Start by taking one item from one of the quadrants and pair it with a word from another quadrant. What are some of the ideas that come to mind? How could these two things together solve your problem?
2. Mind Mapping
That one great, shining idea is out there–you just have to find it. And the mind map will lead you to the promised land (potentially).
How does a mind map work? It’s nothing complex and you don’t need fancy software–you can quickly draw one on any sheet of paper. Draw a circle and write your problem in that circle, then branch out your ideas from there. This idea probably works best as an individual brainstorming session, rather than together as a group.
Let’s use our pet social network problem from the first example. In a mind map, put “Pet Social Network” in the center circle and then draw your ideas in other ovals from there. So you may have marketing, product or other ideas scattered about in various circles with ideas branching from there. Canva has a lot of great templates for this, and I just created one in there:
This is usually best done in teams. A leader or project manager will throw out an idea and then each participant on the team will write down an idea. Then, after a few minutes, the paper is passed to the next participant who then builds on the idea or adds another new idea. Do this for four or five rounds with a group of 6 to 10 people and you’ll have a ton of ideas. Then the facilitator will review the ideas during a break, select the ones he or she likes best and then return to the group to build and construct a plan on those ideas. This works because:
- No one knows exactly who wrote what and when
- People are more free to express their ideas
- The team lead still has control over what’s happening by selecting the top ideas for discussion
The cousin to brainwriting, brainwalking is a similar concept, except people move instead of the paper. Pieces of paper are hung on a wall, people add their idea to solve the problem and then move to the next paper. This is a great way to take ideas public and generate a new type of energy by thinking on your feet.
This is similar to idea #1. But instead of four quadrants and combining ideas from there, you’re combining ideas from a grid. If you are the team leader, fill in the top header row and the first column with the same idea and then move along the top and along the column. Have each participant from your team suggest an idea and add it to the grid. Then you start combining ideas, one from each row, all the way down. If you start with 4 ideas, you’ll have 16 new ones just by combining them together. It may feel odd to combine the same idea together (like Idea 2 + Idea 2), but creativity will ensue, promise.
|Idea 1||Idea 2||Idea 3||Idea 4|
|Idea 1||Ideas 1 +1||1 +2||1 + 3||1 + 4|
|Idea 2||Ideas 2 + 1||2 + 2||2 + 3||2 + 4|
|Idea 3||Ideas 3 + 1||3 + 2||3 + 3||3 + 4|
|Idea 4||Ideas 4 + 1||4 + 3||4 + 3||4 + 4|
Now we’re really cooking. For this brainstorming technique, draw 9 circles on a page, three in each row. These are your bubbles. In the very middle, list the problem you’re trying to solve. And then list out eight other creative ideas around that main topic. Once you have generated ideas, start the process over again. So you’ll take idea number five, place that in the middle and build out more ideas around that.
This brainstorming technique is a great combination for mixing team with individual contributions. It’s a great method of creative problem-solving. Your team members may come up with eight ideas, and then you could assign an idea to each individual and they could work alone. Everyone can rejoin to see the results.
How To Refine and Prioritize Your Ideas
Your whole team had a great time brainstorming. Yay! Generating wild, crazy ideas is really the easy part. Now it gets a bit more difficult. You have to figure out which ideas are worth pursuing, and which should go in the trash. You want to separate the great ideas from the good ideas. You have to refine your ideas. How do you do it? Try these methods and creative approaches:
Option 1: Dots
Relist all of your top ideas on a board or piece of paper, and give each team member a sticker dot (or use checkmarks). Team members must put their dot next to the idea they like the best.
Option 2: Pros & Cons
For each idea, list out pros and cons. Because you (hopefully) have a lot of ideas to go through, limit this to only a few pros and a few cons. List out the reasons why the idea will or won’t work. This method will help you decide what’s feasible and what can be executed. As we all know, the best idea is sometimes the hardest to do. This is where your team can start to make those value judgments.
Option 3: Face Off
No, it’s not time to watch a cheesy mid-90s Nic Cage film. Instead, you want your ideas to “face off” against one another to claim the first place. They’re all vying for the top spot. Here’s how it would work. Say you have 10 ideas. List them out one through ten, and then start ranking them from the bottom up in pairs. Compare 9 and 10. Is 10 a better idea than 9? Move it up. What about 7 and 8? 5 and 6? Each idea faces off for a higher spot. The next time around, try two pairs that you didn’t do before (like 8 and 9 would face off, instead of 9 and 10 and so on). Keep using this method, until your best idea comes out on top.
Why You Should Consider New Brainstorming Techniques
You’ve probably tried a few of these techniques when forced to in a group or team building session. But have you ever tried them unprompted? Regular brainstorming and ideation will help you come up with new ideas, think of new ways to solve problems and help your team collaborate better.
Don’t Take It Too Seriously…
Remember, you’re brainstorming. You’re coming up with ideas. Just because you write it down doesn’t mean it’s permanent. So feel free to experiment and next time someone wants you to think outside the box, you’ll be prepared.
You’re Ready For Better Brainstorming
At the beginning, we described why most brainstorming meetings don’t work. Let’s quickly revisit those and see if we solved them.
The most extroverted people share their ideas while the introverted nod along, limiting their thoughts. With brainstorming techniques like mind mapping and brainwriting, you encourage individual participation mixed with group participation. In the process you honor both introverts and extroverts without all the loud shouting.
People only share ideas they think the boss will like. This one is tricky, but let’s hope you have an open-minded boss. If you add anonymity to parts of the process like with brainwriting and brainwalking, then the boss won’t know who to favor and an unexpected idea has the potential to surprise.
Everyone would rather be doing “real” work than thinking up forced solutions. This is where you as the manager or product owner have to honor the time people put into this. Having an organized brainstorming meeting with the techniques above will help people realize that you’re taking this seriously, and this is more than just casual conversation. Put time into the prepping for the brainstorming meeting and people will honor you with their best ideas. Make it worth their time and you’ll get better results with this brainstorming meeting and the ones to come.
It’s time to do something with those amazing ideas. Like make something happened. Start a new project in your productivity software or task management tool and get to work!