Originally developed by Alex Osborn in the 1930s as a tool so support fact, idea and solution finding, based on two principles:
- Deferred judgement - in a typical meeting, we both ideate and evaluate simultaneously and are trained to be dominant at judgement. It is essential in a brainstorm to be able to suspend judgement and focus on the ideation.
- Quantity breeds quality - taking the view that the best way to find a good idea is to have lots of ideas, which can be combined, built on and developed.
Warm up and prepare
No physical exercise should be taken without first warming up and this is also true for mental exercise. Treat brainstorming as mental exercise and begin with some warm up exercises, such as word games. In addition, it really helps to start a session having first prepared. If the brainstorm is about kettles, then go to a shop and look at some kettles. Show and tell thing that you like and dislike and why. Look for elegant solutions from other areas.
Establish and agree playful rules
The rules are not there to constrain but to ensure that the brainstorm is effective (see illustration). Put the rules up on the wall so everyone can clearly see them. Nominate a chairperson to ensure that the rules are adhered to. Maybe have a buzzer to press when too much discussion starts, or perhaps a 'yellow card' to raise when the rules are broken.
State and discuss the problem - have a sharp focus
Always begin with a clear problem statement. Avoid being too narrow (e.g. 'spill proof coffee cup lids') and avoid suggesting a solution. Don't be too product focused (e.g. 'bicycle cup holders') or too inward looking (e.g. 'how can we gain market share, or increase sales of product X'). Focus on both the problem and the customer's needs (e.g. 'how can we help cyclists to drink hot drinks without spilling it or burning their mouths?').
Try to build and combine different ideas - build on an ideas strengths and develop any interesting aspects. Combine elements of different ideas. If a good idea is proposed, look for other ways of achieving the same result. When ideas dry up, try a new approach or re-pose the problem in a different way.
Capture and display - be visual
Ensure that all ideas are captured and displayed, either in written or graphical form. Encourage sketching (however poor) rather than writing at all times. Use the wall space as a way of recording and keeping track of the flow and development of ideas. It can sometimes be useful to map the relationships between different ideas. To support this stage, it can be useful to cover the walls with paper before starting.
Any visual approaches should be encouraged, from sketching to diagrams, mind maps, stick figures or even simple models. Have the necessary materials to hand, including tape, card, foam, blocks and modelling clay.
Only once the session has dried up, should the team begin to evaluate the different ideas. Firstly, sort the ideas into categories, based on some elements of similarity. Second, evaluate the ideas against some general criteria for success.
Do's and don'ts
Below is a summary of some brainstorm do's and don'ts, along with a summary of the key items which are needed and the role of the brainstorm leader.
Drawbacks of brainstorming
It is possible for a brainstorm to be dominated by one or two individuals, of for the facilitator to be over zealous. This can result in an atmosphere which inhibits participation by some members. In addition, unless the team is good at expressing ideas visually, it is normally orally and verbally driven.
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