Brainstorming with a group of people is a powerful technique. Brainstorming creates new ideas, solves problems, motivates and develops teams. Brainstorming motivates because it involves members of a team in bigger management issues, and it gets a team working together. However, brainstorming is not simply a random activity. Brainstorming needs to be structured and it follows brainstorming rules. The brainstorming process is described below, for which you will need a flip-chart or alternative. This is crucial as Brainstorming needs to involve the team, which means that everyone must be able to see what's happening. Brainstorming places a significant burden on the facilitator to manage the process, people's involvement and sensitivities, and then to manage the follow up actions. Use Brainstorming well and you will see excellent results in improving the organization, performance, and developing the team.
N.B. There has been some discussion in recent years - much of it plainly daft - that the term 'brainstorming' might be 'political incorrect' by virtue of possible perceived reference to brain-related health issues. It was suggested by some that the alternative, but less than catchy 'thought-showers' should be used instead, which presumably was not considered to be offensive to raindrops (this is serious…). Happily recent research among relevant groups has dispelled this non-pc notion, and we can continue to use the brainstorming expression without fear of ending up in the law courts…
- Define and agree the objective.
- Brainstorm ideas and suggestions having agreed a time limit.
- Assess/analyse effects or results.
- Prioritise options/rank list as appropriate.
- Agree action and timescale.
- Control and monitor follow-up.
In other words:
Plan and agree on the brainstorming aim
Ensure everyone participating in the brainstorm session understands and agrees the aim of the session (eg, to formulate a new job description for a customer services clerk; to formulate a series of new promotional activities for the next trading year; to suggest ways of improving cooperation between the sales and service departments; to identify costs saving opportunities that will not reduce performance or morale, etc). Keep the brainstorming objective simple. Allocate a time limit. This will enable you to keep the random brainstorming activity under control and on track.
Manage the actual brainstorming activity
Brainstorming enables people to suggest ideas at random. Your job as facilitator is to encourage everyone to participate, to dismiss nothing, and to prevent others from pouring scorn on the wilder suggestions (some of the best ideas are initially the daftest ones - added to which people won't participate if their suggestions are criticised). During the random collection of ideas the facilitator must record every suggestion on the flip-chart. Use Blu-Tack or sticky tape to hang the sheets around the walls. At the end of the time limit or when ideas have been exhausted, use different coloured pens to categorise, group, connect and link the random ideas. Condense and refine the ideas by making new headings or lists. You can diplomatically combine or include the weaker ideas within other themes to avoid dismissing or rejecting contributions (remember brainstorming is about team building and motivation too - you don't want it to have the reverse effect on some people). With the group, assess, evaluate and analyse the effects and validity of the ideas or the list. Develop and prioritise the ideas into a more finished list or set of actions or options.
Implement the actions agreed from the brainstorming
Agree what the next actions will be. Agree a timescale, who's responsible. After the session circulate notes, monitor and give feedback. It's crucial to develop a clear and positive outcome, so that people feel their effort and contribution was worthwhile. When people see that their efforts have resulted in action and change, they will be motivated and keen to help again.
For creativity, planning, presentations, decision-making, and organizing your ideas
Personal brainstorming - just by yourself - is very useful for the start of any new project, especially if you can be prone to put things off until tomorrow.
Planning a new venture, a presentation, or any new initiative, is generally much easier if you begin simply by thinking of ideas - in no particular order or structure - and jotting them down on a sheet of paper or in a notebook. Basically this is personal brainstorming, and it can follow the same process as described above for groups, except that it's just you doing it.
Sometimes it's very difficult to begin planning something new - because you don't know where and how to start. Brainstorming is a great way to begin. The method also generates lots of possibilities which you might otherwise miss by getting into detailed structured planning too early.A really useful tool for personal brainstorming - and note-taking generally - is the wonderful Bic 4-colour ballpen.
The pen enables you quickly to switch colours between red, blue, black and green, without having to walk around with a pocket-full of biros.
Using different colours in your creative jottings and written records helps you to make your notes and diagrams clearer, and dramatically increases the ways in which you can develop and refine your ideas and notes on paper. To prove the point, review some previous notes in black or blue ink using a red pen - see how you can organize/connect the content, still keeping it all clear and legible.
This simple pen is therefore a brilliant tool for organizing your thoughts on paper much more clearly and creatively than by being limited to a single colour - especially if you think in visual terms and find diagrams helpful.
For example, using different colours enables you to identify and link common items within a random list, or to show patterns and categories, or to over-write notes without making a confusing mess, and generally to generate far more value from your thoughts and ideas. Keeping connected notes and ideas on a single sheet of paper greatly helps the brain to absorb and develop them. Try it - you'll be surprised how much more useful your notes become.
The principle is the same as using different colours of marker pens on a flip-chart. Other manufacturers produce similar pens, but the Bic is reliable, widely available, and very inexpensive.
The usefulness of different colours in written notes is further illustrated (please correct me or expand on this if you know more ) in a wider organizational sense in the UK health industry. Apparently, black is the standard colour; green is used by pharmacy services, red is used after death and for allergies, and blue tends to be avoided due to poorer reprographic qualities (thanks M Belcher). As I say, correct me if this is wrong, and in any event please let me know any other examples of different coloured inks being used to organize or otherwise clarify written communications within corporations, institutions or industries.
Additionally I am informed (thanks T Kalota, Oct 2008) of a useful brainstorming/organizing technique using coloured pens when reviewing a written specification, or potentially any set of notes for a design or plan.
Underline or circle the words according to the following:
This technique was apparently used for clarifying written specifications or notes for a database design, and was termed 'extended relational architecture', advocated by a company of the same name, at one time. (I've been unable to find any further details about the company or this application. If you know more please tell me.)
This method of colour-coding notes (using underlines or circles or boxes) to help clarification/prioritization/organization/etc can itself naturally be extended and adapted, for example:
The colours and categories are not a fixed industry standard. It's an entirely flexible technique. You can use any colours you want, and devise your own coding structures to suit the situation.
In relation to the group brainstorming process above, see also the guidelines for running workshops . Workshops provide good situations for group brainstorming, and brainstorming helps to make workshops more productive, motivational and successful.
To create more structured brainstorming activities which illustrate or address particular themes, methods, media, etc., there is a helpful set of reference points on the team building games section. Unless you have special reasons for omitting control factors, ensure you retain the the essence of the rules above, especially defining the task, stating clear timings, organising participants and materials, and managing the review and follow-up.