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Reaping Benefits from Brainstorming

More than 60 years ago, advertising executive Alex Osborn developed the concept of brainstorming as a group technique for producing creative ideas and new solutions. Since then, brainstorming techniques have been widely adopted and expanded.

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"It is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one." —Alex F. Osborn

More than 60 years ago, advertising executive Alex Osborn (the "O" in New York ad agency BBDO Worldwide) developed the concept of brainstorming as a group technique for producing creative ideas and new solutions.

Since then, brainstorming techniques have been widely adopted and expanded. But effective brainstorming still stands on two basic principles:

• Judgment is suspended. Ideas spawned in brainstorming sessions aren't judged or analyzed until all ideas have been collected. This frees your creative juices from the evaluation and censoring that your analytical mind instinctively brings to bear. In the early stages of problem solving, this freedom lets you get wild and crazy enough to entertain possibilities you might otherwise never consider.

• Quantity breeds quality. An array of options lets groups look beyond ideas that are obvious, safe and stale. If you generate a plentiful supply of ideas, you can sift the fool's gold to find the real thing.

When a brainstorming opportunity arises in your organization, be sure everyone knows that they should shift into this distinct process, which differs from normal discussions. Say: "Let's take time out to brainstorm some ideas about how we might market this new service."

Write a problem statement to identify the focus of the brainstorming session. For example: "How can we create a more empowering work environment?" or "How can we ensure that best practices are shared across departments?"

Write the problem statement in a way that encourages ideas rather than opinions or choices. "Which site do you prefer for the kickoff reception?" isn't suitable for brainstorming, because it simply asks people to choose. On the other hand, "What kinds of things could we do to make our young leaders' program unique?" is more likely to trigger a wealth of novel ideas.

If possible, try to incubate ideas by giving participants advance notice of topics. This can help focus the session and make brainstorming more effective.

Designate someone to facilitate the process. Let the facilitator list ideas, as they're generated, on a flip chart or white board so they remain visible to the group. This will stimulate new ideas and make it easier to sort out things later.

Next, encourage the group or team to call out as many ideas as come to mind while observing these rules:

• Avoid criticism and evaluation. Every idea has value at this stage.

• Think outside the box. The more outlandish the idea seems initially, the more likely it is to spawn an innovative solution.

• Go for quantity. The more ideas you have to work with, the more likely you'll find creative and feasible solutions.

• Build on others' ideas. Combining or improving on what others contribute enhances ideas and reduces concerns about offering possibly silly or ridiculous suggestions. It also encourages a collaborative spirit.

Protect the integrity of a brainstorming session by enforcing the rules. Ring a small bell or make some other signal if someone criticizes an idea. This will help people become skilled and disciplined in the technique and ensure a safe atmosphere for creativity.

Finally, you'll need to follow up brainstorming with a process for sorting and evaluating the ideas that have been suggested.

Choosing the Best Format

Simply letting group members call out ideas randomly—known as "freewheeling"—is the most common type of brainstorming. It's not the only method, though. Here are several brainstorming formats, with the pros and cons of each:

Freewheeling generates spontaneity and energy, because people feel unrestrained. On the other hand, aggressive group members may shut out introverts and those who need more time to process ideas. Also, there's a risk that ideas can get lost in the commotion if too many people talk at once.

• A round robin is a more orderly method in which group members take turns offering their ideas, and everyone is allotted a period of time. The risk, however, is that order takes the place of spontaneity, and some ideas lose energy or get lost because they must be contained until the appropriate time. Taking turns also limits the ability for one person to build on another's ideas.

• A written format can allow sensitive issues to be tackled by brainstorming on paper, rather than out loud. However, participants can't build on each other's ideas.

It's also possible to combine formats. For example, if a freewheeling session overwhelms some group members, follow it with a round-robin session. Or if you're dealing with sensitive issues, use the written method first to identify issues, and then switch to freewheeling as people become more comfortable talking openly about solutions.

The format you choose may also depend on the number of people involved. The written method can accommodate a big group, but the freewheeling and round-robin methods work best with a group of 15 people or fewer. To use those interactive methods with a large number of people, divide participants into smaller groups and assign to each group a facilitator who will also keep notes.

The length of time you devote to a session can also vary. Brainstorming can be a spontaneous, 10-minute interlude within a structured meeting, or a scheduled session lasting much longer. A good rule of thumb is to allow at least 20 to 30 minutes, so participants have sufficient time to get into the flow and to tap their creative reserves. A longer period of time allows for the use of multiple formats.

If your team members are highly technical people, you may need some warm-up exercises to get them out of the analytical mode of thinking and into a brainstorming mode.

To prime the pump, try this: Take a common object —a paper clip or a coat hanger, for instance—and ask the team to quickly call out ideas for using the item in novel ways. To get them started, ask for ideas in a specific category—related to food, for example, or clothes. Shift categories every minute or so to maintain high energy, encouraging them to stretch their minds.