Wednesday, January 11, 2012

So you want to brainstorm

Brainstorming is a fundamental part of any design thinking process. It helps people to think about innovation. I have been involved in many design brainstorms throughout my career, and some proved amazingly effective and a few were not as good as everyone had hoped. In the years that I have been brainstorming I have instinctively found what works and what doesn't and find that now things move along way smoother now than they did when I first started using this technique. Brainstorming is not a magic bullet to creative problem solving, and certainly it is powerful if used in the right way and for the right problems, but like anything if used incorrectly or with the wrong intention and approach it can be less than effective. The best time to use brainstorming is when the team is already saturated with a concept or idea space - from the discovery phase - then the team can effectively start to ideate with a clear mind on the problem space and maybe even existing solutions that can add to the mix. Without proper preparation by the team as a whole and individually brainstorms can be too wild and end up with too much on the "cutting room floor" because of a lack of understanding of the real problem space. It is important to have a facilitator that "owns" the problem and can guide and prepare the brainstorming session, I suggest where possible to invite a diverse team of people that would work well together, and are experts within their fields of expertise, but whom are open to problem solving outside their comfort space of knowledge. Diversity of backgrounds often leads to radical thinking about a problem from a new angle.

So that said, lets look at the rules for brainstorming that are defined and I agree work best in a good brainstorming session.

The first thing to realize is that there are some well defined rules for an effective brainstorm session and although I didn't define these rules, I do now apply them in all session I hold, they have proven to be very effective and produce the best results.

The rules of effective brainstorming are:

1. Defer Judgement. 
- Get the ideas out, evaulate the real value and feasibility later, it will only hinder the session if you keep stopping to evaluate ideas, plus it can be quite a show stopper when people start feeling like their ideas are being scutinized, they will tend to clam up and stop sharing thoughts.

2. Encourage Wild Ideas 
- Sometimes it is great to start the session off with a game related to the problem space, that makes people think about the topic and experience at hand. Then when the ideas start coming keep them loose and fun. Wild ideas can sometimes be great insights to why problem already exist, asking the question "why not?" can be very effective way to see the problem space.

3. Build on the Ideas of others 
- Sometimes following a path of thought by someone else can get your mind to shift the problem space you are in from your point of view. You might have been sitting thinking something very perfectly in your mind, but having to stop that and work from another point of view can free your mind from being trapped in "group thinking"

4. Stay focused on topic 
- Always note on a whiteboard or large piece of paper, the actual question or problem you are trying to solve, brainstorms often can get wild and people get excited about all the ideas and creative thinking, but actually forget the real task at hand.

5. One conversation at a time 
- Allow everyone to have their say, even if you don't think it is a good idea, or is wrong. Remember the first rule of brainstorming - defer judgement. Learn to listen to people on the brainstorm team someone might just have something very valuable to add to the idea pool. Nothing is worse than too many conversations at a time, and missing great ideas because no-one heard it or captured it.

6. Be visual 
- Putting things down in a visual form gets the brain excited and stimulated, remember we are mostly visual creatures, this helps whiteboards to not be a jumble of just text it produces a visula remind to ideas already discussed.

7. Headline 
- Some people are very capable of talking and describing ideas that make sense to them but no one else, or they take 15 mins to get the idea across, encouraging headline summary of an idea helps to be focused on the concept and solution, plus make the originator of the idea think a little more clearly about the concept in a bite sized chunk. Remember deep diving and investigation into any concepts will occur later, just make a note for now.

7. Go for quantity 
- This is more about the idea of encouraging people to produce ideas rapidly, not be too judgmental early on. Of course hopefully as more ideas start appearing on the walls, more ideas start to form. I have never had a problem with quantity of ideas, once people start they often get really into idea generation.

So there you have it the rough guide to brainstorming. Some of the best meetings you'll ever have if you follow these rules and have fun doing it.

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