5 alternative and effective ways to brainstorm

Ways to brainstorm

Brainstorming was invented in 1941 by New York advertising executive Alex Osbourne, who found that conventional business meetings were inhibiting the creation of new ideas. He proposed a set of rules that he believed would give people the freedom to think creatively and bypass any inhibitions or tensions. They were:

  • No criticism of ideas
  • Go for large quantities of ideas
  • Build on each other’s ideas
  • Encourage wild and exaggerated ideas

Fast forward to today and brainstorming is an integral part of almost any business. And while extroverts may love them, even the most confident introvert may struggle with the format and find it difficult to express their ideas. According to Laura McClure, ideas editor at TED, “there’s no one right way to run a brainstorm. You have to be willing to modify the format, length and parameters of each session to match the mix of introverts, extroverts and creative confidence levels in the room.”

So below, we have overviewed five alternative ways to approach a brainstorm. Let us know if you try one of them out, and how you get on.

1. Run a ‘Google design sprint’
Jake Knapp at Google Ventures is the mastermind behind Google’s design sprint, which is a five-day process targeted at start-ups and aimed at solving a big business problem. This video does a good job of explaining how it works:

Jake recognised that the best work happens in short bursts, when under a tight time constraint. He also noticed that the most successful ideas tended to come from individuals, not groups, where decisions weren’t being made by consensus. “There was something magical about a tight time constraint combined with individual work, prototyping, and quick user feedback,” he explains.

To run your own Google design sprint, “start with a big, important problem; pitch it to your team; and schedule a user study before you even start. Get the right people and the right supplies in a room and you’re on your way to a successful design sprint.” The ideal sprint team is between four and eight people.

2. Run a ‘BrainSwarm’
Contrary to traditional brainstorming, BrainSwarming is conducted in silence so that there is no critiquing of ideas, dominant voices drowning out others, or reluctance to contribute.

In BrainSwarming, participants build off of each other’s ideas, adding post-it notes to a whiteboard, collaboratively fleshing out a structured graph. The beauty of BrainSwarming is that it brings science to the creative process, and uses visualisation to help reveal innovative ideas.

Tony McCaffrey, innovation researcher and expert explains how the building out of the BrainSwarm graph actually works:

  • “First define the problem and the resources available for solving it. The goal is written at one end of the whiteboard (often the top), and the resources used to solve it at the opposite end. If during the build-out process, it becomes apparent that a wider or narrower definition of the goal would serve the purpose better, it can be refined.
  • Add ideas as offshoots of these. Top-down thinkers might add ideas stemming off of the goal (these would start with verbs). Bottom-up thinkers might work off of the resources, listing all of the associated attributes or components (adjectives or nouns) they can think of for each.
  • Eventually, the two ends meet in a solution. As the two ends of the graph grow out toward each other, they tend to become connectable. Where they connect, solutions emerge. Typically, the entire process takes only about 40 minutes.”

3. Run a ‘passive brainstorm’
TED’s Laura McClure suggests running a ‘passive brainstorm’ for teams that are physically in the same office. Tape a large piece of paper to the office wall near a communal area such as the kitchen or chill out area with your question or problem written at the top and a pen for writing down ideas and suggestions. Leave the paper up for five days, giving team members a chance to mull it over and add their contributions. Once the time is up you can easily transcribe what’s been added to the paper.

This could also work virtually using a suitable online collaboration tool.

4. Exploit the power of individual thinking
Try switching from group ideas to individual ideas. One problem with group brainstorming is that when we hear someone else’s solution to a problem, we tend to see it as an “anchor”, according to Ralph Keeney, expert in the discipline of “decision science”. Jake Knapp at Google Ventures also recognises that the best ideas often come from individual heads-down work time. But in a group scenario brainstorm, individuals can often become fixated on an idea suggested by someone else, which inhibits their individual thinking.

If you provide individuals with the time to prepare and think on their own in advance of a meeting, they will come to it with potential solutions of their own, which reduces the risk that participants will get bogged down on one idea.

5. Make use of the ‘incubation period’
One of the inherent flaws with traditional brainstorming is that there’s the expectation to have arrived at a solution, or winning idea, by the end of the meeting. If the perfect idea hasn’t presented itself, the entire session is deemed to have been a failure. But this is often because a brainstorm is perceived to be the end goal, whereas the reality is that the creative process takes much longer. “Sometimes the incubation stage itself can take days or weeks before you get a feeling that a good idea is on the way. Many of the most creative people in the world validate this, reporting they only arrive at the best solutions after a constant zig zag through alternatives,” says Mikael Cho, co-founder of ooomf.

Creative theorist Graham Wallas said that idea generation stems from an evolutionary process, which can be broken down into five stages:

  1. Preparation (Individual time to consider the idea and think through its various dimensions.)
  2. Incubation (The problem enters your subconscious.)
  3. Intimation (The sparks of ideas begin to emerge.)
  4. Illumination (Your creative ideas begin to crystallise as they move into your conscious brain.)
  5. Verification (Your idea is developed and finalised as a team and then executed on.)

So the key is to not feel the need to close any thought-gathering exercise with a conclusion, but to allow time for ideas to germinate and grow.

If you give one of these alternate methods a try, let us know how it goes.

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