Brainstorming has been a hot topic recently in the world of ideas. Reasonable people disagree on the effectiveness of brainstorming and whether it truly produces “good ideas.” We’ll discuss this topic today and equip you with a few brainstorm best practices should you choose to use this controversial method.
A Quick Definition
Technically speaking, brainstorming is a very specific thing; it’s a group activity led by a facilitator in which the goal is to generate a large number of ideas.
Brainstorming is not quite the same as “problem solving.” Problem solving is very broad concept that may or may not involve a group activity in which the goal is to generate a large number of ideas.
This is an important distinction. You can brainstorm a solution to a problem, but you can also simply think carefully about how to solve a problem.
The Brainstorm Controversy
Advocates of brainstorming argue that two heads are better than one. They contend that a group of people will come up with more ideas than the same individuals working independently, and some will even argue that groups come up with better ideas than individuals.
Other researchers say the exact opposite. Some studies have proven that individuals are able to create a wide range of ideas more effectively on their own than in a group brainstorm.The theory is that people in brainstorms succumb to groupthink, rendering moot any benefit from having diverse people thinking together.
Who is right? In my opinion, it doesn’t matter because I think the advice is the same regardless. Brainstorming and individual thinking are both good tools for generating ideas, and both should be used in moderation rather than using one or the other exclusively.
Group Brainstorm Best Practices
Rules. While it may feel stifling or awkward, setting rules and having structure to a brainstorm meeting is absolutely necessary.
What are good rules? Here are the three I hear most often:
1. No judgment.
2. Focus on quantity.
3. Stay committed to the topic or prompt.
Hopefully, the reasoning behind these rules is self-evident. I recommend making the rules visible and communicating them clearly at the beginning of the meeting.
Facilitators. Every brainstorm needs a facilitator. This person keeps the meeting and the participants focused and obeying the rules. Without a facilitator, you are doomed for chaos. The facilitator needs to be someone who can guide the process and enforce the rules.
Independent play. One piece of advice many experts agree upon is to have people work independently to come up with a list of ideas, then take turns sharing those ideas with the group. This process is followed with more idea creation from the group as a whole.
The reason this method is recommended is that it taps into both individual and group creativity. By having people list ideas individually, the group is protected from early groupthink, and then by listing ideas together, a spontaneous creativity can emerge.
Breaking the rules. Don’t you just hate a list of rules where the last rule says to break the rules? I include this point, however, because there is no possible way that one method will work for everyone in every situation.
Try violating “established brainstorming wisdom” as follows:
1. Go ahead and start judging some ideas. Sure, this might make people angry, but hashing out why something may or may not be a “good” idea might inspire a deeper understanding of the topic. It can also get the juices flowing and get people engaged.
2. Focus on quality, not quantity. Pause from collecting ideas, and try to build on a single idea, using the group to collectively dig deeper. Sometimes this can spark a new line of thinking.
Brainstorms aren’t perfect, but they can be a useful tool. Remember what they are intended for: the creation of many ideas. Establish clear rules, and don’t forget to give people an opportunity to brainstorm independently in the meeting.
Tomorrow, we’ll talk about collaboration.
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