What is Brainstorming?

Brainstorming is a simple method for generating ideas and problem solving within a group. stakeholdermap.com
Brainstorming is one of the most well-known and frequently used tools for problem solving and creative or blue sky thinking.

History and Evolution of Brainstorming

The concept of brainstorming isn't a recent development, though its methods and techniques have been refined over time. Let's delve into its origins and the journey it has traversed over the years.

Origin of Brainstorming

The term "brainstorming" was popularized in the 1930s by Alex Osborn, an advertising executive, who sought a method to encourage his staff to produce a plethora of ideas without inhibition. He identified the two principles of brainstorming as: deferring judgment and aiming for quantity. These principles were detailed in his books, particularly "Applied Imagination" published in 1953.

Osborn's methodology centered around the idea that groups could produce more, and possibly better, ideas when working collaboratively than individuals working separately. The objective was to harness the collective power of diverse thinkers, eliminating the fear of judgment, which often hampers the flow of creative ideas.

Evolution Over Time

As businesses and academic spheres began to recognize the value of collaborative idea generation, the practice of brainstorming spread and evolved.

Structured vs. Unstructured Brainstorming: Initially, brainstorming sessions were more unstructured, relying heavily on free-flowing conversations. Over time, facilitators recognized the need for a bit of structure, leading to the development of various techniques like the nominal group technique, Delphi method, and more.

Inclusion of Technology: With the advent of technology, especially in the latter half of the 20th century and the 21st century, virtual brainstorming and the use of digital tools became prominent. This made it easier for geographically dispersed teams to collaborate.

Diverse Techniques: As brainstorming spread across industries, tailored techniques emerged. Industries and fields such as design thinking, software development, and even education started incorporating and modifying brainstorming to suit their specific needs.

Brainstorming vs. Brainwriting: Recognizing that not everyone may be comfortable voicing out ideas in a group, the concept of brainwriting emerged where participants would write down ideas, ensuring quieter members also had a platform.

Modern-Day Implications

Today, brainstorming is recognized globally across various sectors - from corporate boardrooms to educational institutions. The need for innovative solutions in an increasingly complex world has only underlined its importance. However, as with all methods, it's crucial to remember that brainstorming is just one tool in the vast toolkit of creative problem-solving. Its effectiveness often lies in how well it's adapted and employed to meet specific needs.

Brainstorming is successful because it is simple, inclusive and effective. It works for individual problem solving as well as team problem solving and can be used in any area of life from a business setting to personal problem solving.

In a business setting all you need to start a Brain storming session is a room or breakout area and a flip chart. For dispersed and remote teams you there are many free online tools that you can use. Some great online tools are available for brainstorming with virtual teams, I have included some hints and tips for remote teams later in this guide.

How to Brainstorm

First write down a question or phrase that will guide the brainstorm. For example:

  • "How can we…" – how can we increase revenue?
  • "All the ways we could…." – all the ways we could improve customer satisfaction
If you are all in the same location set up a flip chart and have your team sit around in a semi-circle facing the flip chart. Spend 10 – 15 minutes taking it in turns or just throwing to suggestions in answer to your question. Make sure that you share who is the scribe. Often the person who has a suggestion will write it onto the flip chart themselves.

Once the flow of ideas has slowed vote on the top 5 or 10 ideas and agree next steps, for example to investigate the feasibility of the top 5 ideas.

Group Brainstorming works best with 3 to 10 people. With big groups, you can split into smaller teams and use several flipcharts spaced around the room, which you can compare later.

The rules of Brainstorming

To avoid getting stuck, and to keep the flow of ideas coming there are a few rules to follow. I suggest writing up these rules on a separate flipchart paper which is visible to the whole group.
  • No criticism
  • No 'buts'
  • There is no bad or silly idea
  • record everything
  • Freewheel
  • Have fun!
A flipchart titled How to Brainstorm. Next The rules are listed: No criticism, no buts, there are no silly ideas, record everything, freewheel, have fun! Beneath the rules are some tips for a successful session.

The best room set up for Brainstorming

The best room set up for Brainstorming is to place the chairs in a semi-circle where they can see the note taker (scribe) clearly stakeholdermap.com
I suggest that you don't sit around a table because this may reduce creativity. Tables provide psychological barrier from the other people in the room, which can allow people to withdraw or dominate.

In particular brainstorming around a boardroom table suggests formality and it is likely that the team will fall into their usual roles with dominant or senior people sitting at the head of the table and doing most of the talking.

board room layout is not ideal for brainstorming as it is too formal

Boardroom layouts always have a 'head of the table' which is positioned to dominate the room and the conversation. Anyone in the head of the table position and those sitting in chairs immediately to the left and right, will be tempted to do a lot of talking, and may be unable to stop themselves from passing judgements on ideas. In short the free flow of ideas will be much harder with this formal layout.

It is also easier to respond to body language with your team in a semi-circle, people with their arms-folded will be closed and not likely to contribute. In a semi-circle you can simply hand them the pen and ask them to be scribe or you can do a simple warm up exercise. For example, you can ask the whole team to stand up, and throw a ball to each other. When each person catches the ball they say the first idea that comes into their head.l.

Brainstorming with remote teams

In multi-national companies it can be pretty rare that teams are in the same office, particularly temporary virtual teams like project and program teams. Thankfully there are many great tools that you can use for live collaboration with team members in different locations, I have listed a few at the end of this guide.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic points out that research has shown that virtual brainstorming can be more effective. Rather than oral brainstorming, which does require some skilled facilitation to be effective, online sessions become brain-writing and according to Chamorro-Premuzic research shows that:
"virtual brainstorming enhances creative performance – versus in-person brainstorming sessions – by almost 50% of a standard deviation"
Interestingly Chamorro-Premuzic feels that anonymity in online brainstorming increases contributions as it reduces inhibitions and people can contribute anonymously. This is certainly a useful consideration if you are brainstorming a contentious or controversial problem. That said, I prefer not to allow users to be anonymous, because it is difficult to notice and intervene if some people are not contributing. In a telephone conference or virtual room, it is much easier for some people to avoid contributing, others to multi-task and for some to dominate. Have you ever replied to an email while on a team telephone conference?

Many of the tools available allow users to add photos, or use Avatars. This helps show who is making a contribution, and enables the facilitator to invite the more reticent team members to make a suggestion. With some of the online tools you can carry out a session without audio, and that might help the flow of ideas, but I would always suggest at least spinning up a telephone conference to do introductions and to review the output of the brainstorm.

Software for brainstorming with remote teams

This is a small selection of the software and tools that can be used for Brainstorming online.
  • Bubbl.us is a mind mapping tool with real-time collaboration. Mind mapping is a good format for Brainstorming as it supports a free flow of ideas https://bubbl.us/
  • Conceptboard – online real-time collaboration tool for content creation. Also useful for Brainstorming.
  • GroupMap - Real-time online collaborative software for brainstorming and decision making. Also useful for Stakeholder Analysis.
  • Mindmeister.com – this is an online mind mapping tool which allows real-time collaboration. I particularly like mindmaps for brainstorming as the mindmap format helps the flow of ideas. Mindmeister is my tool of choice as it has a growing feature set and powerful export and sharing features.
  • Skype and skype for business are well-known remote meeting tools and now integrated of Office 365.
  • Webex and other online meeting providers e.g. GoTo Meeting and the increasingly popular Zoom.
  • Video conferencing - using video conferencing technology to communicate between multiple meeting rooms for example Polycom.

Further reading and references

Conceptboard. Conceptboard Blog. How to Run Product Brainstorming Sessions in Virtual Teams [online] Accessible at: https://conceptboard.com/blog/productive-brainstorming-virtual-teams/ [Accessed 05 January 2017]

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. Why Brainstorming Works Better Online. Harvard Business Review. [online] Accessible at: https://hbr.org/2015/04/why-brainstorming-works-better-online [Accessed 05 January 2017]

How to Brainstorming - Further reading

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