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More heads are better than one, right? For many teams, group conversation seems to be the prevailing brainstorming technique. Get everyone on the team into a conference room, introduce the question or challenge at hand, and wait for the ideas to flow freely. It’s as if – by magic – the next winning idea will emerge from a group of people sitting around a table talking.
More often than not, though, the loose format of open brainstorming does not result in a game-changing idea. It’s because, ironically, people need a little bit of structure to think outside of the box. When put on the spot like that, people may experience a sort of “brain freeze” and need an activity to help get them thinking again. Group brainstorming can also fall prey to group dynamics – like bigger personalities hogging the airtime – and some organization can help ensure all voices are heard.
There’s some doubt that group brainstorming even works. As The New York Times reported, individuals are proven to be more creative when working alone – especially the introverted ones. Mixing individual and group brainstorming sessions, though, might prove to be the best of both worlds. Learn more about different brainstorming techniques with our complete list, consisting of both individual and group brainstorming techniques.
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Brainstorming – 10 Techniques to Make it Work
Asking people to brainstorm as a group is like asking them to read and comprehend a passage while carrying on a conversation with others. Also, the other people happen to be coworkers, whose esteem they desperately want to maintain. How well do you think they’ll understand the passage? Probably not well.
Solo brainstorming is like giving everyone a chance to read the passage and then talk about it as a group. It’s simple: establish some time for everyone to think about and record their own ideas. Then open it up for group discussion, or take turns sharing your best ideas as a group. You could also do several activities (like the ones in this article) in the brainstorming session and, after each one, set aside time for solo brainstorming.
After you’ve been working on and thinking about something day in and day out, it can be harder to have fresh ideas. The closer you are to something, the more helpful it is to see the problem from a different perspective. You can do that by pretending you’re someone else and imagining how they’d see it, and that’s the brainstorming technique figuring storming.
Ask everyone in the group to take on a new persona – Oprah, a local politician, a 6-year-old – and envision the problem the way they would. You can have everyone pick a character from this list of fictional characters by Buzzle. Now have them share with the group who they are, how they see the situation, and what they think should be done. Or ask everyone to choose someone they know well that would see things differently: a parent, their favorite teacher from high school, or their best friend.
When we’re quick to make a decision, we rule out other possibilities. The challenge everything brainstorming technique helps the team push back on assumptions and unlock unexpected possibilities. At the very least, it helps people see their work from a different angle. At the very most, it leads to disruptive ideas.
To challenge everything, ask the group to individually or collectively make a list of the assumptions about the situation. For instance, a team designing a new skateboard might come up with “teenage boys, skate parks, four wheels, flat deck with curved ends.” Now have everyone challenge each of the items on the list.
Are teenage boys the only possible target customer? Is the skate park the place it will be used? Does it have to have four wheels? Through this activity, maybe the team dreams up an industry-changing skateboard with three wheels that is more nimble and is perfect for teenagers commuting to school on residential sidewalks.
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Anyway ... we'll continue from where we left off above.
Coming up with new ideas is hard enough. Coming up with good ideas is even harder. The pressure to do both can cause a kind of brain gridlock. When you’re challenged to come up with 101 ideas, it can help you push through that. As you focus more on quantity than quality, your thinking becomes freer.
Give everyone a time limit and challenge them to come up with 101 ideas. At the end of the session, have everyone go back through their list and circle the ideas that are worth sharing. You can take turns sharing the best or have people write their best ideas on post-it notes to be put up on the whiteboard or wall. Alternatively, you can work as a group to come up with 101 ideas.
The Medici Effect is the belief that new ideas emerge when you “combine diverse concepts, industries, disciplines, and cultures.” When you brainstorm, it can help to look outside of your company and industry for inspiration. Is there a company doing something parallel to what you’re trying to do? If you’re seeking to be the leading video game company for teenagers, have you paid close attention to the company making teens’ favorite shoes? They may be doing something that you could draw ideas from for your situation.
To use this idea in a brainstorm, you would identify a company for everyone to consider or ask each person to pick a company they think is interesting and applicable.What design principles have they employed, how did they market their product, and what is their branding like? What strategies or tactics has the company employed to achieve the goal? Have them think through takeaways and come up with ideas individually or as a group.
The periodic table we know today had an earlier version – a rough draft. As Mendeleev mapped out the elements, he left gaps where an element hadn’t been discovered. He observed the patterns that emerged and was able to anticipate the missing elements that would be added in his second attempt.
Mind mapping is like taking a page out of Mendeleev’s book. Sometimes it helps to lay out what you do know, spot the gaps, and figure out how to fill them. Say you were designing a handbag for busy, working moms. If you laid down everything you know about their lifestyle, socioeconomic status, and ambitions you would observe a pattern that helps you identify the right fabric or style for the bag.
Mind mapping can be done in person with a whiteboard or online with a variety of mind mapping tools, like MindMeister or Coggle. Start by putting a central idea down and branching off to the main components surrounding the idea. Then, from each of those, you connect the details associated with each component. In the example of the working mom bag, “working mom” may branch to “full-time job” and then to “boss”, “commute”, and “dress code” to help fill out the details.
Maybe it’s asking a lot to expect one session of brainstorming to generate a good idea. What if, instead, you held several rounds of brainstorming? And with each one, you built on the best ideas from the previous round.
That’s the trigger method. Set a time limit for an initial round of brainstorming. Gather all the ideas and select, maybe through a vote, the best ones. Now start a new round and use those standout ideas as your starting point. Encourage the group to push them further and consider related possibilities.
Round robin is the brainstorming equivalent of saying “I see where you’re going with that…”. This technique gets members of the team to build off of each other’s ideas. The person next to you may have a fresh perspective and help take it further, or it might spark a new idea in their mind.
To do round robin, start by solo brainstorming. Then ask everyone to pass their list of ideas to the person on their left. Everyone will then add to the list of ideas they’ve just been handed. Keep passing the sheets around the table until each person has seen everyone’s paper.
In a group brainstorm, it’s easy to succumb to groupthink. And when you’re brainstorming, you want to encourage fresh, boundary-pushing ideas, but these can be marginalized if a group falls into step intellectually, as we humans tend to do. Stepladder is a brainstorming technique for subverting groupthink while channeling the power of a group.
Begin by giving the prompt, then ask all but two people to leave the room. Those two people will stay and discuss the question to come up with new ideas. Then ask one more person from the original group to come back in. The new person shares their ideas, and then the three can discuss as a small group. Continue to invite people back in until you have the original group back together. By the end, everyone has had a chance to share their idea without facing the entire group all at once.
Not all teams are located in the same office – or the same state. Even teams who do colocate may find it difficult to find time to brainstorm. Virtual brainstorming is a way to gather ideas without being in the same space.
It can be as simple as starting a Google Document, or you can use one of the many free virtual brainstorming tools available online. Give everyone a deadline by which to add their ideas. Or schedule a time for everyone to log in and brainstorm at the same time to inspire each other.
There are several free online tools you can use to help facilitate virtual brainstorming. For instance, tools like IdeaBoardz and Realtime Board allow several people to add ideas in real time. To learn more about virtual brainstorming tools, check out our article on 13+ Free Brainstorming Tools to Facilitate Innovation.
Have you tried any of the brainstorming techniques yourself? Was it helpful? Let us know down in the comments.