What’s the best way to brainstorm? While there are basic rules that make the process meaningful and effective, there are literally dozens of ways to actually inspire creative ideas. Many facilitators use more than one technique in a single brainstorming session in order to keep the creative juices flowing while supporting different styles of thought and expression.
Depending upon your situation, you may want to start with one of the unique approaches described below. Or… you may want to start with “basic brainstorming,” and then switch things up as needed to ensure you generate a good quantity of really useful, creative ideas.
Basic brainstorming is not complex—though there are important techniques for ensuring success. Here, in a nutshell, is how basic brainstorming works:
- Get a group of people together to address a problem, challenge, or opportunity
- Ask your group to generate as many ideas as possible—no matter how “off the wall” they may seem. During this period, no criticism is allowed.
- Review the ideas, select the most interesting, and then lead a discussion about how to combine, improve, and/or implement the ideas.
While this process may be simple in theory, however, it’s not always easy to generate new ideas out of nowhere. And that’s why so many interesting and inspirational brainstorming techniques have been developed.
Discover which techniques are the best fit for your next brainstorming session.
When brainstorming focuses on problem solving, it can be useful to analyze the problem with tools that lead to creative solutions. Analytic brainstorming is relatively easy for most people because it draws on idea generation skills they’ve already built in school and in the workplace. No one gets embarrassed when asked to analyze a situation!
1. Mind Mapping
Mind mapping is a visual tool for enhancing the brainstorming process. In essence, you’re drawing a picture of the relationships among and between ideas.
Start by writing down your goal or challenge, and ask participants to think of related issues. Layer by layer, add content to your map so that you can visually see how, for example, a problem with the telephone system is contributing to issues with quarterly income. Because it has become so popular, it's easy to find mind mapping software online. The reality, though, is that a large piece of paper and a few markers can also do the job.
2. Reverse Brainstorming
Ordinary brainstorming asks participants to solve problems. Reverse brainstorming asks participants to come up with great ways to cause a problem. Start with the problem and ask “how could we cause this?” Once you have a list of great ways to create problems, you’re ready to start solving them! Learn about how to run a reverse brainstorming session:
3. Gap Filling
Start with a statement of where you are. Then write a statement of where you’d like to be. How can you fill in the gap to get to your goal? Your participants will respond with a wide range of answers from the general to the particular. Collect them all, and then organize them to develop a vision for action.
4. Drivers Analysis
Work with your group to discover the drivers behind the problem you’re addressing. What’s driving client loyalty down? What’s driving the competition? What’s driving a trend toward lower productivity? As you uncover the drivers, you begin to catch a glimpse of possible solutions.
5. SWOT Analysis
SWOT Analysis identifies organization strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Usually, it’s used to decide whether a potential project or venture is worth undertaking. In brainstorming, it’s used to stimulate collaborative analysis. What are our real strengths? Do we have weaknesses that we rarely discuss? New ideas can come out of this tried-and-true technique.
6. The Five Whys
Another tool that’s often used outside of brainstorming, the Five Whys can also be effective for getting thought processes moving forward. Simply start with a problem you’re addressing and ask “why is this happening?” Once you have some answers, ask “why does this happen?” Continue the process five times (or more), digging deeper each time until you’ve come to the root of the issue. Dig into the details of this process:
Create a six pointed star. At the center of the star, write the challenge or opportunity you’re facing. At each point of the star, write one of the following words: who, what, where, when, why, and how. Use these words to generate questions. Who are our happiest clients? What do our clients say they want? Use the questions to generate discussion. Learn more about Starbursting in this Envato Tuts+ tutorial, which includes a helpful worksheet:
In some situations, individuals are so cramped for time that a brainstorming session would be impossible to schedule. In other situations, team members are unwilling to speak up in a group or to express ideas that others might not approve of. When that’s the case, you might be well served with brainstorming techniques that allow participants to generate ideas without meeting or without the need for public participation.
8. Brain-Netting (Online Brainstorming)
Perhaps not surprisingly, brain netting involves brainstorming on the Internet. This requires someone to set up a system whereby individuals can share their ideas privately, but then collaborate publicly. There are software companies that specialize in just such types of systems, like Slack or Google Docs.
Once ideas have been generated, it may be a good idea to come together in person, but it’s also possible that online idea generation and discussion will be successful on its own. This is an especially helpful approach for remote teams to utilize, though any team can make use of it. Learn more about this brainstorming technique:
9. Brainwriting (or Slip Writing)
The brain writing process involves having each participant anonymously write down ideas on index cards. The ideas can then be randomly shared with other participants who add to or critique the ideas. Alternatively, the ideas can be collected and sifted by the management team. This approach is also called “Crawford Slip Writing,” as the basic concept was invented in the 1920’s by a professor named Crawford.
10. Collaborative Brainwriting
Write your question or concern on a large piece of paper, and post it in a public place. Ask team members to write or post their ideas when they are able, over the course of a week. Collate ideas on your own or with your group's involvement.
Learn more about brainwriting methods:
Role Play Brainstorming
What do customers/clients/managers really want? What are the challenges we face internally or externally? Very often, those questions are best answered by internal and external clients. Role play allows your team to “become” their own clients, which often provides surprisingly potent insights into challenges and solutions. Another plus of role play is that, in some cases, it lowers participants’ inhibitions. Variants of role play include Rolestorming, Reverse Thinking, and Figure Storming.
11. Role Storming
Ask your participants to imagine themselves in the role of a person whose experience relates to your brainstorming goal (a client, upper management, a service provider). Act out a scene, with participants pretending to take the other’s point of view. Why might they be dissatisfied? What would it take for them to to feel better about their experience or outcomes? Learn more about this innovative way to come up with ideas as a team:
12. Reverse Thinking
This creative approach asks, “what would someone else do in our situation?” Then imagine doing the opposite. Would it work? Why or why not? Does the “usual” approach really work well, or are there better options?
13. Figure Storming
Choose a figure from history or fiction with whom everyone is familiar—Teddy Roosevelt, for example, or Mother Theresa. What would that individual do to manage the challenge or opportunity you’re discussing? How might that figure’s approach work well or poorly?
Brainstorming With Support
For groups that are not intrinsically creative or communicative, or are likely to get stuck once the most obvious ideas have been suggested, help is in order. You can provide that help up front by setting up the brainstorming process to include everyone in a structured, supportive manner. A few techniques for this type of brainstorming include Step Ladder Brainstorming, Round Robin Brainstorming, Rapid Ideation, and Trigger Storming.
14. Step Ladder Brainstorming
Start by sharing the brainstorming challenge with everyone in the room. Then send everyone out of the room to think about the challenge—except two people.
Allow the two people in the room to come up with ideas for a short period of time, and then allow just one more person to enter the room. Ask the new person to share their ideas with the first two before discussing the ideas already generated.
After a few minutes ask another person to come in, and then another. In the long run, everyone will be back in the room—and everyone will have had a chance to share his or her ideas with colleagues.
15. Round Robin Brainstorming
A “round robin” is a game in which everyone gets a chance to participate. In the case of brainstorming that means everyone (1) must share an idea and (2) wait until everyone else has shared before suggesting a second idea or critiquing ideas. This is a great way to encourage shy (or uninterested) individuals to speak up while keeping dominant personalities from taking over the brainstorming session.
16. Rapid Ideation
This simple technique can be surprising fruitful. Ask the individuals in your group to write down as many ideas as they can in a given period of time. Then either have them share the ideas aloud or collect responses. Often, you’ll find certain ideas popping up over and over again; in some cases these are the obvious ideas, but in some cases they may provide some revelations.
17. Trigger Storming
This variant on the round robin approach starts with a “trigger” to help people come up with thoughts and ideas. Possible triggers include open ended sentences or provocative statements. For example, “Client issues always seem to come up when ____,” or “The best way to solve client problems is to pass the problem along to someone else.”
Radically Creative Brainstorming
If your team seems to be stuck on conventional answers to brainstorming challenges, you may need to stir the pot to help them generate creative ideas by using techniques that require out-of-the-box thinking. These may include the Charrette approach and "what if" challenges.
Imagine a brainstorming session in which 35 people from six different departments are all struggling to come up with viable ideas. The process is time consuming, boring, and—all too often—unfruitful. The Charrette method breaks up the problem into smaller chunks, with small groups discussing each element of the problem for a set period of time. Once each group has discussed one issue, their ideas are passed on to the next group who builds on them. By the end of the Charrette, each idea may have been discussed five or six times—and the ideas discussed have been refined.
19. "What If" Brainstorming
What if this problem came up 100 years ago? How would it be solved? What if Superman were facing this problem? How would he manage it? What if the problem were 50 times worse—or much less serious than it really is? What would we do? These are all different types of “what if” scenarios that can spur radically creative thinking—or at least get people laughing and working together!
Brainstorming is a terrific technique for idea generation, coming up with alternatives and possibilities, discovering fatal flaws, and developing creative approaches. But it’s only as good as its participants and facilitator. The better you are at selecting participants, setting the stage, and encouraging discussion, the better your outcomes are likely to be.
Learn more about running an effective brainstorming session:
No matter how well you’ve prepared, however, there’s always the chance that distractions, personality clashes, anxiety, or ordinary boredom can get in the way of effective brainstorming. When that happens, you’ll be glad to have a collection of great ideas for moving the process forward!
Change the way you think.
"We need to think differently!" "This needs some fresh ideas!" "We have got to be more creative around here!" Are messages like these popping up more and more in your workplace?
Faced with complex, open-ended, ever-changing challenges, organizations realize that constant, ongoing innovation is critical to stay ahead of the competition. This is why we need to be on the lookout for new ideas that can drive innovation, and it's why the ability to think differently, generate new ideas, and spark creativity within a team becomes an important skill. You need to work actively on building and cultivating this skill, and it can be done!
Often, though, we make the mistake of assuming that good ideas just happen. Or worse still, we get caught in the mind trap that creativity is an aptitude; some people have it, others don't. Then there is the other self-defeating belief – "I am not intelligent enough to come up with good ideas."
These assumptions are rarely true. Everyone can come up with fresh, radical ideas – you just need to learn to open your mind and think differently. This article shows you how to do so.
How to Generate New Ideas
Standard idea-generation techniques concentrate on combining or adapting existing ideas. This can certainly generate results. But here, our focus is on equipping you with tools that help you leap onto a totally different plane. These approaches push your mind to forge new connections, think differently and consider new perspectives.
A word of caution – while these techniques are extremely effective, they will only succeed if they are backed by rich knowledge of the area you're working on. This means that if you are not prepared with adequate information about the issue, you are unlikely to come up with a great idea even by using the techniques listed here.
Incidentally, these techniques can be applied to spark creativity in group settings and brainstorming sessions as well.
Breaking Thought Patterns
All of us can tend to get stuck in certain thinking patterns. Breaking these thought patterns can help you get your mind unstuck and generate new ideas. There are several techniques you can use to break established thought patterns:
Challenge assumptions: For every situation, you have a set of key assumptions. Challenging these assumptions gives you a whole new spin on possibilities.
You want to buy a house but can't since you assume you don't have the money to make a down payment on the loan. Challenge the assumption. Sure, you don't have cash in the bank but couldn't you sell some of your other assets to raise the money? Could you dip into your retirement fund? Could you work overtime and build up the kitty in six months? Suddenly the picture starts looking brighter.
Reword the problem: Stating the problem differently often leads to different ideas. To reword the problem look at the issue from different angles. "Why do we need to solve the problem?", "What's the roadblock here?", "What will happen if we don't solve the problem?" These questions will give you new insights. You might come up with new ideas to solve your new problem.
In the mid 1950s, shipping companies were losing money on freighters. They decided they needed to focus on building faster and more efficient ships. However, the problem persisted. Then one consultant defined the problem differently. He said the problem the industry should consider was "how can we reduce cost?" The new problem statement generated new ideas. All aspects of shipping, including storage of cargo and loading time, were considered. The outcome of this shift in focus resulted in the container ship and the roll-on/roll-off freighter.
- Think in reverse: If you feel you cannot think of anything new, try turning things upside-down. Instead of focusing on how you could solve a problem/improve operations/enhance a product, consider how could you create the problem/worsen operations/downgrade the product. The reverse ideas will come flowing in. Consider these ideas – once you've reversed them again – as possible solutions for the original challenge.
- Express yourself through different media: We have multiple intelligences but somehow, when faced with workplace challenges we just tend to use our verbal reasoning ability. How about expressing the challenge through different media? Clay, music, word association games, paint, there are several ways you can express the challenge. Don't bother about solving the challenge at this point. Just express it. Different expression might spark off different thought patterns. And these new thought patterns may yield new ideas.
Connect the Unconnected
Some of the best ideas seem to occur just by chance. You see something or you hear someone, often totally unconnected to the situation you are trying to resolve, and the penny drops in place. Newton and the apple, Archimedes in the bath tub; examples abound.
Why does this happen? The random element provides a new stimulus and gets our brain cells ticking. You can capitalize on this knowledge by consciously trying to connect the unconnected.
Actively seek stimuli from unexpected places and then see if you can use these stimuli to build a connection with your situation. Some techniques you could use are:
- Use random input: Choose a word from the dictionary and look for novel connections between the word and your problem.
- Mind map possible ideas: Put a key word or phrase in the middle of the page. Write whatever else comes in your mind on the same page. See if you can make any connections.
- Pick up a picture. Consider how you can relate it to your situation.
- Take an item. Ask yourself questions such as "How could this item help in addressing the challenge?", or "What attributes of this item could help us solve our challenge?"
Over the years we all build a certain type of perspective and this perspective yields a certain type of idea. If you want different ideas, you will have to shift your perspective. To do so:
- Get someone else's perspective: Ask different people what they would do if faced with your challenge. You could approach friends engaged in different kind of work, your spouse, a nine-year old child, customers, suppliers, senior citizens, someone from a different culture; in essence anyone who might see things differently.
Play the "If I were" game: Ask yourself "If I were ..." how would I address this challenge? You could be anyone: a millionaire, Tiger Woods, anyone.
The idea is the person you decide to be has certain identifiable traits. And you have to use these traits to address the challenge. For instance, if you decide to play the millionaire, you might want to bring traits such as flamboyance, big thinking and risk-taking when formulating an idea. If you are Tiger Woods you would focus on things such as perfection, persistence and execution detail.
Enablers are activities and actions that assist with, rather than directly provoke, idea generation. They create a positive atmosphere. Some of the enablers that can help you get your creative juices flowing are:
- Belief in yourself: Believe that you are creative, believe that ideas will come to you; positive reinforcement helps you perform better.
- Creative loafing time: Nap, go for a walk, listen to music, play with your child, take a break from formal idea-generating. Your mind needs the rest, and will often come up with connections precisely when it isn't trying to make them.
- Change of environment: Sometimes changing the setting changes your thought process. Go to a nearby coffee shop instead of the conference room in your office, or hold your discussion while walking together round a local park.
- Shutting out distractions: Keep your thinking space both literally and mentally clutter-free. Shut off the Blackberry, close the door, divert your phone calls and then think.
- Fun and humor: These are essential ingredients, especially in team settings.
The ability to generate new ideas is an essential work skill today. You can acquire this skill by consciously practicing techniques that force your mind to forge new connections, break old thought patterns and consider new perspectives.
Along with practicing these techniques, you need to adopt enabling strategies too. These enabling strategies help in creating a positive atmosphere that boosts creativity.
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