“You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.” —Walt Disney
Does brainstorming ever feel like a total waste of time? You believe it’s necessary to get your team’s input on a topic, but the session usually just turns into a few people bickering, and the other participants saying nothing at all.
Even if it was a good session with solid ideas, the meeting notes (if there are any) will most likely end up lost in an email chain abyss never to be found again.
These are classic examples of brainstorming gone wrong.
When venturing into the world of brainstorming, keep a few important things in mind.
First, the top priority of brainstorming is quantity over quality. Yes, you read that right: quantity, not quality. Brainstorming is the first step in the exploration phase of a new project, so it’s important to be open to all ideas and possibilities. Problems arise when team members filter out the good ideas from the not-so-good ones out of a fear of rejection or judgment.
Another problem with brainstorming is many people think it can only be done one way: an open discussion in a meeting room with everyone involved. This method is not necessarily wrong, but leads to some largely unrecognized social drawbacks that contribute to an unproductive session.
For instance, when the first couple of ideas are shared during a session, there is a tendency to only focus on those ideas throughout the rest of the meeting.
The biggest problem with brainstorming is only a few people do 60-75% of the talking. This bias, often called “anchoring,” can often prevent other fresh ideas from coming to light.
Don’t get lazy when you brainstorm—keep it both efficient and effective. Let’s dive into seven easy brainstorming techniques that encourage collaboration while eliminating judgment.
1. Brain Writing
The general principle of this technique is to separate idea generation from discussion.
The team leader shares the topic with the team, and team members individually write down their ideas. This helps eliminate the anchoring bias and encourages everyone on the team to share their own ideas. It also gives everyone more time to think over their ideas, which is especially helpful for your introverted participants. This brainstorming technique works best for teams who seem to be greatly influenced by the first ideas presented during a meeting.
When your team is brainstorming ideas individually, away from distraction and public opinion, you generate concepts that may not naturally surface in a larger setting. Individual brainstorming techniques like this will often give you more unique ideas than when the group comes up with topic ideas together.
2. Figuring Storming
Ever consider how someone else might handle the situation? Or what they might say about a particular topic? With figuring storming, you aim to do just that.
Think about how someone like your boss, a famous celebrity, or even the president of the United States might handle the situation. Putting yourself in new shoes can give the team a different perspective, helping them see the possibilities from fresh ideas. This technique works best for teams who find themselves coming across the same ideas for repetitive projects.
Try the simple question: What would Abraham Lincoln do? When you brainstorm questions that revolve around the possible actions of a third party, you free up ideas that aren’t limited to your participants. It’s one of those exercises for teams that gives everyone a different viewpoint.
3. Online Brainstorming (Brain-netting)
Virtual teams are becoming more and more common across all industries. The evolution of email and collaboration tools make working remotely the norm in some organizations. But what happens when the team needs to come together to brainstorm?
Sure, ideas can be tossed back and forth through email, but then it becomes difficult to archive those ideas for future reference. Creating a central location online where team members can collaborate is crucial for these virtual teams — consider cloud-based document storage or an online collaboration tool. See how Backcountry uses a collaboration software to brainstorm productively.
There are also a ton of great brainstorming tools that help make online brainstorming more of a visual and collaborative experience. One brainstorming exercise for groups involves using an online mind-mapping tool to answer very specific questions or generate ideas tangential to the main problem. What other ideas surround this concept? Map these examples out, visually.
4. Rapid Ideation
Sometimes, time limitations can help generate ideas quickly, because you don’t have time to filter or overthink each one.
With this technique, the team leader provides context beforehand with information or questions on the topic, budget, deadline, etc. Then, a time limit is set for individuals to write down as many thoughts or ideas around the topic as possible, using any mediums available. Participants should not worry about filtering their ideas.
The great part about this style of brainstorming is that it’s completely customizable to meet the needs of the team and project. Several different mediums can be used, such as pen and paper, white boards, Post-Its… anything to get the creative juices flowing. The time limit for your rapid ideation session can be anywhere from five to 45 minutes, depending on the complexity of your topic. This technique is good for teams who tend to get sidetracked, teams who hate meetings, or for placing a time limit on brainstorming sessions that frequently last longer than expected.
Here’s a tip you should take very seriously… get silly! Management professor Leigh Thompson conducted another study on this subject. She found that groups who shared funny or embarrassing stories about themselves came up with 26% more ideas in 15% more categories than the groups who didn’t.
While brainstorming is the basic technique for developing ideas and getting people to think up new concepts and solutions, there is a very real temptation to overthink things. It’s easy to get bogged down by every new idea and its details. This is precisely the problem that rapid ideation seeks to solve.
5. Round Robin Brainstorming
Teams form a circle to kick off this method. Once the topic is shared, go around the circle one-by-one and have each person offer an idea until everyone has had a turn.
Simultaneously, a facilitator records all ideas so they can be discussed once the sharing is over. It’s very important to not evaluate any ideas until everyone has the opportunity to share. This technique is good when some of your team members have a tendency to stay quiet throughout meetings.
When leading a session, the round robin method of brainstorming allows everyone to pitch in and contribute. Just make sure to treat each idea with equal weight. And try to discourage people from saying “X already mentioned my idea.” If this does happen, say you’ll return to them at the end so they have time to think of something new.
No, it has nothing to do with the candy.
This form of brainstorming focuses on forming questions rather than answers. Starbursting challenges the team to come up with as many questions as they can about your topic.
An easy way to begin a session like this would be to start listing questions that deal with the who, what, where, when, and why. This style assures that all aspects of the project are addressed before any work goes into executing it. It’s a good technique for teams who tend to overlook certain aspects of a project and end up rushing to get things done last minute.
Thinking up some good brainstorming questions has the added benefit of giving you an instant backlog of ideas for web content: In case you need a FAQ section for your website or product, simply answer the generated questions.
7. Stepladder Technique
Developed in 1992, this style of brainstorming encourages every member in the team to contribute individually before being influenced by everyone else.
The session begins with the facilitator sharing the topic or question with the whole team. Once the topic is shared, everyone leaves the room except two members of the team. These two members will then discuss the topic and their ideas. Then, one additional member is added to the group. This new member will contribute his or her ideas BEFORE the other two discuss theirs.
Repeat this cycle until everyone from the original group is in the room. This technique prevents groupthink in teams where one or two members hold sway over everyone else. This also helps encourage the shy folks in the group to share their ideas without feeling intimidated by a room full of people.
The stepladder technique is actually one of the more mature brainstorming strategies as it incorporates both an individual and a group participation aspect. This technique is useful for medium-sized groups of anywhere from five to 15 people. Once the group gets larger, however, it takes much longer and may become unwieldy.
Bonus Tip: Try Some Brainstorm Music
Here’s a unique tip for your session: try putting on some brainstorm music — i.e. music that’s more conducive to generating new ideas. Depending on your company culture, or the team involved, the right kind of music at the right volume can help.
However, as fun as it is to rock out like Wayne and Garth, try to stick to these guidelines for picking music for productivity:
- Keep it instrumental (it’s better for concentration and attention)
- Keep it in a major key (so the mood stays positive)
- Ensure the music stays at a fixed tempo and volume (less distracting).
Two examples you could play: Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, if you like classical music, or some deep house if you enjoy electronic dance music. Here’s a few places you can find online to get your background music set.
The Benefits of a Group Brainstorm
So why is brainstorming in a group beneficial? The definition of brainstorming holds the key: It is a way to solve problems by holding a group discussion and collecting information or ideas that are arrived at via “unrestrained and spontaneous participation in discussion.”
It’s a useful method, especially in the early stages of a product or a company’s growth, to bring together a wide range of viewpoints. Additionally, it’s a quick way to generate a large quantity of ideas. Instead of just one or two, a group effort can exponentially increase the number of ideas.
Here are a few tips to help your next brainstorm become a resounding success:
- Make the objectives crystal clear from the start. What are you trying to find/solve? What constraints are you operating under?
- Just as with other collaborative meeting techniques, allow everyone to have a say. Facilitate the session so that the people who are quiet have equal time in the spotlight as those who have the tendency to dominate discussions.
- Take away the possibilities of anchoring by letting people generate ideas individually first, before coming together to discuss and elaborate.
- Go for quantity over quality at the start.
- Be silly and have fun! No question or idea is stupid.