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What is brainstorming and how does it work?



SUMMARY


Brainstorming is a popular group technique for finding ideas that relies on spontaneous, unfiltered creativity. The basic idea of training the human brain to trigger a "storm of ideas" and to put them down on paper as uncensored as possible was first formulated in 1939 by US author Alex F. Osborn and further developed by management theorist Charles Hutchison Clark. The brainstorming method aims to collect ideas quickly and unfiltered, for example by asking participants to simply throw their ideas into the room.


Brainstorming is a method of idea generation in which group participants contribute ideas in an unordered and unfiltered way. These ideas are first collected without evaluation or censorship and then evaluated.

Brainstorming as a discipline of idea generation comprises several forms, phases, aspects and dynamics. If you study the technique and get to know its advantages and disadvantages, you will make your next brainstorming session all the more effective. Although brainstorming is so attractive precisely because of the absence of complicated rules, not every brainstorming session is automatically successful.



CONTENT

  • The 4 laws of brainstorming

  • A brainstorming session step-by-step

  • Variants of brainstorming

  • Applications of brainstorming


THE 4 LAWS OF BRAINSTORMING


  1. Quantity before quality: Brainstorming is about collecting as many ideas as possible - ideally resulting in the one idea that is best suited to the project or endeavour. That is why it is important to have a steady flow of ideas, even if there are many nonsensical ideas or ideas with weak content among them. Even the ideas that are perceived as rather bad are important to be eliminated later as a contrast to the good ideas. The participants must be assured that every single comment will be recorded.

  2. No criticism, discussion or commentary during the session: To ensure that the flow of ideas is not disturbed and interrupted or even comes to a standstill, this rule must be implemented consistently. In other words, a request to speak may only contain one or more new ideas. All other content should only be brought up in the subsequent evaluation.

  3. Complete recording of all ideas: Only if all ideas are recorded, for example with the help of a blackboard or whiteboard, is it ensured that the brainstorming session can move unfiltered into the evaluation phase. Therefore, it is usually necessary to appoint a person to act as moderator or recorder, who then also usually holds back with contributions in the brainstorming session. If ideas are ignored and not taken down, this often has a demotivating effect on the participants.

  4. Think outside the box and inspire each other: The 'storm of ideas' usually consists of a multitude of ideas thought independently of each other, but there is little to be said against taking up an idea that has already been mentioned and developing a new one from it. Brainstorming often develops a dynamic of its own, which can lead to the ideas developing in a certain direction within the session or even concentrating on one strand of ideas. Here, participants should not be afraid to push this development further, nor to mention an idea that comes from a completely different direction. Both dynamics intensify brainstorming as a group technique and often lead to good results.


A BRAINSTORMING SESSION STEP-BY-STEP


Brainstorming is indeed characterised by minimalist planning and execution. However, by taking a few steps, you as the discussion leader can do a lot to make the results of the session even more valuable. After all, every successful brainstorming session requires good (if less active) facilitation, and every facilitator should be prepared accordingly.


Prepare the brainstorming session

As the facilitator, plan the brainstorming session first according to the group. If necessary, with the help of your staff, first answer the following questions:


How many idea generators will participate in the brainstorming session?

While there is no optimal group size for brainstorming, too large a group will jeopardise the flow of ideas (participants may feel intimidated), and too small a group will simply generate fewer ideas. The key here is balance and what group sizes are common in your work environment and make sense for your project.

How is the group composed (characters, genders, hierarchies, nationalities, languages, expertise)?

Because brainstorming sessions only achieve the best results when every participant takes part, you should pay attention to a certain group balance. Some are more direct and dominant than others who are shyer and reserved. By bringing all characters and genders together in as balanced a way as possible, there will be fewer unwanted patterns of disruption.


The same applies to hierarchies in the workplace. If you are facilitating a five-person brainstorming group with four permanent employees and one intern, the intern may feel insecure and not actively participate in the brainstorming. So make sure that participants do not feel inhibited by more senior people.


In a multinational company, it is important to consider possible language barriers when planning an international brainstorming session. English is usually the first choice here. However, it also makes sense to let each participant contribute ideas in his or her mother tongue so that they are expressed as unfiltered as possible. You can then translate them together in the evaluation.


Finally, you must not forget that people brainstorm better if they are already experts in the field concerned. Experts then quickly and willingly take the helm, while inexperienced and lay people are left out. But it is precisely from those people whose expertise is not yet so pronounced that the fresh, unusual and thus innovative ideas often come that can make a brainstorming session so valuable.

Who do you identify as opinion leaders in the group?

In many groups, you can identify certain people who are particularly dominant and/or opinion leaders and who you can in some way expect to be particularly active in brainstorming. Although a motivated participant is a great help in brainstorming, he or she can demotivate other participants by speaking too much or simply deprive them of the chance to speak. If you clearly identify such a person, a one-on-one meeting with the person before the session is appropriate. However, you also have the possibility to involve the other participants more during the brainstorming session by skilful moderation. This will be easier the more you know about the group and its opinion leaders.


When preparing, think about a suitable introduction. Present the problem concisely and precisely without going into too much detail. Otherwise, you may unconsciously influence the next round of ideas. You should also briefly explain the framework conditions (time frame, mode, etc.) and the rules (quantity before quality, no criticism, let people finish, etc.) of brainstorming so that every participant knows about the method. Most important, however, is the actual task or question to be creatively answered in the brainstorming session. Pre-formulate the introduction at best.

The brainstorming session: Tips for facilitation

During the actual session, the flow of ideas is crucial. During brainstorming, as many ideas as possible are collected, the best of which are then developed further. So you try to filter out the ideas that promise the most success in the 'storm of the brains'. To do this, the contributions must come quickly and in a varied way, and from as many different people as possible.


However, many brainstorming sessions develop their own uncontrolled dynamics or come to a standstill. Often the group gets stuck on a particular idea and already conceptualises it further, although the brainstorming should rather focus on just collecting. Sometimes the group comes to a standstill, which can be due to various factors. Then it is up to the facilitator to steer the session back in the desired direction and give appropriate impulses. Here are some tips on how you can gently influence the brainstorming session:


  • Address people who have not yet spoken. Often it is enough to briefly mention the person's name. It is possible that this person has not yet dared to share his or her idea. However, if the person does not have an idea, you cannot force it. Make sure that people who have no ideas do not feel guilty.

  • Make a brief reference to an idea that has already been formulated. Ask briefly whether this idea can be modified.

  • Give praise at an appropriate point when you receive a new idea (if possible without evaluating the idea itself). Small reward mechanisms often activate the creativity centre and loosen the atmosphere. People may then be more willing to share their ideas.

  • If there is an absolute standstill, it is good to take a short break. As the facilitator, leave the room briefly to take any tension out of the group. If the session starts again, the participants have often already gained new energy or even got an idea in the meantime that they can share immediately.

  • Write down the idea on a suitable board or whiteboard so that all participants can see the progress. The mere fact that ideas are written down and this is noticed often has a motivating effect. Write legibly - if you don't have good handwriting, consider leaving the writing to a team member or co-facilitator.

  • Don't underestimate the framework. Optimal brainstorming takes place in a quiet environment, and the seating structure should not be hierarchical. Round tables or seating circles are ideal. In many cases, it is also helpful to move the brainstorming location away from the workspace. Taking your group to a nearby park can also activate the creative centre and lead to your employees thinking outside the box. With a small group, a walk also works wonders - but you need to have a way to jot down or record the ideas on the move, such as with a notepad or recorder.


Evaluate the results of brainstorming

"First the work, then the pleasure" - with the brainstorming method, this principle is reversed. While the actual brainstorming session is often associated with fun and levity, the evaluation of the collected ideas involves filtering out and discussing the really useful results in a factual and sober manner. At this point, creativity and informality largely give way again to sensible and strategic considerations with which the ideas are evaluated in terms of their plausibility and usefulness for the concrete project. However, you should by no means exclude those involved in the brainstorming session and process the results alone or only with selected persons.


Finally, the open discussion that follows should capture the energy released in the brainstorming session and engage all participants. While it is important to proceed with objectivity, give the participants the opportunity to discuss the ideas thrown into the room in more detail and to explain their origin. Perhaps the person who formulated a good idea during the session has already thought it through further and can now make an even more valuable contribution. The joint evaluation of the brainstorming is an essential part of the process.


Another popular method of evaluation is the process of elimination. Here, ideas are eliminated one by one until one remains, which is then to be put into action. The discussion style is argumentative and comparative. The eliminated ideas can be determined, for example, with the help of a concealed ballot or with an open show of hands until a winner is determined. This method brings a playful, if not competitive, element to the discussion and, in the best case, creates a healthy, motivating tension. Brainstorming is also such an exciting technique because, in theory, any idea can win, regardless of the rank and status of the idea generator.



VARIANTS OF BRAINSTORMING


Brainstorming in the classical sense according to Osborn and Clark assumes that the group finds each other and generates a creative storm of ideas with as few rules and constraints as possible. However, the term 'brainstorming' is nowadays interpreted freely and often refers to any kind of spontaneous idea generation, whether in a group or alone with pen and paper.


The modern working environment has also given rise to new variants of brainstorming. More and more offices are using online platforms and software to exchange ideas and, if necessary, develop them further. Tools for group work are becoming more sophisticated and offer opportunities for chatting, sharing content, collaborative project work and productive exchange. The ease of use of these tools makes it attractive to 'throw' ideas into chat rooms and spontaneously respond with feedback, especially since the tone on these platforms is often relaxed. Whether this is still brainstorming is questionable, however. Some of the following variants also depart quite clearly from the basic concept of brainstorming according to Osborn and Clark.


ABC brainstorming

This variant adds a rule to classic brainstorming that attempts to bring the storm of ideas into an orderly pattern. ABC brainstorming tries to find a suitable idea for each letter of the alphabet that begins with that letter. You can either proceed in strict alphabetical order or let the letters be chosen freely one by one. ABC brainstorming is a popular method when the group is at a standstill or idea generation, in general, is stalled. It is especially good when it comes to coming up with a name or an advertising slogan.


One danger of ABC brainstorming, however, is that participants become too focused on the letters and their creativity is suppressed. After all, there are many more words and thus sensible ideas that start with the letter 'E' than with 'Y', but for both letters, only one idea each is desired. Moreover, with ABC brainstorming you exert considerable influence on the train of thought of your employees, which counteracts the original idea of brainstorming as a storm of ideas that is as unfiltered as possible. Basically, the more rules you impose on a brainstorming session, the fewer truly original ideas you are likely to get.


Electronic brainstorming

Collaboration software such as Slack or a similar platform is best suited for digital idea collection. Using these programmes, you can gather employees into groups and ask them to leave their ideas in the form of posts. Set a deadline that is as short as possible to encourage spontaneity. Electronic brainstorming bypasses the open conversation culture of face-to-face interaction, sacrificing a key advantage of traditional brainstorming in favour of convenience. Often, however, you have no other choice, for example, if the members of the working group cannot easily meet on site.


It is also common to use video call programs such as Skype to conduct a brainstorming session as close to real life as possible. Because this method of brainstorming takes place in real-time, spontaneous creativity is a given. Nevertheless, a video call cannot replace natural face-to-face interactions one hundred per cent and may erect a mental barricade between the participants. The moderator is also more challenged with this variant and has to cope with the special conditions and technical hurdles of video conferencing. For example, disconnections, poor transmission quality and a lack of affinity for technology on the part of the staff may distract from the actual brainstorming session or even make it completely impossible.


Brainwriting

Unlike classic brainstorming, brainwriting relies on the individual writing down and collection of ideas to the detriment of spontaneity and team dynamics. The notes are collected by the facilitator (after a deadline) and then discussed and evaluated together in the group. The ideas are often anonymised and are also discussed without reference to individuals. Brainwriting is a thoroughly effective method if some group participants are less suitable for classic brainstorming for various reasons (e.g. language barrier, character) or if circumstances make an on-site meeting impossible (distance of participants, no suitable conference room, etc.).


The decoupling from the person is one of the strengths of brainwriting. After all, in classic brainstorming an idea is clearly attributable to the person who expresses it. Depending on the group constellation and dynamics, this can have negative effects on the brainstorming session. Brainwriting makes it easier for particularly insecure participants to access the session. This also allows ideas to emerge that might not even be expressed in the classic brainstorming setting. This method thus creates the desired equality of opportunity for all participants.


Another advantage of brainwriting is the complete documentation of ideas. Every brainstorming session moderator, no matter how good, forgets to write down an idea here and there when it gets lost in the storm of ideas. In brainwriting, every idea is written down and is thus part of the idea generation process. However, this also leads to the disadvantage that the ideas have no relation to each other and can also be submitted several times (multiple entries). Within a brainstorming session, good ideas are often already further elaborated - in brainwriting, the ideas can only develop over several sessions and therefore go through a longer process.


Brainwalking

Brainwalking is a trendy variant of brainstorming, in which the creativity centre of the participants is constantly activated by the clever placement of posters and notes (across the office). In turn, the participants often have the opportunity to record their own thoughts on these posters so that a collection of ideas emerges at the end. Brainwalking thus deliberately breaks away from a strictly set framework such as a meeting or a chat room and relies more on the participants recording spontaneous ideas in their everyday work.


However, there is some confusion about the term: walks among colleagues with integrated thinking tasks and movement exercises are often also referred to as "brainwalking". The aim here is to train the brain in such a way that the creativity centre is activated and memory and perceptual skills are improved. In this sense, the term refers more to a mental fitness technique and less to a method of generating ideas. However, it is quite conceivable to integrate small brainstorming sessions into such an activity. Movement can have a productive effect on creative thinking.


Shared idea book

For a longer brainstorming process, so-called idea books are particularly suitable. For this brainstorming method, it is best to use an empty notebook that is passed from person to person at your workplace. Your employees then record ideas in writing and can also comment on existing ideas, either anonymously or signed by name. This variant combines the advantages of brainstorming and brainwriting. Similar to the latter, you get a kind of idea portfolio as a result, which you can present to the group for discussion and selection. Depending on the size of the group, the process is more lengthy and time-consuming than classic brainstorming; however, the idea book is easier to integrate into everyday work.


It is recommended that a few rules be established for an idea book. For example, it is often useful to give each person a time limit (e.g. one day) when they must pass the book on. You should also specify how much each person is allowed to write in the book (one page per person is conceivable). This not only helps to keep a good overview but also prevents particularly creative staff members from pushing the other team members into the background. Otherwise, employees could feel demotivated if their predecessors have already come up with an impressive volume of ideas.


With the idea book, too, the question arises as to how far the method can still be classified as brainstorming. After all, not only is the spontaneity of idea generation largely lost but a significant part of the group dynamic is also lost. Therefore, it remains to be considered whether brainwriting does not actually outperform the idea book, since the former counters the loss of spontaneity through anonymity. The idea book seems to combine the disadvantages of both methods and only suggests convenience as an advantage. Nevertheless, depending on your industry and work environment, the idea book may be an effective brainstorming method worth trying.



APPLICATIONS OF BRAINSTORMING


Brainstorming is an effective technique when looking for ideas that can be expressed briefly and concisely. Therefore, brainstorming as a method is particularly popular in areas such as the advertising industry that rely on the creativity of employees. Above all, brainstorming has long been standard in areas of application where a constant flow of fresh and innovative ideas is relevant to the market economy, whether in meetings, conferences or on team platforms. The methods used in each case depend strongly on the group constellation, the organisational effort and the working environment.


Marketing/advertising

In the field of marketing and advertising, brainstorming is an essential technique for finding ideas. Advertising slogans, visual elements, the direction of advertising campaigns - many of these creative projects have their origins in brainstorming sessions in which employees initially let loose a storm of ideas until a 'winning idea' is determined and put into action. The guiding questions or tasks of these sessions often read the same: "What is our new advertising slogan?", "Why do people consume our product?", "Draft a new advertising concept" or similar. In addition to classic brainstorming, brainwriting often comes into play here, especially when it comes to developing new visual elements such as product logos. Because advertising is supposed to attract attention, it often has to be particularly original. The most original ideas often come from successful brainstorming sessions with creative minds.


Product planning/design

In the development of new product ideas and lines, creativity and reference to current trends are as important as lateral thinking. Brainstorming attempts to activate the creative centres of the participants in order to collect the most original ideas possible. After all, with a new product, it is important to stand out from the competition and stand out from the crowd. In terms of design, variants of brainstorming that simplify the exchange of ideas with visual elements are suitable. With the help of electronic brainstorming, for example, design proposals can be collected and then presented together in a portfolio. Brainwalking is also well suited for design ideas because it enables participants to work cooperatively, for example by drawing together on posters. Comparable to this is the joint idea book, in which design ideas are visualised.


Other areas of application

Basically, the brainstorming technique is always suitable when creative, innovative and fresh ideas are needed. The video game industry, for example, thrives on constant innovation and the development of new techniques and concepts to produce successful new video games. After all, the majority of gamers appreciate a certain degree of innovation. Because creative minds from different disciplines are in demand in this industry (graphics, music, story, etc.), the brainstorming sessions are often colourful and produce an equally colourful collection of ideas - especially since most people who work on video games are also gamers themselves and know the change of perspective.

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