Ultimate Brainstorming: A Beginner’s Guide to Brainstorming and Ideation

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than the one where they sprang up.


This is a guest post written by Arthur Kaptein who is the author of the Ultimate Brainstorming book. 


Brainstorming CAN Work!!!

Brainstorming is something we all do, every day, and all the time. If you say; “I never Brainstorm!” think again!!!

As David Allen says;

“Brainstorming is something that we do naturally. As soon as you think of something that you want to do, your mind will automatically start “filling in the blanks” with all the things that have your attention about achieving that result. That could be as simple as getting dressed or as complex as building a company. But the mind tends to generate ideas about the topic in somewhat random fashion. But even though the mind does this naturally, it can do it with more creativity and value, if you use some form of thought-capturing device, such as mind-maps on paper, whiteboards, or the computer.” — From Ultimate Brainstorming book; David Allen, author of Getting things Done

Nowadays organizations everywhere are confronted with enormous challenges, and enormous pressure to do more with less. That is one of the main reasons that brainstorming sessions have become an essential part of organizations worldwide.

Although organizations worldwide have embraced brainstorming as a useful technique, there are still quite some misconceptions surrounding most brainstorming sessions; knowing what the whole process of brainstorming is, not truly involving employees, as well as treating brainstorming as one-time events. These misconceptions can have a crippling effect on any organizations brainstorming session.

“My opinion on brainstorming (as we traditionally view it) is that it’s been misapplied from its original inception and, as such, has become an antiquated technique that’s not responsive to real human beings and how we think. It can be and is being redeemed by modern facilitation and design-thinking methods, so I’m optimistic about brainstorming’s future. It just needs to be reframed, reconstructed and placed in good hands.” — From Ultimate Brainstorming book; Sunni Brown, Co-Author of Gamestorming

I believe that if brainstorming sessions are to get individuals and organizations the results they are looking for, they will have to be educated in how brainstorming should be used; organizations will truly have to involve their employees, and brainstorming should be used in a well-structured, as well as structural way. Only then will organizations be able to create an environment where people truly work together, build on each other’s ideas, change perceptions, as well as support team thinking.

When organizations foster a culture of creative thinking, brainstorming will be one of the most valuable techniques to use.

On the other hand, a poorly run brainstorming session may do more harm than good in any creative process.

That is why I look at Brainstorming as part of a bigger process, not as being THE complete process.

In order to easily structure your brainstorming sessions, I will share with you my 9 step approach to successful brainstorming.

What is Brainstorming


Step 1: Set Your Focus

What is the statement for the session?

A brainstorming session should be targeted to a specific topic or else you run the risk of ending up with too many ideas, which cannot be used. You should define the problem area or the opportunity area you want to work on before starting the Brainstorming session.

Create a Statement

The best way to do this is to create a goal statement, mission statement, or vision statement describing the opportunity area or problem area you want to work on. You can create a statement on forehand when the topic for the session can be clearly defined. Or use it as an icebreaker if there are still some doubts about the central topic of the brainstorming session.

Creating a statement with the participants will create extra involvement.

Present the Statement

Always present the created statement before the session.

When known, send out the statement to the participants with the invitation for the session. If you do not have the statement ready when sending out the invites, inform the participants that a statement for the session will follow.

Look Back at the Statement

After the session has ended, you can look back at the statement to see if the goals have been reached.

A clear focus will get you clear ideas. And even if your brainstorming session will be used to come up with general ideas you should create one of the three statements.

Since there is always a goal there should always be a statement created for the session.


Step 2: Know Your Boundaries

What resources are available?

Make sure to know what the boundaries are for the brainstorming session.

What resources can you work with to generate ideas?

What is of limit?

Some people might say that setting boundaries can limit a session, and of course it might limit the creation of ideas. On the other side however, nothing is more frustrating than spending a day of brainstorming, coming up with great ideas, evaluating them in order to create an action plan for your best ideas, and then come to the conclusion that your idea will not be executed due to a lack of resources.

What resources are available?

As a facilitator creating a list of available resources is an important part of the preparation of a brainstorming session. Try to create a complete list of resources that the organization is willing to commit to the brainstorming session.

What is off limits?

When brainstorming for change it is good to know what areas are off limit. This will prevent brainstorming sessions from coming up with ideas that are doomed on forehand.

Is there a framework?

Some organizations use special frameworks for their decision making process. If these exist, make sure to use them. Otherwise you run the risk of ending up with a plan that cannot be executed due to the form you present it in.

So if there are specific limitations, they should be presented to the participants at the start of the session, and they should be known to the facilitator. Of course once shared, management and/or leadership will have to commit to the outcomes of the brainstorming session.


Step 3: Invite the Right People

Who do you really need in the session?

Now you know what the goal is for the brainstorming session, and what resources you will have available to work with, you can start thinking about who you need to invite for the session to make it a success.

One Department

Gathering a group of people from within one department is the common way to create a group of participants. When working on a financial topic, gather people from the finance department. When working on an HR topic, gather people from the HR department. (Although this can work, I would advise to mix in a few outsiders for a different perspective on the topic at hand)

Managers from Different Departments

Invite the heads from different departments if you need maximum decision power during the brainstorming session, for example during a strategic planning session. Off course it is advisable for the managers to conduct short brainstorming sessions with their teams before in order to create a strong platform, as well as extra buy-in when final decisions have to be executed.

A Team and Mix It

Invite the team you work with, and mix in a few outsiders. Outsiders could be people from departments that might not be directly involved in the topic at hand, but might pay a supportive role in the future. All too often people overlook the importance of involving someone from different areas; HR training department (training might be needed); IT (technical changes might be needed); Finance (to create a clear financial picture) etc.

Of course it all depends on the goal of the session as to what type of group you will invite. But always be sure to make a short list of the key participants that have to be in the session to make it successful, and build around that group of key participants.


Step 4: Select a Location

Where can we get the best results?

The location where you have your brainstorming session can be of great influence. The participants should be at a location that has minimal distractions. If you have the possibility to hold the brainstorming session away from the office, then do it!!

On-site

When you have only a short time for holding your brainstorming session (2 to 3 hours), an on-site session will be the best solution. However the main problem with on-site brainstorming is that people might be there physically, but their minds will be at their workspace. In this situation make sure phones are turned off, as well as laptops.

Off-site

When you have 4 to 6 hours or more, you should consider holding the session off-site. Off-site you can eliminate a lot of distractions in order to make sure the participants are truly present during the session.

Combination

Another option is to combine the two, starting on-site, and then go off-site. This is a great option if you want to take a look at the problem or opportunity at hand in order to have all participants focus on what is truly important during the session.

Much will depend on the time and resources available. But no matter where you hold the session, always make sure to create a comfortable environment, as well as a relaxing atmosphere.

How to Brainstorm


Step 5: Select Techniques for the Session

What techniques are right for the session?

To run a great session, you need a well prepared plan.

How will I capture all the ideas?

The best way to capture the ideas is to appoint a scribe to capture them, so you as the facilitator don’t have to write down ideas while managing the group. Otherwise you can always collect the ideas in an organized manner and work those out after the session.

What techniques will I use?

Choose an icebreaker to warm up the participants for the brainstorming session. Make sure that the icebreaker you choose matches your objective.

For example; Use a getting to know you icebreaker like “Talk Show Host” when the participants are not familiar with each other. Use an icebreaker like “Expectations” to have the participants share their expectations with the group, or use an icebreaker like “Mini Storm” to get the participants in the right mindset before the main session.

Use an icebreaker that has meaning for the session. All too often participants complain that the warming-up made no sense and was a waste of time, try to avoid this.

Using the Expectations Technique

Expectations creates a clear picture of the expectations of the participants for the session. This is a great technique to use for evaluation purposes of your session, as well as to create connections between participants.

Step 1: Expectations

Give all the participants some note cards and ask them to write down three expectations that they have for the session.

Step 2: Grouping the Participants

Create teams of 2 or 3 persons. When working with a big group you might want to create groups of 4 or 6 persons.

Step 3: Discuss

Ask the participants to discuss their expectations for the event with each other for around 10 minutes.

Step 4: Write

Let each team write down 3 expectations they have in common for the session.

Step 5: Share Expectations

Bring the group back together again, and ask the different teams to share their expectations with the entire group (views are not judged, only shared).

Step 6: Collect the Cards

Collect the cards and look back at them at the end of the session.

At the end of the session you can ask the participants to write down what parts of their expectations have been met, or not. You can use a questionnaire to do this.

You can also add a short discussion round comparing the expectations the participants had before the start of the session with the end result of the session.

Using the Mini Storm Technique

Mini Storm gets the participants in the right mindset by using brainstorming in a mini form. This is a great way to lay a strong foundation for the main brainstorming session.

Step 1: The Rules

Present the brainstorming rules to the participants.

  1. Everything goes (with a focus on the main topic).
  2. Combinations create new ideas.
  3. Work together.
  4. Delay judgment.

Step 2: Present a Topic

Present a small problem or opportunity to the group to work on.

Step 3: Start Brainstorming

Give each participant 3 index cards, and ask the participants to write an idea on each index card.

Step 4: Place the Cards

Pick up the cards and place the cards on the board around the central topic. Group the cards that have similar ideas on them.

Step 5: Combine Ideas

Ask the participants what ideas could be combined, and place those cards together on the board.

Step 6: The Third Option

Now let the participants write one idea on an index card, based on the combined ideas.

Step 7: Replace Cards

Replace the old cards on the board for the new cards.

Step 8: Voting

Do an anonymous round of voting to rank the ideas on the board.

Step 9: Top 3

Pick the top three ideas.

Step 10: Get SMART

Create groups of 3 to 4 participants and let them come up with a SMART action plan for the three ideas.

S – Specific
M – Measurable
A – Action oriented
R – Realistic
T – Time bound

Step 11: Present S.M.A.R.T.

Have each group present their S.M.A.R.T. action plan to the whole group. Have a round of questioning after each presentation.

Step 12: Last Voting Round

Put the plans on the board, and have another voting round.


Choose a brainstorming and evaluation technique that can help you reach your objective. Most important when choosing a technique is the time you have available for your session, as well as the central topic of the session, and of course the participants that take part in the brainstorming session. Make sure to have a backup technique available in case the participants get stuck during the session.

The Fishbone Brainstorming Technique

The fishbone diagram is a cause-and-effect diagram that can be used to identify the potential (or actual) cause(s) for a (performance) problem. Fishbone diagrams provide structure for a group discussion around the potential causes of a problem.

Step 1: Identify the Problem

First, write down the exact problem the participants are facing.

Then, write the problem in a box on the left or right-hand side of a flip-chart page or a whiteboard, and draw a line from the box.

Step 2: Work Out the Main Factors Involved

Now the participants have to identify the factors that are part of the problem. These can be systems, equipment, materials, external forces, people involved with the problem, etc.

Step 3: Identify the Possible Causes

For each main factor the participants considered in step 2, brainstorm possible sub-causes of the problem. Show these sub-causes as shorter lines coming off the “bones” (main causes) of the diagram.

Step 4: Analyze Your Diagram

The participants can now investigate the most likely causes in greater detail. This can be done by creating a new diagram highlighting one of the main causes.

The Post-Up Brainstorming Technique

The Post-Up works in several ways. First, it allows people to work in parallel, thus speeding the session and getting everyone engaged at once. It also gets people emotionally engaged as they are writing their own ideas rather than have other people write or interpret them.

Step 1: Define the Problem

Define the problem in the normal way and make sure it is visible to all the participants.

Step 2: Prime the Team

Tape or pin up paper on the wall. Two or three flip-chart pages together, side-by-side give a good working area.

Give everyone 3″ x 5″ Post-It Note pads plus fiber-tip pens, (or markers). The pens should be thick enough so a posted-up note is readable from several feet away, but not so thick that only a few words can be written.

Tell them to always write one idea per Post-It Note.

If you are doing this by yourself, you can scale the whole thing down by using mini-Post-It Notes and stick them on standard sheets of writing paper. You can even do it on the computer.

Step 3: Silent Writing of Ideas

Start with everyone silently writing down ideas, one per Post-It Note.

They should not at this time stick their Post-It Notes up on the wall (the focus is still on capturing ideas).

Step 4: Post Up Ideas

The team then posts up their ideas on the wall. A good way of doing this is to have each person take turns to post one idea. The person posting up the idea reads it out and everyone else listens.

If any posted idea triggers other ideas for anyone in the team, they can write them on more Post-It Notes and add them to their pile.

When all ideas are posted, then you can also use other creative methods to generate even more ideas.

Step 5: Shuffling and Exploration

When you run out of ideas, you can move the Post-It Notes around to group together ideas into themes or otherwise explore further.

Beware when combining ideas of ending up with a vague ‘generalized’ idea that loses the essence of some of its more original constituents.

(The Post-Up brainstorming technique comes from Creating Minds)

NUF Test Evaluation Technique

The NUF marking is a very simple quick check that you can use. It works because it is easy and intuitive, the criteria are already selected and there are only three of them.

Step 1: New, not been tried before

A solution is not creative unless it is new.

When we say ‘new’ here we are not looking to get into philosophical arguments about original thought, but we do mean something substantially different from those things which have been tried before.

Step 2: Useful, solves the problem

It is good to have a creative new solution — and it is even better if it solves the problem!

The question here is ‘How completely does it solve the problem?’

A totally useful solution solves the problem completely — and does not create any new ones.

Step 3: Feasible, can be implemented in practice

If you have a really novel solution that fully solves the problem, the final question is ‘Can it be put into practice?’

If it is very expensive to implement and difficult to use, then it will not be a very feasible solution.

Another good question here is ‘Who will I have to persuade?’

A solution to a problem can be assessed and scored with the simple three-part ‘Nuf test’. Just score it from 0 to 10 on each of ‘New’, ‘Useful’ and ‘Feasible’.

The Voting Evaluation Technique

Voting is naturally accepted in democracies as being a good and fair way of choosing. Because everyone is involved, then they all will usually agree with the final selection.

Step 1: Decide on the Voting Scheme

There are a number of schemes you can use to vote for ideas.

  • A fixed number of votes per person, typically one to five, depending on the number of ideas.
  • Weighted votes, for example one vote of value three, one of value two, and one of value one.
  • The ability to put all votes on one idea or a rule that one person can only put one vote on one idea.

Here is another possible way of deciding votes, based on the number of ideas for which votes will be cast:

voting-ultimate-brainstorming

You also need to decide on the confidentiality requirements. If, for example, there is a manager and subordinates in the creative group, then the subordinates may take a lead from the manager. This can also happen with informal social leaders.

Step 2: Decide on Voting Method

There are several methods that can be used for casting votes.

Voting can be done with sticky dots (good for ensuring that individuals cannot be identified). If you use this with weighted value scheme, then use different colors of dots for different values (for example red = 3 points, blue = 2 points, green = 1 point).

When ideas are written on flipcharts, then numbers, ticks, crosses or dots may be written by individuals against selected ideas.

If you are concerned by people being influenced by votes cast by others prior to them, then you can do a fully anonymous vote. One way of doing this is for them to write the description of the voted-for-idea on a slip of paper and hand it to you.

Step 3: Vote

Use the scheme as designed to vote for ideas.

Ideas are not always in a format where it is easy to apply votes. Before voting, you may need to reformat ideas, perhaps rewriting illegible ideas or simply discussing the ideas so everyone knows what they are.

Step 4: Sweep Up

After voting, count up the votes as cast and ensure agreement with the idea as selected. You can also do a ‘common sense’ check at this time, asking whether there are any good looking ideas which have been left out.

Step 5: Repeat as Necessary

If you end up with a lack of clarity of selection, perhaps with a dozen ideas out of 50 or so with a similar number of votes, then remove the non-voted-for ideas and perhaps the lowest half of voted-for ideas, then repeat the whole process. By steadily eliminating lower ideas, the preferred ideas will emerge.

Activities for Brainstorming


How will I follow up?

Decide before the session how to follow up:

  • Will there be an extra brainstorming session?
  • Will you use short follow up meetings, daily where the participants will explain what they did, what they will do, and what is holding them back?
  • Or will you follow up by email?

No matter how you follow up, follow-up has to take place.


Step 6: Prepare the Participants

How will the participants be prepared?

Once you know where and when your brainstorming session will take place, you know the boundaries and how you will run the session, as well as whom you will invite to the session, then it is time to start sending out the invitations for your brainstorming session. Send out your invites by email telling people the time and the place, and ask them to confirm if they will be present or not.

Training

When time and resources are available, have a special brainstorming training session with the participants in order to prepare them for their brainstorming session. Not only will this prepare the group of participants for the final session, it will also give you the opportunity to see how the group interacts with each other. If there are extremely big egos in the group you can have a short talk with them after the training session, to explain that there will be no place for that behavior during the brainstorming session (don’t do this in public during the preparation stage).

Email

Always give the participants the opportunity to do some individual brainstorming before the session by emailing the topic on forehand. This will give the participants time to do extra research on the topic that will be the main focus of your session. And as a result you will be working with a group of well-prepared participants.

Icebreaker

Use an icebreaker at the start of the session to prepare the participants for the brainstorming part of the session. You might want to let the group work on a small issue they face before jumping into the main topic. Again, make the icebreaker connect to the session.

A good preparation of the participants of your brainstorming session is as important as the session itself. Don’t expect miracles if the participants don’t know what is being expected from them!!!


Step 7: Prepare the Location

What do I need for the location?

Now it is time to prepare the location for the session. Of course there are quite some differences when preparing an on-site or off-site session. That is why we will take a look at the preparation of each location separately.

On-Site Location

When preparing an on-site location make sure to check the space before you have your session, check for: size, furniture available, outlets for equipment, space for activities, etc.

Be creative if you have limited resources. All too often facilitators use a lack of resources as an excuse if a session turns out bad. If you know on forehand what space and materials you have available, you can always build your session around them, and get great results.

Off-Site Location

When preparing an off-site location try to have the location at your disposal several hours before you have your session. Of course it would be great if you already have the location available a complete day before you have the session. This will give you all the time to set up the location, as well as rehearse your session.

Combination

When combining an on-site and off-site location make sure to have the off-site location prepared extremely well, or have a group lunch at the location where the main session will take place. Organize transportation for the group, or have clear maps for the participants to reach the location.

Always make sure to confirm all made arrangements before the session takes place (catering, reservations for special activities, special guests, etc.). Use a checklist for the materials you need for running the session, and the materials you need to give to the participants to use during the session. We prefer to create a brainstorming kit for the participants and hand them out when they enter the location.

Preparing for Brainstorming Session


Step 8: Run the Session

How will the session be run?

Now it is time to start your brainstorming session, always have a 15 to 30 minute welcome prepared for the participants. This is to make sure everyone is present before starting the session, and to introduce yourself to the participants in an informal and relaxed manner. Don’t jump straight into the session.

Part 1: Start the Session

Set the ground rules

Before starting the session; make clear that you run the session. But that you are not there to hand them solutions. The facilitator’s job is to steer the session, provide the participants with the right tools to reach the objectives of the session, and to make sure all participants are involved in the session. Hand out the brainstorming kit, and go over the brainstorming rules once more:

  • Strive for quantity
  • Encourage wild and unusual ideas
  • Postpone judgment
  • Build and combine ideas

Explain to the group that you will start with an Icebreaker to lay the foundation for the main session (always explain what you are going to do, a clear roadmap will support the participants in focusing on the tasks at hand.

Break the Ice

Start with your Icebreaker to warm up the group. A good icebreaker gets the participants in the mood for some serious brainstorming. Make sure the Icebreaker involves the participants, as well as the focus-point of the main session. Often facilitators use Icebreakers that are completely off topic, and as a result they can alienate the participants from the start.

Clarify

After the Icebreaker you should give the participants the time to ask clarifying questions before you start the main session. Also ask the participants questions in order to make sure they know what is expected from them. Don’t assume that if they don’t have questions, they know what is expected from them.

After the warm up, the participants are ready for the main event.

Part 2: Start Brainstorming

Present the opportunity and/or problem statement for the session

This can be a one-liner, or a paragraph. Make sure the statement you present is specific enough to work with. Never start your session with a half done statement like; “We have to increase sales”. Come with something like:

“We are looking for new opportunities in the market to increase our sales by at least 10% in the coming six months. To do that we can use……. .”

Start the brainstorming session

Explain what you are going to do. Especially when you are going to use more advanced Brainstorming techniques it will be worth the time to explain exactly what is expected. Nothing is worse than spending your time during the Brainstorming session, explaining what the participants have to do. Do this before you start the session. And even if you are using a seemingly easy technique, explain what you are going to do. Do this before each step in the session!!!

During the brainstorming session

Encourage the participants to jump in with ideas and moderate the individuals that try to take control of the session. You need to hear ideas from everyone. At this stage ideas are not to be judged, they should be built on and combined.

Keep the focus of the team on the goal. When participants go off topic, steer them back towards the main topic. You can easily do this by asking questions regarding the issue at hand. Use closed yes/no questions to do this.

Occasionally fire questions at the group, to create fresh views on the topic. Always make sure to have some great questions prepared in order to steer the participants around the topic that is being discussed. When the participants are on topic, but are getting stuck, use open ended questions to fire up their thinking again.

When the brainstorming phase has ended, you are not yet done.

Part 3: Evaluate, Plan, and Look Back

Evaluate

After you finish the brainstorming session with a number of ideas it is time to evaluate those ideas. In my experience it is best to have a break after the brainstorming session, this to give participants the time to wind down after an intense creative activity. This will also give you time to change the setting.

Where the brainstorming phase is all about being creative, the evaluation phase is more about analytical thinking. You could even do this on a different day (much will depend on the size of the project, and the available time and resources).

Action Plan

Once you have evaluated the ideas, and picked the best one, or even a top three, it is time to create a plan of action. Make sure your action plan is S.M.A.R.T.!!!

  • Specific: Are the actions well-defined and focused?
  • Measurable: Are tools in place that can track progress?
  • Action oriented: Are the actions that will be taken clearly described?
  • Realistic: Is the plan realistic?
  • Time bound: Have clear limits been set for each step?

Make sure to plan an official kick-off for the start of any project!!!

Look Back

After you finish creating an action plan, it is always good to take a step back, and look back at the session. Assess the session with the participants, double check if everyone is on the same page, and don’t forget to do a serious self-assessment.


Step 9: Follow Up

How will follow up take place?

After a lot of hard work, brainstorming, evaluating, and planning it is time to follow-up. Even if there is no extra session planned, follow-up is an important tool to see what the effects of the brainstorming session were, and to keep people accountable for agreements they made.

Scrum

Scrums are short meetings that can be held daily as well as weekly. They focus on three questions:

  1. What did we do yesterday (last week)?
  2. What will we do today (this week)?
  3. Are there any obstacles?

A Follow Up Brainstorming Session

Extra sessions can be held to follow the progress of the initial session. These can be shorter due to the fact that you only have to track progress of the created action plan. It will also help the organization to create lasting employee involvement.

Electronically

Electronic follow-up can be done by mail. You can also set up a special page, or use an online project planning tool to track progress of the project.

The way to follow up should be agreed on before the end of your session. This to create a clear view for all participants on what will happen after an action plan has been created.

I hope you found this summary of the 9 Step Ultimate Brainstorming Process of value. Thank you for reading and Happy Brainstorming. 🙂


Six Creative Ways to Brainstorm Ideas


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Ultimate Brainstorming WorkbookArthur has put together an Ultimate Brainstorming workbook that you can download for free and use for guidance during your brainstorming sessions. This workbook will naturally expand on the content found here within this article.

To download this workbook, please visit the Ultimate Brainstorming Workbook page.


Arthur Kaptein is an author, consultant, and Founder of Ultimate Brainstorming. He is recognized as an authority on personal and organizational development. He is a certified career, and executive coach (by the Center for Executive Coaching) . He provides personalized Career Development Services to managers, and top executives, specializing in the Mexican market.

For top decision makers worldwide Arthur Kaptein has developed the “Brainstorming for Results” program, a signature program from Ultimate Brainstorming. Providing managers and executives (worldwide) with the tools and techniques they need to get themselves organized; by creating a goal oriented roadmap to success, as well as concise short term strategies to reach their final goals.


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