A Lesson in Brainstorming


Winter. There’s a storm raging outside and here, in the office, brains are storming. We are in a team meeting trying to decipher, together, what’s the right, accurate, original concept for a new campaign for one of our customers.

Brainstorming is a popular technique to break barriers down and find creative, productive solutions. It is widely used by advertising and marketing companies, which must come up with brilliant ideas on a daily basis, but also in any other situations.

However, it appears that not everybody is in agreement about the effectiveness and success of brainstorming to generate creative and original ideas. Why? Well…

Let’s talk first about the usual and structured way to brainstorm, and then we’ll discuss the problems that may arise.

Brainstorming is the plunger of the creative block. It’s an open, informal way to discuss ideas and solve problems. When done properly, it enables people to come up with any idea, without being judged or criticized. Some of these ideas will evolve into a solution, others will generate other solutions.

At the core of brainstorming is the sensation of ease of its participants. This can be created in a relaxed and pleasant atmosphere with 8 up to 12 people, with a preliminary ‘ice breaking’ fun activity and a clear, informed decision not to judge or praise too much. Just to go with the flow.

Successful brainstorming allows for differentiation, richness of ideas, and also helps people bond. It generates a feeling of involvement that all people together will reach a solution. Ultimately, it helps adopt and market the solution.

Here are some tips for a productive brainstorming session:

• Prepare the meeting in advance – choose a convenient, inviting location. Send preliminary material to the participants about the topic to    be discussed (but not too detailed); put pens and paper on the table to jot down ideas. Make sure there are soft drinks, perhaps even some food, and create an environment that is different from standard team meetings.

• At the beginning of the session, set a limit to the process so that people can be focused and not turn the brainstorming into a storm that will lead nowhere.

• Openly present the problem you want solved. State the question clearly: “How do you think we can promote…”? “What can we do with…”?

• The meeting coordinator must encourage participants (even the shy ones) to share their thoughts, foster a sense of openness and ease, and must relate to each idea while moving the discussion along.

• At the end of the time allotted, the group together chooses the best five ideas and evaluates whether they meet the predefined criteria, for example, schedule, budget, customer characteristics, etc.

If you adhere to these tips, the success of the brainstorming is almost guaranteed (thanks to Jeffrey ).

So what is the problem?

There are two, actually:

• Sometimes, there is more quantity than quality. There may be many ideas, but they not always result in a single, good, quality recommendation.

• Almost always there are more assertive participants that take the lead, make noise, and ultimately take over the process They do not let others provide ideas of their own, and instead of a creative and fruitful process people fall into the conventional pattern in which the first ideas mentioned are the ones that are promoted, even if they are the banal.

What can you do, then? How can you avoid these situations and continue to benefit from the brainstorming process?

There are many alternative methods, but we chose an excellent one. It begins with the standard brainstorming process but has a different spin. It enables people to ‘skip’ the problems of standard brainstorming.

It’s called Brain Writing. It is a method of brainstorming that begins with writing. After presenting the problem to the forum, participants get some time and a place to think and write their ideas. The meeting coordinator then writes the ideas on a board, in no particular order, without indicating the name of the person that proposed it.

This way, there are no dominant persons that take over the process and all participants are equally exposed to all ideas. They can discuss them objectively and openly. This process encourages even the most obvious and unoriginal ideas, as well as more original, wild thoughts. This leads to an optimum fusion of creativity, originality and pragmatism.

This method works. Several studies have shown that brain writing creates about 20% more ideas in general and 42% more original ideas than standard brainstorming (thanks to Rebecca Greenfeld for the data). It enables even the shyest of people to participate in the process, endorse ideas that would otherwise have not been presented, take the time to think without just spurting thoughts. The solutions that arise are much richer. Moreover, writing individually is very freeing and empowering, allowing people to venture into many new directions.

Why don’t you try it next time and share your results with us? Here at Xtra Mile, the method proved itself.

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