Harnessing the Power of Brainstorming

Revised

Brainstorming is the process of quickly and spontaneously creating ideas through imaginative thinking.  A group can participate, or a person can brainstorm alone.  Brainstorming helps generate novel ideas, fresh perspectives, and inventive links to existing concepts.

Like a source of light in the darkness, brainstorming can light up our mind and bring meaning in sight when it is hard to see

Brainstorming is an important prewriting step.  It helps you discover ideas that relate to your theme.  In this way, it helps you advance the purpose of your document.

What People Have to Say about Brainstorming

The educational-video creator Sprouts introduces traditional group brainstorming in this video.

When working in a group, Sprouts advocates:

  • Work on the right problem
  • Exclude authoritative persons from participating—and especially facilitating—group brainstorming
  • Go for quantity—solicit as many ideas a possible
  • Welcome crazy ideas
  • Withhold criticism
  • Build on other people’s contributions
  • Keep the group focused on the topic
  • Use methods to allow everyone’s voice to be heard
  • Combine common threats
  • At the end of a session, vote on the better solutions
  • Preserve results through making a record

Bill Burnett, designer and author, criticizes typical group brainstorming.  He doubts that more than five people can effectively brainstorm.  He peeves that most brainstorming sessions fail to come up with steps that are “actionable.” He offers the antidote of clustering and ranking ideas to form concrete plans.

Burnett further says to “make conceptual leaps” look for ideas that on the surface make no sense.

Digital marketing firm Investis Digital suggests ways to use brainstorming to find a wider range of ideas.

They advocate:

  • Make mind maps—create diagrams to record your ideas when brainstorming
  • Combine incomplete visual images to foster new concepts
  • Take provocative action, such as change your physical surroundings or communicate in unexpected ways
  • Break down a problem, a topic, or a device into smaller and smaller parts, and then use the small parts to build up a new concept or new device
  • Hold a conversation between a pessimist and an optimist
  • Connect random words or random ideas with your topic, and then spin this into a new idea

As you can see, Investis offers specific ways to expand on Burnett’s exhortation to make conceptual leaps.

Another approach to brainstorming is to have a group of people generate ideas independently, post the ideas anonymously, have everyone review the anonymous ideas, and then come together to discuss the ideas.  Kevin deLaplante discusses this approach in the following video.

Business consultant Wade Kingsley asserts that brainstorming alone is better than working with a group. 

Kingsley avers that contrary to popular belief:

  • Individuals can be more creative than a group, because group thinking inhibits creativity
  • As the quantity of ideas increases, the quality decreases, because the many ideas generated by group brainstorming generally are minor variations of a few core ideas
  • Rejecting bad ideas early is smart, since when an idea initially feels bad, it usually is bad— à la the gut instincts described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink
  • Creative ideas overwhelmingly come from people who have practiced the craft of innovation for a long time
  • Brainstorming by traditional methods is a poor way to generate ideas

In my opinion, Kingsley’s criticism is unfair when he characterizes most brainstorming as being unproductive. His statement that individuals can be more creative than groups is true some of the time, but not all of the time.  Especially for less creative people, working with more creative people can be motivational—even inspirational.  Also, group brainstorming can be socially satisfying.  Furthermore, brainstorming helps gain consensus, and it promotes engagement.

I agree that rejecting bad ideas is important; however, it is best to leave that rejection to later.  First, collect as many ideas as possible.  Afterwards, prune away those that are not so good.

Kingsley seems to believe that some people are born creative and others are not.  While some people are naturally very creative, most people can learn to be more creative.

I have no problem with Kingsley’s positive suggestions:

  • Start with the ingredients
  • Free up your mind by going for a drive—and I would add take a stroll
  • Engage in physical exercise 
  • Ask questions rather than answering them
  • Take a shower
  • Get on the internet to expose yourself to divergent ideas
  • Bounce your ideas off of another person
  • Close your eyes and visualize
  • Relax
  • Change your location

Kingsley’s insights are good news for writers, who typically work alone.  “To start with the ingredients,” writers begin with 1) their readers’ requirements and 2) the ideas they have collected through brainstorming and research. 

Kingsley’s suggestions to go for a drive, exercise, take a shower, get on the internet, work with another person, close your eyes and visualize, relax, and change your location all fall in the category of providing different stimuli to your brain.

Exercising and relaxing free your mind of worries, stimulate blood flow, oxygenate the brain, and release helpful neurochemicals.  Engaging with other people (especially one-on-one) and providing service to other people can crowd out your own worries, improve your mood, and release helpful body chemicals.

For large or complex projects, you might consider using the Disney method of brainstorming.  Paul Sloane, lateral thinking consultant , discusses the technique.

The Disney method uses 4 groups of people (sometimes composed of the same persons).  Each group discusses a problem or opportunity from 4 viewpoints:

  • Spectators—i.e., customers, suppliers, and consultants—they analyze the facts
  • Dreamers—i.e., idealists—they describe their dreams
  • Realists—i.e., those who have to deliver a tangible product, service, or outcome—they select the optimum idea and develop a plan
  • Critics—i.e., those who judge the plan—they evaluate risks, recycle the idea, if necessary, to the realists, or reject the plan, if the idea is not workable

Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats is a similar, although more complex, tool for using distinct ways of thinking to solve problems or think about projects.

My Experience Brainstorming

I can remember when brainstorming was generally unknown. From 1979 through 1984, I worked on innovative smelting technology.  Our engineering and project development team did not use brainstorming.  We did not know of the technique.  Looking back from my current perspective, I know brainstorming could have helped us scope, justify, design, engineer, construct, startup, and troubleshoot this project as we attempted to create and deploy new technology.  

While we tried to innovate, the failure to brainstorm contributed—at least in part—to poor results.  We did a lot of problem solving, but most of this effort was by individuals or small groups, and much of the effort was try and fail, try and fail.  Brainstorming could have helped us avoid a lot of wasted exertion.

After that, I read a lot on business management.  I suppose it was in the mid-1980s when I first encountered brainstorming by reading de Bono’s  Use of Lateral Thinking.

Lateral thinking is the use of indirect and creative reasoning to solve problems.  De Bono points to the Biblical story of King Solomon resolving the parentage of a baby by calling for the child to be cut in half in the presence of the true mother and woman falsely claiming to be the mother.

A little later, I became enthralled by Tom Peters’s Thriving on Chaos. The book is a magnificent example of innovative thinking put to productive use.

In 1990, I began directing a team of 32 engineers and technicians at two copper ore processing plants in Arizona.  A member of that team was the Japanese engineer Iichi Nakamura.  From him and from my reading, I learned much about total quality and began to apply the principles in my sphere of influence.  We actively used brainstorming to solve problems and advance projects.  This included scoping, justifying, and installing $56,000,000 ($100,000,000 in 2019 dollars) in process improvements, which lifted plant throughput 15%, increased recovery 3%, and elevated product grade 19%.  Accompanying these phenomenal results, morale among the 600 production and maintenance workers dramatically improved.  This confirmed that technical innovation worked when driven by innovative management principles.

Subsequently, I held the positions of business strategist and manager of project evaluations.  These jobs offered many more opportunities to use brainstorming and lateral thinking.  Since then, I have continued to use group brainstorming when the occasion warrants.

One instance where brainstorming proved crucial was in 2012.  We were launching construction on a billion-dollar project.  I helped plan and facilitate a 3-day meeting where 50 managers, engineers, accountants, and other technical professionals from two engineering firms, two construction companies, and our owner’s project management team came together to collaborate.  We brainstormed project objectives and risks, aggregated hundreds of issues, prioritized objectives and risks, and then agreed on actions to advance objectives, mitigate risks, and exploit opportunities.  In the brainstorming sessions, we used Post-it notes to capture ideas.  Participants placed the notes on the walls of a large meeting room.  We then grouped the hundreds of ideas, and then ranked the groupings.  The results from this session validated the project execution plan.   The diverse inputs strengthened the plan and ensured that stakeholders were fully enlisted in the project.

Mind Mapping

A key element of brainstorming is mind mapping. It is not only a means of recording group brainstorming sessions, but it is also a vital way to generate ideas for writing projects.

I continue to make handwritten mind maps when I need to write important documents.  When I am ready to begin drafting a report, an article, or a book chapter, I make a mind map.  I bring to the task my understanding of the assignment and the information I have collected through research.  Using a black lead mechanical pencil and writing in a spiral notebook, I compose a mind map.  Typically, I will work 15‑30 minutes on the draft.  I write down everything I can think of.  I arrange it in a loose web.  Then, I take a break of 5‑10 minutes.  When I return to the mind map, I next cluster related ideas using enclosures and more connecting lines, often making these with a red or blue lead pencil.  Finally, I sequence the ideas by numbering them.

With this map, I am now ready to start writing a rough draft.  But before I start drafting, I take another break—this time a longer one.

So, this is how I brainstorm/mind-map a document.

Conclusion

From my experience and from my reading, here are the best practices for brainstorming and mind mapping:

  • Focus on your purpose and your readers
  • Quickly capture ideas with brief notes or abbreviations
  • Do not worry about how pretty it looks
  • Think as broadly as possible when brainstorming
  • After brainstorming, cluster your ideas to discover threads of understanding
  • After clustering ideas, sequence your ideas according to what you think will best appeal to your readers and serve your purpose
  • Live an interesting life—i.e., feed creativity through meaningful interpersonal relationships, conversation, work, exercise, reading, hobbies, proper nutrition, fasting, spiritual devotion, and service

Credits

Photo of lightbulb, “More often than not,” photographer Kreg Steppe, taken 27 Sep 2008, Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/spyndle/2898579781/, accessed 26 Dec 2019, used under license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/.

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