How to Ensure Brainstorming Success
The topic of how to ensure brainstorming success is important because many people get brainstorming wrong despite what research and experience reveal is needed. I have been following creativity research since the mid 1990’s and I have been practicing successful brainstorming sessions as a Certified Professional Facilitator since 2013. I have witnessed participants push back against my approach to brainstorming until I explain the research findings and they give it a try.
Creativity researchers from the mid 1990’s until now have reported conflicting recommendations for brainstorming which may have added to the confusion of how to be successful in brainstorming. The conflicting brainstorming recommendations are due to several factors including the challenge of measuring creativity and the many variables that impact brainstorming success. In fact, there still is no standardized way to measure creativity even after all these years. The many variables impacting brainstorming were not always considered especially in studies conducted before all the variables were identified. This post curates the research on and my experience in brainstorming to recommend the preparation, problem statement, and proven practices needed to ensure brainstorming success.
Preparation for Brainstorming Success
One thing I have learned in the many brainstorming sessions I have led is that often participants do not take the time to prepare for a brainstorming session. Brainstorming is just like any other skill in that there are ways to improve the skill and there is preparation you can do ahead of time to ensure your best performance.
You can improve brainstorming skill by developing the traits that researchers have found correlate with the creativity needed for brainstorming. One key trait that correlates with the creativity needed for brainstorming is cognitive flexibility (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fncir.2019.00018/full). Cognitive flexibility is the ability to change your thinking and perspective in order to generate more ideas during brainstorming. In order to change your thinking, it is helpful to first identify your primary thinking style.
One way to practice cognitive flexibility is using a different problem-solving style. You can determine your default problem-solving style from your thinking talents (Dawna Markova and Angie McArthur. Collaborative Intelligence: Thinking with People Who Think Differently. New York: Random House, 2015). For example, my thinking talents include strategy, a love of learning, and embracing new challenges so my default problem-solving style is innovative. Other problem-solving styles include procedural, analytical, and relational. To change my thinking during brainstorming, I exercise thinking talents different from my own in the other three problem-solving styles. Specifically, I might try thinking about how to make something happen or be more actionable to be more procedural in my thinking or I might try thinking about the choices and perspectives of other to be more relational in my thinking.
A second way to practice cognitive flexibility is using a different thinking style. You can determine your thinking style from a model recommended by Phil McKinney, creator, and host of the Killer Innovations podcast (https://killerinnovations.com/). This model consists of the following five thinking styles: synthesists, idealists, pragmatics, analysts, and realists (https://thriveworks.com/blog/what-are-the-five-thinking-styles/). Synthesists tend to lead with curiosity by exploring more abstract ideas such as asking “what if” and looking for alternative and often opposing views. Idealists set high standards for themselves and are focused on the big picture so they value effective teamwork to achieve long-term goals. Pragmatics dislike wasting time so are action-oriented by thinking in the short-term to tackle problems one step at a time. Analysts pride themselves on being thorough, accurate, and rational by using methodical approaches supported by data and facts. Finally, realists are good problem-solvers that work fast but can get bored easily if the problem is not challenging enough for them. In this model, I am closest to an idealist with some analytical tendencies so I can change my thinking during brainstorming by considering what a pragmatist, realist, or synthesist might do or think.
One way to prepare for an upcoming brainstorming session is through practice. I like to set aside 30 minutes of private time which for me is typically first thing in the morning. Then I come up with a problem statement that interests me and write it down. The problem statement for my very first personal brainstorm was as follows: What books might I write? I used this problem statement twice. The first time I generated 26 ideas in 23 minutes and the second time I generated 40 ideas in 25 minutes. My sixth personal brainstorm was for the problem “how to become a valuable expert in global warming for the company?” I generated 61 ideas in 25 minutes. The more I practiced personal brainstorming, the more ideas I was able to generate per unit of time. I recommend practicing once a day for at least five days leading up to your brainstorming session.
You can also prepare for a brainstorming meeting if you know the topic ahead of time. Creativity researchers understand that creativity involves coordination between conscious thinking and accessing information stored in the non-conscious which is most active during mind-wandering or daydreaming. The more knowledge or expertise you have on a brainstorming topic, the more you can access relevant information in the non-conscious and the more creative your ideas. To increase your knowledge or expertise, you can do some internet research on the topic to gather some different viewpoints. You can also try ethnographic research on the topic (https://www.formpl.us/blog/ethnographic-research). For example, if the topic was to increase mentorship in the company, then you could interview mentors and mentees to learn more about their experiences both good and bad. You might also try archival research by finding research studies about mentorship or past video interviews of mentors or mentees.
While preparation for brainstorming is helpful, preparation will not fix a poor problem statement. Let’s look at some simple tests to assess if a problem statement is poor or not and to improve problem statements for brainstorming success.
Problem Statements for Brainstorming Success
A problem statement can make or break a brainstorming session. A problem statement needs to be specific enough to be solvable in the allotted time for brainstorming but not so specific as to imply a solution. A problem statement also needs to be concise so that it is understandable to different people with different backgrounds. Finally, a problem statement needs to generate focus. Creativity guru Dr. Keith Sawyer has discovered ten conditions for creativity to flourish in a group which speak to the process and climate needed during brainstorming (Keith Sawyer. Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. New York: Basic Books, 2007). Two of the ten conditions needed for creativity to flourish are about a good problem statement that generates focus. Further, Dr. Christian Byrge studies the Creative Platform model to promote creativity in brainstorming and one of its four pillars is a problem statement to support concentration (https://www.slideshare.net/nextlibrary/christian-byrge). Thus, tests for problem statements need to increase focus and concentration through clarification of the problem.
The first test I like to do for a problem statement is to assess the type of outcome made possible by brainstorming solutions to the problem. Examples of outcomes from brainstorming include learning, identifying challenges or opportunities, solving a specific problem, enabling action, or informing a decision. If the type of outcome made possible by brainstorming solutions to the problem statement is not clear, then I ask for clarity on the outcome before I start brainstorming. For example, I ask “what are ideas to address this problem statement going to enable you to do?” A powerful way to generate the focus needed for creativity in brainstorming is to understand the outcome for a problem statement.
The second test I like to do for a problem statement is to assess the type of novelty that is appropriate. For example, is the problem statement calling for us to do things differently or do things better. Doing things differently involves a different kind of novelty than doing things better. Another way to generate the focus needed for creativity in brainstorming is to clarify the type of novelty being sought.
A third test for problem statements comes from Phil McKinney who provides a set of three simple questions to help generate focus prior to brainstorming (https://killerinnovations.com/four-steps-to-better-brainstorm-problem-statements/). The first question is who has the problem or who will benefit from addressing the problem statement. The second question is what is the problem. For this question, I think it is helpful to restate the problem in your own words to make sure you understand the problem. The third and final question is why is the problem important to solve.
Even with preparation and a good problem statement, brainstorming success can be limited by the process used. We will consider next the proven practices for brainstorming success.
Proven Practices for Brainstorming Success
Dr. Christian Byrge recommends a range of exercises to get a group ready for brainstorming (https://vbn.aau.dk/en/publications/toolbox-for-creativity). The exercises are designed to create a high level of confidence, motivation, concentration, and knowledge application across group members for participating in brainstorming. The exercises are called 3D cases because they are designed to change the three dimensions of mind, body and attitude in ways that build confidence, motivation, concentration, and knowledge application. The 3D cases include ways for team members to get to know each other, improvisation techniques, and exercises to practice brainstorming using prompt cards and simple problems. An example 3D case is you are given a category like things you can see through. Next you work with a partner to identify items for the category in rapid fire succession. When you get stumped, both you and your partner put your fists in the area in celebration and shout out “yes we made a mistake” and then you repeat the exercise for another category. Making mistakes is an important part of the creative process that can lead to high levels of novelty and usefulness during brainstorming.
Brainstorming in a group tends to proceed in waves of effort with prompting by a facilitator. For example, the first wave of brainstorming produces the obvious and not very original ideas. Then a prompt is provided by the person running the brainstorming session to get more novel ideas which produces the second wave of highly novel but not as useful ideas. Another prompt by the person running the brainstorming session can guide the group to a third wave which produces ideas with both novelty and usefulness. The third wave is typically when the best ideas are produced.
Research by Soren Hansen at Aalborg University has shown a new approach to group brainstorming that eliminates the first wave of obvious and not very original ideas (https://business-designlab.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/04_2020_A_Didactic_Approach_for_Enhancing_Creative_Thinking_in_Business_Model_Teaching.pdf). The idea is to alternate between private collection and groupwork. Private collection is a way to bypass the social factors that can get in the way of creativity in a group. For example, you ask each person to work alone in silence and come up with a quota of ideas for the problem statement. Next, you form small groups of 2 to 3 people to share their ideas and then generate more ideas together. Third, you go back to private collection and then form new small groups for sharing and generating more ideas. You can repeat the process as needed and even form larger groups as you go along. Prompts are still helpful for when groups are sharing ideas and coming up with new ideas together.
Prompts to stimulate new thinking are an effective tool for brainstorming success. Prompts can be in the form of questions or process. For example, Phil McKinney has a deck of cards with what he calls killer questions that he uses as prompts in brainstorming sessions (https://innovation.tools/products/killer-questions-card-deck). The planner of a brainstorming session can also come up with questions to use as prompts during brainstorming. There are also a plethora of processes available to help trigger new thinking and new ideas as needed during a brainstorming session (https://asana.com/resources/brainstorming-techniques). One triggering process I like is called forced fitting and is used to turn wild associations into feasible solutions for a problem statement. First, hold up an object and ask participants to jot down what the object makes them think of relative to the problem statement. Next ask participants to force connections between what they jotted down and the problem in order to generate new ideas.
A proven practice for brainstorming success is to be deliberate about who is brainstorming. Research shows that more diverse groups are more creative than more homogeneous groups if everyone’s perspective is included. Diversity is both seen and unseen. Diversity of thought is important but you want some expertise in the room relevant to the problem statement. Expertise not directly relevant to the problem statement should have some sort of complementary adjacency to the problem statement. The group doing the brainstorming should be as large as possible but not so large that the person leading the brainstorming cannot manage the group with their facilitation skills to keep the session productive and on time.
Creativity researchers have produced conflicting recommendations for brainstorming success over the years. For example, some research claims that group brainstorming leads to higher creativity than individual brainstorming while other research finds individual brainstorming leads to higher creativity than group brainstorming. In fact, there are many factors that influence the creativity produced by group or individual brainstorming and there are different ways to measure creativity.
Creativity researchers today have a deeper understanding of the factors impacting both group and individual brainstorming than in the mid 1990’s. For example, creativity in brainstorming is a learned skill that can be developed and improved with practice and preparation. Practice can include exercising different types of thinking and preparation involves learning more about the brainstorming topic especially from different perspectives. Further, a well-constructed problem statement is needed to generate new and useful ideas. Finally, there are practices to follow during group brainstorming to promote brainstorming success. Some proven practices for brainstorming success are using warm-up activities, alternating between private collection and group brainstorming, having diverse expertise related in some direct or adjacent way to the brainstorming topic, and using triggers to spur new thinking as the session progresses. Brainstorming success can be yours if you prepare with practice and research, use a problem statement that focuses effort, and implement the proven practices described here.