My Question to NWA:
Here was the question I posed for the Never Work Alone Google Group:
"I was curious to hear from the group on how you do brainstorming. What tools or processes do you use and for what situations? What has worked for you and hasn't and why? I'm always on the lookout for ways to improve collaboration and decision-making. I am sure that others in the group would benefit from your feedback. I know there are plenty of things out there, I'm trying to weed down to those things that have worked for you and aren't just good "theories"."
What is brainstorming to you?
Karl Whealton thinks of brainstorming as something that is done over a continuous period of time, such as at a meeting. But in actuality, when he is brainstorming on his own, ideas don’t often roll for a several days until after he has some time to think about them. This isn't really the way brainstorming with a group is usually done. A lot of time has been spent studying the best way to brainstorm with a group over a short period of time, but maybe it's just as important to facilitate brainstorming over a period of a few days.
Chris associates brainstorming sessions like good improv. You can't do either completely in a vacuum; they both need a structure to hold the ideas in. And where brainstorming enters depends on the capacity of the group. For instance, he used to hold the brainstorming session at the front end of a process to help groups that were most unfamiliar with good brainstorming generate ideas for moving a project forward. He typically experienced problems getting folks to come up with truly wild, imaginative ideas. Now, for groups including more linear-types, he holds the brainstorm until later in the planning process where there are a few more structures to tie ideas to. This allows individuals who don't see themselves as creative types feel more free to enter into the process if they have something to hold on to.
Kris Olsen figures that techniques, like tools, are only as good as the person applying them. More important than applying this technique or that tool, find that person who has a basic instinct for framing a vision, profiling the audience, setting the table, and getting the discussion moving. Everything else is just accessories. She goes on to explain:
“It's like those dinner parties we've all heard about, never actually attended, but people would kill to be invited to. The host can't cook, clean, or decorate - he or she has people who do that. What the host really does is set the stage for dinner guests to hear, listen, and contribute to lively discussion on any topic under the sun. Everyone goes home with this great sense of having experienced something wonderful. That's all a successful brainstorming leader does (with a few more parameters). All the techniques and tools are just marketing nonsense to sell services.”
Dick Richards adds this: The person with the marker makes all the difference, and technique is secondary. Brainstorming can be powerful in the hands of someone who knows how to set a climate of openness, a free flow of ideas, withholding judgment, encouraging participation, trusting the wisdom of the group, etc.
How should you conduct brainstorming?
Here's what works for Stacy Brice when she facilitates brainstorming sessions:
Whether I'm coaching an individual or team, I prefer brainstorming that happens organically--based on how the person/'people do it most naturally. I see my role as that of facilitator... as the "holder" of the space in which the brainstorming happens; only when the people doing the brainstorming are stuck or headed off course do I make suggestions for moving forward.
Having said that, I always stipulate a few things from the get-go, regardless of how many people are in the session:
- No criticism of self/others
- No censoring of ideas--sometimes the best idea is the craziest one
- Everyone in the space is vulnerable; everyone in the space is completely safe
- What happens here stays here (meaning that people don't have to fear having their thoughts talked about/laughed at after the session ends)
- There's always a note taker who is not part of the brainstorming group. This frees me up to facilitate, and everyone else to participate
When they're stuck, I ask them to consider how they would handle the thing being brainstormed about under certain circumstances, such as, if:
- They had no money
- They had no practical knowledge of the thing they're brainstorming about
- They had to do it all alone
- They had 1000 people to help do it
- They had unlimited funds
- They wanted to be thought completely insane
- They wanted to play it completely safe
- They didn't care about making mistakes
- They weren't afraid of appearing foolish to others
- They couldn't do it the way it's been attempted before
Any questions that get people thinking about possibilities from angles other than the ones they most often use can be helpful in stimulating creative thinking. Knowing they're safe in the brainstorming space allows them to be open, vulnerable, and sometimes even silly.
Individuals have more ideas when brainstorming; groups have fewer ideas, but they develop them further more easily. In a group, if someone has an idea that seems to spark a bunch of people, I ask the originator to talk about it as far as s/he's able to see it, then "hand it off" to another, who adds to the idea as far as s/he can see it, then hands it off to another, and so on till each person who wants to add to the idea has had a chance to. This is especially good when there are both big picture and detail folks in the group, and a lot can be accomplished this way.
Chris Bower likes to use Post-it notes. The method:
- Make sure the topic being brainstormed is clear to all (write on a flip chart)
- Invite participants to record ideas on a note - 1 idea per note.
- Get everyone on his or her feet in any order, standing round a white board and ask him or her to stick all the notes on it.
- Then ask them to group the ideas according to theme and draw a circle round the group and label the theme. Probably needs a coordinator but everyone should join in.
- Encourage cross-fertilization of ideas and combining two or more ideas into one. New ideas should be recorded on additional Post-its.
The advantages of this approach include:
- Physical movement of all participants that help to energize the session.
- A degree of discussion about ideas and building on ideas
- Encourages quieter team members to participate.
Martin Spernau adds this to Chris’ process of Post-its.
“I have found this approach very productive and quick. Key is that it works w/o debate and politics... A lot of people can come to a consensus on a topic quite quickly. Here are some additional things I would add or change:
- Writing down ideas: I let people talk to each other one-on-one. You ask the other person questions and write down on the Post-Its anything you catch as important. Do until everybody has interviewed everyone else. The important part is that persons write down ideas/concepts the pick up from others. Your own ideas get written up by others... this is an early collaborative filter and also helps open up associations etc
- When all Post-Its are on the board I have a session of 'storyselling'. Volunteers step up to the board and try to summarize / narrate what they read there”
Karl Whealton suggests setting up a collaborative website or just a single document on something like Writeboard could facilitate this. Maybe you can have an hour meeting and seed the page with the results of the meeting and keep it open for more input until a meeting the following week for next actions, etc. And of course, a collaborative page, especially one updated dynamically, would be incredibly useful for brainstorming with a distributed team.
How have others outside the group tackled brainstorming?
"Students were only asked to make two comments linked to the text and one comment on a classmate’s thoughts each week; however, engaged by the new technology, many went beyond the requirements. On Sunday nights before class, the wiki came alive as they went back and forth, linking to outside sources to illustrate their points. Students were cross-referencing multiple poems in a single entry, linking to specific lines in each. Some even uploaded pictures depicting the poems’ imagery."
The article is not written as nor intended to be a brainstorming technique, but her take on it is that it demonstrates how the approach evolved into a brainstorming approach. A 'Romance Poetry' professor sets up a wiki (a secure, online, collaborative website) each week with a classic poem for the students to contribute their thoughts and analysis. What started out as an effort to try and engage the students in a rather dry subject area, has apparently inspired them beyond the professor's expectations.
Kris Olsen points out that there are plenty of hosted wikis out there that are simple to use, provide secure space, and allow you to be up and running in a few minutes. I've used pbWiki, Seedwiki, wikispaces, etc. It really doesn't matter which one you use. Try a few out - all you have to do is create an account. Just do it. She also writes a blog about using wikis for any type of group or activity (like brainstorming).
Jason Che-han Yip has been on and off mind maps but finds himself going towards more of an “idea seeding” approach. Stole that way of describing it from OK/Cancel.
LLD and Kevin provide these additional resources:
· International Association of Facilitators has a database of methods.
· The basic ideas and tips in a nutshell can be found in The Facilitator's Pocketbook which is available at Amazon for $8.95.
· The Grove - the source of materials that work. Things like their wall templates can't be found anywhere else. Even if you can't afford them, you will have an idea of what to create on your own.
· The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation has put together a list of High Tech Tools.
· Technography includes some brainstorming techniques that use a computer.