Brainstorming


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Brainstorming - short version

(1) The process of capturing people’s ideas and organizing their thoughts around common themes.

(2) Group methods of problem-solving used in product concept generation; there are many modifications in format of use, each variation with its own name.



Brainstorming - long version

Brainstorming is a group creativity technique designed to generate a large number of ideas for the solution of a problem. In 1953 the method was popularized by Alex Faickney Osborn in a book called Applied Imagination. Osborn proposed that groups could double their creative output with brainstorming.

Although brainstorming has become a popular group technique, researchers have not found evidence of its effectiveness for enhancing either quantity or quality of ideas generated. Because of such problems as distraction, social loafing, evaluation apprehension, and production blocking, brainstorming groups are little more effective than other types of groups, and they are actually less effective than individuals working independently. In the Encyclopedia of Creativity, Tudor Rickards, in his entry on brainstorming, summarizes its controversies and indicates the dangers of conflating productivity in group work with quantity of ideas.

Although traditional brainstorming does not increase the productivity of groups (as measured by the number of ideas generated), it may still provide benefits, such as boosting morale, enhancing work enjoyment, and improving team work. Thus, numerous attempts have been made to improve brainstorming or use more effective variations of the basic technique.

Ground Rules

There are four basic rules in brainstorming. These are intended to reduce social inhibitions among groups members, stimulate idea generation, and increase overall creativity of the group.

Focus on quantity: This rule is a means of enhancing divergent production, aiming to facilitate problem solving through the maxim, quantity breeds quality. The assumption is that the greater the number of ideas generated, the greater the chance of producing a radical and effective solution.
Withhold criticism: In brainstorming, criticism of ideas generated should be put 'on hold'. Instead, participants should focus on extending or adding to ideas, reserving criticism for a later 'critical stage' of the process. By suspending judgment, participants will feel free to generate unusual ideas.
Welcome unusual ideas: To get a good and long list of ideas, unusual ideas are welcomed. They can be generated by looking from new perspectives and suspending assumptions. These new ways of thinking may provide better solutions.
Combine and improve ideas: Good ideas may be combined to form a single better good idea, as suggested by the slogan "1+1=3". It is believed to stimulate the building of ideas by a process of association.

Diagram of a brainstorming session Method

Set the problem

Before a brainstorming session, it is critical to define the problem. The problem must be clear, not too big, and captured in a specific question such as "What service for mobile phones is not available now, but needed?". If the problem is too big, the facilitator should break it into smaller components, each with its own question.

Create a background memo

The background memo is the invitation and informational letter for the participants, containing the session name, problem, time, date, and place. The problem is described in the form of a question, and some example ideas are given.The memo is sent to the participants well in advance, so that they can think about the problem beforehand.

Select participants

The facilitator composes the brainstorming panel, consisting of the participants and an idea collector. A group of 10 or fewer members is generally more productive. Many variations are possible but the following composition is suggested.

Several core members of the project who have proved themselves.
Several guests from outside the project, with affinity to the problem.
One idea collector who records the suggested ideas.

Create a list of lead questions

During the brainstorm session the creativity may decrease. At this moment, the facilitator should stimulate creativity by suggesting a lead question to answer, such as Can we combine these ideas? or How about looking from another perspective?. It is best to prepare a list of such leads before the session begins.

Session conduct

The facilitator leads the brainstorming session and ensures that ground rules are followed. The steps in a typical session are:

A warm-up session, to expose novice participants to the criticism-free environment. A simple problem is brainstormed, for example What should be the CEO retirement present? or What can be improved in Microsoft Windows?.
The facilitator presents the problem and gives a further explanation if needed.
The facilitator asks the brainstorming group for their ideas.
If no ideas are forthcoming, the facilitator suggests a lead to encourage creativity.
All participants present their ideas, and the idea collector records them.
To ensure clarity, participants may elaborate on their ideas.
When time is up, the facilitator organizes the ideas based on the topic goal and encourages discussion.
Ideas are categorized.
The whole list is reviewed to ensure that everyone understands the ideas.
Duplicate ideas and obviously infeasible solutions are removed.
The facilitator thanks all participants and gives each a token of appreciation.

The process

Participants who have ideas but were unable to present them are encouraged to write down the ideas and present them later.
The idea collector should number the ideas, so that the chairperson can use the number to encourage an idea generation goal, for example: We have 44 ideas now, let’s get it to 50!.
The idea collector should repeat the idea in the words he or she has written verbatim, to confirm that it expresses the meaning intended by the originator.
When more participants are having ideas, the one with the most associated idea should have priority. This to encourage elaboration on previous ideas.
During a brainstorming session, managers and other superiors may be discouraged from attending, since it may inhibit and reduce the effect of the four basic rules, especially the generation of unusual ideas.

Evaluation

Brainstorming is not just about generating ideas for others to evaluate and select. Usually the group itself will, in its final stage, evaluate the ideas and select one as the solution to the problem proposed to the group.

The solution should not require resources or skills the members of the group do not have or cannot acquire.
If acquiring additional resources or skills is necessary, that needs to be the first part of the solution.
There must be a way to measure progress and success.
The steps to carry out the solution must be clear to all, and amenable to being assigned to the members so that each will have an important role.
There must be a common decision making process to enable a coordinated effort to proceed, and to reassign tasks as the project unfolds.
There should be evaluations at milestones to decide whether the group is on track toward a final solution.
There should be incentives to participation so that participants maintain their efforts.

Variations

Nominal group technique
The nominal group technique is a type of brainstorming that encourages all participants to have an equal say in the process. It is also used to generate a ranked list of ideas.

Participants are asked to write their ideas anonymously. Then the moderator collects the ideas and each is voted on by the group. The vote can be as simple as a show of hands in favor of a given idea. This process is called distillation.

After distillation, the top ranked ideas may be sent back to the group or to subgroups for further brainstorming. For example, one group may work on the color required in a product. Another group may work on the size, and so forth. Each group will come back to the whole group for ranking the listed ideas. Sometimes ideas that were previously dropped may be brought forward again once the group has re-evaluated the ideas.

It is important that the facilitator be trained in this process before attempting to facilitate this technique. The group should be primed and encouraged to embrace the process. Like all team efforts, it may take a few practice sessions to train the team in the method before tackling the important ideas.

Group passing technique

Each person in a circular group writes down one idea, and then passes the piece of paper to the next person in a clockwise direction, who adds some thoughts. This continues until everybody gets his or her original piece of paper back. By this time, it is likely that the group will have extensively elaborated on each idea.

The group may also create an "Idea Book" and post a distribution list or routing slip to the front of the book. On the first page is a description of the problem. The first person to receive the book lists his or her ideas and then routes the book to the next person on the distribution list. The second person can log new ideas or add to the ideas of the previous person. This continues until the distribution list is exhausted. A follow-up "read out" meeting is then held to discuss the ideas logged in the book. This technique takes longer, but it allows individuals time to think deeply about the problem.

Team idea mapping method

This method of brainstorming works by the method of association. It may improve collaboration and increase the quantity of ideas, and is designed so that all attendees participate and no ideas are rejected.

The process begins with a well-defined topic. Each participant brainstorms individually, then all the ideas are merged onto one large idea map. During this consolidation phase, participants may discover a common understanding of the issues as they share the meanings behind their ideas. During this sharing, new ideas may arise by the association, and they are added to the map as well. Once all the ideas are captured, the group can prioritize and/or take action.

Electronic brainstorming

Electronic brainstorming is a computerized version of the manual brainwriting technique. It can be done via email and may be browser based, or use peer-to-peer software.

The facilitator sends the question out to group members, and they contribute independently by sending their ideas back to the facilitator. The facilitator then compiles a list of ideas and sends it back to the group for further feedback. Electronic brainstorming eliminates many of the problems of standard brainstorming, such as production blocking and evaluation apprehension. An additional advantage of this method is that all ideas can be archived electronically in their original form, and then retrieved later for further thought and discussion. Electronic brainstorming also enables much larger groups to brainstorm on a topic than would normally be productive in a traditional brainstorming session.

Other brainstorming techniques are web-based, and allow contributors to post their comments anonymously through the use of avatars. This technique also allows users to log on over an extended time period, typically one or two weeks, to allow participants some "soak time" before posting their ideas and feedback. This technique has been used particularly in the field of new product development, but can be applied in any number of areas where collecting and evaluating ideas would be useful. Professor Olivier Toubia of Columbia University has conducted extensive research in the field of idea generation and has concluded that incentives are extremely valuable within the brainstorming context.

Directed brainstorming

Directed brainstorming is a variation of electronic brainstorming (described above). It can be done manually or with computers. Directed brainstorming works when the solution space (that is, the criteria for evaluating a good idea) is known prior to the session. If known, that criteria can be used to intentionally constrain the ideation process.

In directed brainstorming, each participant is given one sheet of paper (or electronic form) and told the brainstorming question. They are asked to produce one response and stop, then all of the papers (or forms) are randomly swapped among the participants. The participants are asked to look at the idea they received and to create a new idea that improves on that idea based on the initial criteria. The forms are then swapped again and respondents are asked to improve upon the ideas, and the process is repeated for three or more rounds.

In the laboratory, directed brainstorming has been found to almost triple the productivity of groups over electronic brainstorming.

Individual brainstorming

"Individual Brainstorming" is the use of brainstorming on a solitary basis. It typically includes such techniques as free writing, free speaking, word association, and the "spider web," which is a visual note taking technique in which a people diagram their thoughts. Individual brainstorming is a useful method in creative writing and has been shown to be superior to traditional group brainstorming.

Other variations

One of the problems can be to find the best questions to ask. This has been called questorming. Another of the problems for brainstorming can be to find the best evaluation methods for a problem.

Conclusion

Brainstorming is a popular method of group interaction in both educational and business settings. Although it does not provide a measurable advantage in creative output, brainstorming is an enjoyable exercise that is typically well received by participants. Newer variations of brainstorming seek to overcome barriers like production blocking and may well prove superior to the original technique. How well these newer methods work, and whether or not they should be classified as brainstorming, are questions that require further research.



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