Seven Secrets for Better Brainstorming

  1. Sharpen the focus
    Good brainstormers start with a well-honed statement of the problem. This can be as simple as a question. Edgy is better than fuzzy. The session will get off to a better start-and you can bring people back into the main topic more easily-if you have a well-articulated description of the problem at just the right level of specificity.

    We’ve also found that the best topic statements focus outward on a specific customer need or service enhancement rather than focusing inward on some organizational goal. On the other hand, a series of more specific, customer-focused brainstorms on topics like “How can we accelerate the time-to-first-result for customers searching via dial-up modems” could uncover innovations that might ultimately yield the competitive edge you are looking for.
  2. Playful rules
    Don’t start to critique or debate ideas. It can sap the energy of the session pretty quickly. You need a way to turn aside critiques without turning off the critiquers completely. At IDEO many of our conference rooms have brainstorming rules stenciled in six-inch-high letters on the walls, for example, “Go for quantity,” “Encourage wild ideas,” or “Be visual.” Not willing to mark up your walls?
  3. Number your ideas
    Numbering the ideas that bubble up in a brainstorm helps in two ways. First, it’s a tool to motivate the participants before and during the session (“Let’s try to get a hundred ideas before we leave the room”) or to gauge the fluency of a complete brainstorm. Second, it’s a great way to jump back and forth from idea to idea without lasing track of where you are.
  4. Build and jump
    Watch for chances to “build” and “jump.” High-energy brainstormers tend to follow a series of steep “power” curves, in which momentum builds slowly, then intensely, then starts to plateau. The best facilitators can nurture an emerging conversation with a light touch in the first phase and know enough to let ideas flow during the steep part of the ideation curve. It’s when energy fades on a line of discussion that the facilitator really earns his or her keep.

    Try building on an idea. Encourage another push or introduce a small variation. Or take a jump, either back to an earlier path you skipped by too quickly or forward to a completely new approach. Whatever you do, try to get into the next power curve and keep the energy up.
  5. The space remembers
    Write the flow of ideas down in a medium visible to the whole group. There are many emerging digital technologies for group work, but we have had great success with extremely low-tech tools like Sharpie markers, giant Post-its for the walls, and rolls of old-fashioned butchershop paper on the tables.

    Cover virtually every wall and flat surface with paper before the session starts. And you may find there’s a certain synergy in physically moving around the room writing down and sketching the ideas. As you rapidly capture the team’s ideas, make a mental note of ones that are worth coming back to during a build or a jump. When you return to the spot on the wall where that idea was captured, spatial memory will help people recapture the mind-set they had when the idea first emerged.
  6. Stretch your mental muscles
    People are busy. Time is short. Is it worthwhile to “burn” some time at the beginning of a brainstorm doing some form of group warm-up? Maybe. But that “maybe” rapidly becomes a “yes” in certain circumstances:

    • When the group has not worked together before
    • When most of the group doesn’t brainstorm frequently
    • When the group seems distracted by pressing but unrelated issues

    One type of warm-up we practice is a fast-paced word game simply to clear the mind (Zen practitioners call it “beginner’s mind”) and to get the team into a more outgoing mode. Another warm-up is to do some content-related homework.

  7. Get physical
    Good brainstormers are extremely visual. They include sketching, mind mapping, diagrams, and stick figures. You don’t have to be an artist to get your point across with a sketch or diagram. Leave your performance anxieties at the door and jump in with whatever visual tools you have available.

    But the best brainstormers often get physical. We move beyond two dimensions and push for three. The first way we do this is to bring in everything but the kitchen sink (and we’ve brought the sink, too, when it was relevant). The second way we get physical is to have materials on hand to build crude models of a concept: block, foam core, tubing, duct tape, whatever might be useful. The third physical approach is “bodystorming,” where we act out current behavior/usage patterns and see how they might be altered. We’ve bodystormed on products ranging from vending machines to car seats, where our skits and scenarios pointed to all kinds of opportunities for improvement.

Excerpted from Art of Innovation, Kelly, pg. 56-62.