Brainstorming: How to generate ideas effectively

Brainstorming is a group technique for generating ideas, products or solutions to problems spontaneously and in response to a pre-defined question. The method was developed by Alex Osborn in 1939 because some project meetings were hindering creative work and, as a result, the project was stalling.
In brainstorming, ideas created wildly are accepted without evaluation or censorship, and can even be taken up and developed further. Five to eight people should be invited to think about the question within a fixed time frame of one hour maximum.
Depending on the question or the group of participants, different methods can be used, as there is not always one particular method that is the ideal way to get ideas.
Multiple bulbs


When to use brainstorming

Brainstorming is particularly useful in areas where short, memorable ideas are needed and the environment is very dynamic. In today's fast-paced world, it is important to have good ideas up your sleeve in order to react quickly to change. Of course, this also promotes innovation in the project and therefore in the company. However, if the question is too complex and participants would have to ask too many questions to understand the exact direction in which the brainstorming should go, then brainstorming is not useful. In such cases, it is even more of a hindrance, as it could prevent ideas from being created quickly. Complexity can also mean that a certain level of expertise is required, which some participants may not have.
However, if brainstorming is considered useful, it could be used in marketing, advertising or product planning, for example. It is in these areas that the ability to simply let go of one's own ideas can be beneficial in encouraging creativity. Ideal for this type of activity would be brainwriting or brainwalking, which will be discussed later in this article, as visual elements also play a role. Another application in project management would be risk assessment and stakeholder identification. Especially at the beginning of a new project, you may not have an immediate overview of everything, and it can help to discuss this as a group.

Rules for brainstorming

To ensure a successful brainstorming process, certain rules should be established in advance. Only in this way can the process be successful. Apart from these rules, the brainstorming session should be casual. Too many rules can limit creativity.

1. Quantity over quality

It is important that as many ideas as possible come together. A large number of ideas also increases the chance that the right idea will come up. This means that there should be a constant flow of ideas, where every single word is recorded. This is the only way to separate the bad ideas from the good ones. Every idea that is mentioned can lead to another participant getting an idea as a result and thus developing the idea already mentioned.

2. No criticism and no discussion

Even if you think the idea is bad, it should still be shared with the other participants because everything is initially received without judgement, both verbally and non-verbally. Negative feedback, whether direct or indirect, can cause participants to stop sharing their ideas for fear of rejection. Therefore, participants should be careful not to shake their heads, roll their eyes or cross their arms when they do not like an idea.

3. Taking minutes

The facilitator or even the recorder should write down all the ideas, unless the participants use other methods and take notes themselves. This way everyone can see what ideas have been generated and it is also motivating as no idea is discarded.

4. Lateral thinking and mutual inspiration 

As mentioned earlier, you can revisit ideas that have already been expressed without judging the original idea, as the team should be working together, not against each other. It is particularly important to make it clear that it does not matter who has the bright idea, as long as it moves the project forward.

Brainstorming techniques for generating ideas

A lot has changed since brainstorming was first developed. The modern world of work means that classic brainstorming no longer works optimally. Nowadays, software is often used to chat and share content, which can lead to direct feedback, which, as mentioned above, is not always desired. Therefore, even with online methods, care must be taken that ideas are not directly evaluated.
In addition to classic brainstorming, there are the ABC and 6-3-5 methods, brainwriting, brainwalking and the shared idea book. In the following, we introduce you to four of them.

1. Classic brainstorming

The classic method ensures creative spontaneity, high efficiency and good team interaction. Participants shout their ideas out and the facilitator writes them down. Care should be taken to keep groups small to medium sized and to avoid complex hierarchies or structures. You will find out why this is the case below. The disadvantage of this method, however, is that the facilitator has a lot of work to do and can potentially interfere and influence the process by miscommunicating. For example, an idea could be judged on the basis of poor wording, so it is important to be careful. Also, this method is not anonymous, so it can happen that more introverted people do not express themselves. The facilitator has to try to counteract this. Another problem is that you have to wait until the previous speaker has finished. During this time you have to listen actively and try not to forget your own thoughts. This can lead to many ideas not being said because they have simply been forgotten.
Alternatively, the thought can be written down. This method is described in the next step.

2. ABC brainstorming

There is an additional rule to this method: For each letter of the alphabet, an idea should be found. These ideas can either be called up in the room and written on a flipchart by the facilitator, or a time limit is set, and everyone first works on the tasks individually by writing the ideas on a sheet of paper. Then the ideas can be evaluated. Of course, it can be decided beforehand whether the alphabet is to be worked on strictly in sequence or whether it can be chosen freely. The free choice would be ideal, because you don't get stuck on one letter and you can let your creativity run wild. It is clear that this method is good for introverts because they do not have to express their ideas openly. On the other hand, creativity may be affected because you cannot be inspired by other people's ideas.

3. Brainwriting

In this method, the central question is first written on a flipchart. Then each participant is given three cards to write one idea on. When each participant has written down three ideas, the cards are passed around. Each participant now has the opportunity to look at the other cards and make additions if necessary. When all participants have read all the cards and written down any further thoughts on the idea, these are pinned to the flipchart and then evaluated. A recorder is not necessary. The advantage of this method is that it is anonymous, so no one has to be afraid of being criticised, especially if the team does not know each other very well. It also gives you time to write down your ideas. This can also be done online, so it is independent of time and place. However, the problem is that multiple answers are possible, and you should write down the ideas as concretely as possible so that they are understood, and you don't have to ask what the person meant. If the idea had to be explained, anonymity would be lost.

4. Brainwalking

The emphasis is on walking, not sitting, as this encourages creativity. So, in a large office area, posters are put up with individual ideas attached to them. Two or three people stand at each poster and think about ideas individually. After a set period of time, they move between the posters, making sure that no communication takes place. This method is particularly practical for visual elements, as these can be placed directly on the posters. The participants then choose the three best ideas, which they then discuss and justify, and finally the best idea is chosen for implementation.

Tips for successfully facilitating a brainstorming session

In addition to the methods mentioned above, there are many others that differ from each other to a greater or lesser extent. However, there are general tips for all methods that can be used to conduct the session successfully.

General tips

First of all, all participants should be informed well in advance so that they can prepare for the brainstorming session, as it can affect the flow of ideas if they come to the session with other thoughts. Also, the question needs to be clear but not too specific. The question needs to be open-ended, but also clear enough not to stray too far from the topic. It also needs to be specified whether the ideas need to be implemented quickly, whether there is a deadline for implementing the ideas, or even whether there is a budget.
Success also depends on the size of the group. Ideally, the group should consist of five to eight people so that enough ideas are generated, and no time is wasted. If the group is too small, there may not be enough ideas to come up with a good approach. On the other hand, if the group is too large, it may split into smaller groups and the ideas will not be discussed in the whole group.
Depending on the participants in the groups, the appropriate method must also be chosen. If the participants do not know each other well or there are many reserved people, an appropriate method should be chosen. With a team that does not yet know each other well, direct communication might be better, but if someone is very reserved, it would be better to collect ideas in written form, because especially reserved people will feel inhibited to express their ideas if dominant participants are present. The same applies if there is a hierarchy. For example, newly hired employees tend to be reserved towards the boss. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to the composition of the groups. It is also advisable to change participants from time to time or to bring in someone who has nothing to do with the project, as this breaks up the routine.

Moderation and facilitator

The process is usually led by a facilitator. The facilitator must be able to motivate, be goal-oriented, impartial, good with people and have a calm presence. The constant flow of ideas can develop a momentum of its own, sometimes getting out of control. This is where the facilitator needs to intervene. If someone is sticking to an idea and perhaps even starting to discuss it, something needs to be done. The same applies if someone goes off topic or stops paying attention. It has already been mentioned that some people, by their very nature or because of the sometimes unavoidable hierarchical structures, are reticent. In this case, the facilitator should take the initiative to address the participants directly and ask for their opinion. If the process gets bogged down, it is also possible to ask if anyone has anything to add to this or that idea, without this being seen as a judgement. Sometimes it can also be useful to stop brainstorming or to move on to discussion.
In the subsequent discussion of which ideas are good and which are not, attention should be paid to how this judgement is communicated. The bad ideas should not be commented on in a pejorative way. It is better to ask how exactly the idea was meant or whether it has already been successful. In general, you should be careful and say something like: "We should talk about this idea again" or "I am not quite convinced by this idea yet".

Conclusion: Brainstorming for problem solving and innovation

Brainstorming is a good way to gather ideas in a short time. The methods of brainstorming are simple and easy to understand, there are no high material costs and communication within the team is improved. Ideas can be found in all sorts of areas and questions, and innovations can be developed from them. Especially when brainstorming is done outside the usual office space, creativity can be given free rein to develop the best possible ideas.

Brainstorming - The IAPM logo.
Author: IAPM internal
Keywords: Project management, Brainstorming, Definition

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