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Brainstorming – top tips

Both Kylie (my fellow Event Expert) and I are big on brainstorming.  We are geographically separated by NSW, but with email, Skype and phone we manage to brainstorm regularly.  We also both brainstorm with ourselves and our white boards (oh and a glass of wine and some music in the background).  Brainstorming is a key part of both our businesses and there is no way our working lives would have moved to where they are without the tool of Brainstorming.

As a concept, Brainstorming was first introduced in the 1930’s, although like most ‘concepts’ I believe that this is really when a name was first given to the activity.  So what is Brainstorming?  Simply put, Brainstorming is an activity for generating ideas.  Generally it starts with a question or a problem to be solved and is based around generating ideas and discussion to get as much information to the table as possible.  There is then a process of filtering that information until eventually you have your answer, solution, or path to follow.

For me Brainstorming in the first instance should be very free.  I don’t like to put boundaries around the activity in the initial stages because when you do that, you tend to limit the imagination and that is where the good stuff is usually hiding.  However, for Brainstorming to be effective, and this is true whether you are Brainstorming with yourself or your team, there do need to be some guidelines in place.  What these are will vary depending on the personalities of those involved, the number of people you are working with and the project and its time constraints, however, so that you can start developing your own effective brainstorming habits, here are some things to keep in mind:

• Set a time limit – if you don’t do this it is possible for the session to just go on and on without ever reaching a conclusion and ultimately that is the purpose of the activity.
• Stay on track – you want to facilitate some ‘meandering’ through ideas, but remember to keep coming back to the purpose of the session.  This is where time limits are also helpful.
• Show respect – a lively discussion is one thing and they can be great breeding grounds for creativity, however everyone in the group should also have an opportunity to speak without being shouted over the top of.  In a team atmosphere there is always a mix of personalities and it is not always the most assertive members who have the best ideas.  If you are running the session, be aware of giving quieter members of the group the floor.
• Make it Manageable – If your team is larger than 5 people, consider breaking the group into two or more for the initial session, the groups can then come back to the table with some key ideas for everyone to explore.  Too many voices may mean lots of ideas but generally this means that the entire session is devoted to ‘ideas generating’ rather than ‘ideas exploring’.
• Have a leader – If you are the project head or ‘boss’ you may not be the best person to facilitate the session and in fact you may feel that you are better suited to participating than keeping the group on track, to time and reminding them of what the purpose of the session is.  Choose someone to manage the session who has a good understanding of the project and is able to take the lead and show authority where needed.

If you are working with a team (or even yourself) you need to create an atmosphere where creativity blooms.  Here are some ways of doing this and these can equally be applied to solo brainstorming as group brainstorming:
• Suspend judgement by encouraging people to give over to ideas.  Make sure everyone knows that this is a space where everything is open to discussion.
• Have markers, butcher’s paper and a whiteboard handy and give everyone a chance to work with these materials, this encourages free thinking.
• Set aside enough time.  Yes you want a time limit, but you also don’t want people watching the clock because they need to get back to other activities.  If possible give everyone involved as much advance notice of the session as possible and block out a good chunk of time.  Order lunch in if necessary so that you can take a break, but don’t have to leave the room.  This can often disrupt the flow of brainstorming.
• Piggyback ideas.   Be aware of the ideas being put out there.  Make note of them and encourage the team to work with the ideas, rather than the session becoming one big ideas ‘fest’.  At some point you need to follow an idea through to determine if it is worth taking to the next level.  By getting everyone involved in the idea you will find it expanding and moving to a new place.  Work towards getting as many ideas out there as possible within a set time frame and then filter them to achieve a manageable list of key ideas to work with.
• Encourage playfulness.  This may mean having some beanbags in the room, background music, stress balls and bowls of M&M’s on the table or crazy coloured markers for everyone to play with.  Whatever works for your team and lets them know that this is play-time.  If you are planning a full day, encourage everyone to dress casually, or set a fun theme such as asking everyone to wear a brightly coloured t-shirt.  These things may sound simple, but it is amazing what you get out of people when they feel relaxed and free to let their imagination run wild.

If you have your own brainstorming guidelines or ways of encouraging creativity amongst your team let us know.

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