Brainstorming is a popular method of group interaction in both educational and business settings. Although it does not appear to provide a measurable advantage in creative output, brainstorming is an enjoyable exercise that is typically well received by participants and that has proven its value many times over. In Six Sigma, brainstorming is usually most valuable during the Define phase, especially when using tools such as failure mode and effects analysis.

Before brainstorming, it is important to understand not only the fundamentals of the method, but also how to prepare for and conduct a session. With the right atmosphere, team members and encouragement, the ideas will flow.

Fundamentals of Brainstorming

There are several fundamental requirements for a successful session:

  1. Everyone must be familiar with the problem.
  2. The problem must not be too complex or multifaceted. If it is, a smaller subproblem should be considered.
  3. A group of between three and 10 people is optimal. A smaller number does not give enough interaction between people so that ideas can feed off of one another. A larger group, on the other hand, is too cumbersome. Some people will be left out of the discussion and will become negative or apathetic – a fatal flaw to a brainstorming session.

Preparing for a Session

One of the most important things to do before a brainstorming session is to define the problem. The problem must be clear, not too big and captured in a definite question, such as “What service for mobile phones is not available now, but needed?” If the problem is too big, the chairperson should divide it into smaller components, each with its own question.

Select Participants

The chairperson composes the brainstorming panel. Many variations are possible, but the following composition is suggested:

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

Draft 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 ideas are solutions to the problem, and used when the session slows down or goes offtrack. The memo should be sent to the participants at least two days in advance so that they can think about the problem beforehand.

Create a List of Lead Questions

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

Three Simple Brainstorming Warm-ups

Brainstorming warm-ups are useful for getting people into the right frame of mind for a session. These three common warm-ups help those involved in the brainstorming process to overcome stumbling blocks and maximize creative results.

1. Word games – Excellent brainstorming warm-ups, word games exercise the mind and help get participants into the proper mindset for brainstorming. It really doesn’t matter which specific word games are used, as long as they are mentally stimulating and challenging.

2. Practice run – Brainstorming a completely unrelated topic is one of the more popular and productive brainstorming warm-ups. It is done by creating an amusing imaginary problem and then brainstorming ways to overcome it. Practitioners can get a feel for the brainstorming process and exercise the parts of the brain that will be put to work during the actual session.

3. Game of opposites – To perform this brainstorming warm-up, write down a list of 10 to 20 common words. Next to each word, write down the first three words that come to mind when thinking of what the opposite of that word should be. If this is a group brainstorming session, have one person read each of the words aloud as all members of the brainstorming team write down the first three words that come to mind.

Setting Session Rules

While participating in a brainstorming session, there are several rules that need to be followed to make it productive:

1. No criticisms or negative judgments are allowed. These come later, after the session is finished. The basic idea is to obtain new ideas and not to rate them. The introduction of criticisms, judgments and evaluations will stop the flow of creative ideas by making individuals defensive and self-protective, and thus afraid to introduce truly new and different ideas for fear of ridicule.

2. Arrange for a relaxed atmosphere. If the environment is noisy, crowded or full of distractions, concentration will be lost. Also, the positions and personalities of the participants are important. An autocratic supervisor could ruin a session if people are afraid of appearing “silly” and thus do not speak up when they have novel ideas.

3. Think quantity, not quality. The point of brainstorming is to obtain large numbers of different types of ideas. Again, judgments come later when ideas which do not look promising can be filtered out. By concentrating on quantity, the subconscious is encouraged to continue making new connections and generating more ideas.

4. Add to or expand the ideas of others. This is not an ego-building contest, but a group effort to solve a common problem. A basic premise is that ideas from one person can trigger different ideas (some closely related and some not so closely related) in other people. That is why this technique works better in a group, as opposed to when used in isolation.

Variations on Classic Brainstorming

Newer variations of brainstorming seek to overcome barriers such as production blocking and may well prove superior to the original technique. The following are some of the alternative options:

Nominal Group Technique

This method encourages all participants to have an equal say in the process. It also is used to generate a ranked list of ideas.

Participants are asked to write down their ideas anonymously. Then, the moderator collects the ideas and the group votes on each one. 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.

Group Passing Technique

In this method, 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 is repeated until everybody gets their original piece of paper back. By this time, it is likely that the group will have extensively elaborated on each idea.

A popular alternative to this technique is to create an “idea book” and post a distribution list or routing slip to the front of the book. A description of the problem should be listed on the first page of the book. 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 allows for individual thought whenever the person has time to think deeply about the problem.

Team Idea Mapping

This method of brainstorming works by using association. It may improve collaboration and increase the quantity of ideas, and is designed so that all attendees participate. The process begins with a well-defined topic. Each participant creates an individual brainstorm around the topic. All the ideas are then merged into one large idea map. During this consolidation phase, the participants may discover a common understanding of the issues as they share the meanings behind their ideas. As the sharing takes place, new ideas may arise by association. Those ideas are added to the map as well. Then ideas are generated on both individual and group levels. Once all the ideas are captured, the group can prioritize and take action.

Electronic Brainstorming

Electronic brainstorming is a computerized version of the manual technique. It can be done via email. The facilitator sends the question out to group members, and they contribute independently by sending their ideas directly 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.

Individual Brainstorming

This 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 people diagram their thoughts.

The Power of Brainstorming

Brainstorming allows a team to obtain the best possible results by combining all resources available. It helps practitioners sort out ideas so they can plan ahead while gathering new data, and can accelerate the information-gathering session because each person in the session adds value to the end result. In brainstorming, no idea is unwanted, and all input is welcomed, which can lead to many valuable contributions.

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