So far, in the How I Write series, I’ve mostly talked about my approach regarding specific projects and some constraints. It’s been my intention, since the very beginning, to also talk about various techniques that encourage the flow, the evaluation and the organisation of ideas. Today, I’m rolling up my sleeves and diving into that category, starting it with an old, and often misused, classic: the brainstorming.
Brainstorming is a group creativity technique, meaning that you get a bunch of people together to produce ideas. The efficiency of brainstorming is often criticize, much to my dismay; the biggest problem with it is that people don’t do it right. And when done wrong, it is indeed an incredible waste of time.
There are several variations of brainstorming techniques, particularly when it comes to how ideas are generated exactly. I won’t get into that but focus on the core principles that make brainstorming work.
There are three crucial parts I want to talk about: the leader, the team and the meeting itself.
From my point of view, the most important person is the one who leads the brainstorming. This is the starting point of the process, the anchor. If it’s screwed up, chances are the rest will follow. Before entering the brainstorming, the Leader needs to:
- Master the problem: It is the Leader’s job to know the problematic we need ideas to resolve. He should sum it up in as few words as possible, ideally a question that will invite the participants to talk. The leader also frequently ends up evaluating the ideas from the meeting and picking the best ones. He needs to know what he’s talking about and what he’s looking for.
- Form and inform the team: The Leader selects the members of the brainstorming team. That is crucial so I’ll talk about it more in a bit. He communicates the core information about the problem and the starting question(s) in advance.
- Have a game plan: As I said earlier, there are several variations of the creative meeting itself. Depending on how much time you have, the type of problem and the type of people on the team, the Leader devises a different approach. The key here is to know where you’re going before the meeting. I’ll talk about various game plan I’ve used in the past in a few paragraphs..
The part most people screw up is this one. According to Wikipedia, a brainstorming team should count around 10 members. As someone who brainstorms on a weekly basis, I say “cut this in half”. Five is the maximum I personally refuse to go beyond. Three or four is my ideal number of brains in a storm. I find that if you have more people than that you either deal with chaos or half the people remain silent anyway. In both cases, someone’s time is wasted.
The team members should be carefully handpicked. You want people who have different level of knowledge of the problem and/or are knowledgeable on a different aspect. Diversity really helps bring out the most colorful and innovative ideas. You might even want one person who knows squat about the problem but might muse the team in unexpected ways.
The last criterion is the capacity to actually get into brainstorming mode. The process is about coming up with a high volume of ideas, no matter the quality. Let’s face it; some people have a hard time doing that. Be they shy, analyse to much or else, these people work better at their own pace, flying solo. And that is fine. Different creative minds work in different ways. It’s normal and healthy. Someone uneasy with brainstorming shouldn’t be forced to do it because, in the end, no one will be happy with the results.
This is where every thing comes together to follow the Leader’s game plan. Before I get to that, here are the simple rules of a brainstorming meeting:
- Focus on quantity, not quality. We’ll sort it out later.
- No idea’s bad. Again, we’ll sort it out later! A seemingly bad idea can spark awesome ones so no one should hold back.
- Shut off the criticism. Why? Refer to previous line. 😉
- No one owns the idea. Play with it, bounce it around, combine it with another one. Every thing is permitted except throwing it out.
Personally, I have a few reservations regarding these rules. When you read them, it sounds like you can stray indefinitely from the subject and that it’s okay. It is. In moderation. Straying can spark innovations so a little bit of off-track ideation is good.
After a while – my rule of thumb is 5 minutes -, we should get back on the subject, though. It is the Leader’s role to smoothly bring the people back if needed. From my experience, if after 15 minutes you are still way in the wilderness, there’s nothing more to get from the brainstorming at that moment. Better end the meeting and pick it back up, if necessary, later.
My favorite duration for a brainstorming is an hour and a half. I’ve never seen one remain productive for longer than that.
The meeting itself is basically the Leader asking the problem’s question(s) and the team pitching a bunch of ideas. How to manage that is what I’ve so far called “the game plan”. The Leader can just note the ideas down for himself or use a board so every participant can keep track. I like post-it notes (big surprise, huh?). It depends on the rest of the game plan. If the Leader plans to sort the ideas out alone, paper is fine. If the meeting includes sorting out the ideas with the team, post-it notes rule.
The Leader should have a few prompts ready to restart the conversation if it dies. Key words to throw in, random objects to put on the table, other questions relating to the problem… possibilities are virtually endless. Find what works for your project in particular.
The meeting can be separated in phases such as: 15 minutes for everyone to write ideas by themselves, 15 minutes of sharing said ideas, 30 minutes of brainstorming based on said idea, 30 minutes to regroup, organize and choose a top 5. That is one formula. If you have several questions, you can assign a time for each question. You might not want to assign a time and just go as far as you can and keep the remaining questions for another meeting. Again, find what works for your project in particular.
When done right, brainstorming can generate a high quantity of ideas, but also a highly original ideas. I like to use it to kick-start most of my creative process. The ideas might not make their way as they are into the final project but they are a pool of inspiration that I draw on.
For the smallest projects, it can be only a half an hour meeting. For the biggest one, I like to schedule an hour and a half a day for a few days and send summaries of each meetings so teammates can revisit them and let ideas stew before the next meeting.
Not surprisingly – I’m sure – , I’m considered a chaotic brainstorming Leader. I don’t like to set specific time. I’m prone to saying something crazy to restart the conversation when it’s dead. I’m not afraid to force people to stand up and dance a little to reactivate their brains. I bring weird objects in an oversized bag and drop them on the table as prompts for ideation (it encourages lateral thinking… hmm… I should probably talk about that later on in the series).
In a nutshell, the Leader needs to be prepared. The Team needs to be carefully chosen and small. The Meeting needs to be light, dynamic and fairly short. You can’t avoid that. From there, find the best way to push the team to generate as many ideas as possible. And sort them later.