Effective brainstorming has two basic elements.
The first element is engagement. Getting everyone to contribute and not only those who are most comfortable speaking in a group is critical. Laura McClure recently wrote about this on TED.com with some great tips for including introverts. It isn’t enough to simply ask introverts to contribute. When you use effective techniques to engage everyone in the room, you can feel the excitement growing as the list of ideas grows.
The second element is divergence. To find the best idea, you need to start with the widest number and variety of ideas. This is where Laura’s advice needs tweaking. There is an incorrect assumption in her advice that brainstorming out loud will produce more ideas; that hearing a few ideas will kick start the idea generator in our brains.
The overwhelming research on brainstorming
indicates that we should first generate ideas on our own before processing those ideas as a group (see below for links). That is, write down your own list of ideas first, and then discuss and expand on those ideas in a group. There are a lot of social and psychological reasons why this is true, but the resulting advice is consistent. If you want the widest number and variety of ideas to consider, then brainstorm as individuals first before processing those ideas as a group. Diverge, before you converge.
Based on that research, here are some tweaks to her article:
1. Start the session by asking everyone to write down their initial ideas in silence. Her advice to “circulate the question or topic before you start” is great for everyone. But, in the likely case that everyone hasn’t prepared a list in advance, take time at the beginning of the session to give people a chance to write down their ideas. I like to hand out post-it notes and ask everyone to write one idea per note. This also allows us to easily group related ideas later on.
2. Don’t start by listing a few options you’re already considering. Her passive brainstorming techniques sound fun, but don’t start with an email string that lists a few options you’re already considering, and don’t start with a blank canvas. Both of these will lead to priming and will result in fewer ideas. Instead, first hold a brief silent brainstorming session to generate the initial list of ideas before posting them on the wall for everyone to interact with.
In summary, whether you are trying to solve a recurring problem or discover the next great innovation, don't unintentionally limit the number of ideas you are considering. To effectively generate a wide variety of ideas, brainstorm as individuals first before processing those ideas as a group.
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