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{From: Tina Seelig, inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity, Harper Collins, 2012.}

What are the rules of brainstorming?

Real rules exist for effective brainstorming -- the most important of which is that there are no bad ideas. This means that the participants aren't allowed to criticize ideas. In fact, no matter how strange the idea, your job is to build on it. The key is to embrace all ideas that are generated and to work with them for a while. Brainstorming is a way to explore all the possibilities, whether they are inspiring or insipid. This is the "exploration" phase of a project, which needs to be distinguished from the "exploitation" phase where decisions are made and resources are committed. There should be a clear wall between these two phases, so that your group doesn't fall into the trap of eliminating ideas too early. This is the biggest challenge for most people: they feel a need to evaluate ideas as they are generated. This alone will kill a brainstorming session.

It is also important to encourage wild and crazy ideas. Even though they may seem strange, there may be a gem hidden inside. The key is to generate as many ideas as possible. Give yourself a goal, such as coming up with five hundred new flavors of ice cream. Once you have come up with three hundred, you know that you only have two hundred to go. You have moved beyond the first waves of ideas and are posed to generate the most interesting and surprising recipes. It is important to remember that each idea is a seed that has the potential to grow into something remarkable. If you don't generate those ideas, then like seeds that have never been planted, no amount of time and tending will yield fruitful results. And the more ideas you have, the better. Just like seeds, you need a large number in order to find the ones that have the greatest promise.

One way to break free from expected ideas is to encourage silly or stupid ideas. In my last book, What I wish I Knew When I Was 20, I describe an exercise in which I ask students to come up with the worst ideas they can during a brainstorming session. This unleashes ideas that would never have surfaced if they only focused on their best ideas. When people are asked to generate bad ideas, they defer judgment and push beyond obvious solutions. In fact, the craziest ideas very often turn out to be the most interesting ones when looked at through the frame of possibility.

What is the brainstorming process?

Once you have the right space, people, and question, and have reminded everyone of the rules, your goal is to make the process as fluid as possible. Only one conversation should be happening at a time, so that everyone is in sync. Along the way, you are going to want to challenge participants to look at the problem from different points of view. One approach is to remove the most obvious solutions from the pool of possibilities, so that you have to come up with something else. This forces you to tackle the challenge without the expected tool in your toolbox. For example, if you are brainstorming about ways to make it easier to park your car in a busy city, the expected answer is to add more parking spaces. If you eliminate that possibility, then other, less obvious answers will emerge.

During a brainstorming session, you should also throw out surprising and provocative prompts along the way that will help the group push past their assumptions. For example, if you are coming up with ideas for a new playground, you could ask how someone might design a playground on the moon or underwater. You could ask how you might design it one hundred years in the future or in the past. You could ask how a child would design it or someone with a disability. You could ask how you would design it with one dollar or with a million dollars. Or, you can solicit ideas for the most dangerous playground in the world. In fact, studies have shown that the farther away you get from your current place and time, both physically and mentally, the more imaginative your ideas. These prompts provide a convenient way to do this.

In addition, it is important to build on other people's ideas. In a perfect brainstorm, there is a rhythm to the discussion, and it feels like a dance. Someone comes up with an idea, and several people build on it for a short time. Then you jump to a new approach. The dance could be called "Build, Build, Build, Jump!" To make this work smoothly, all the ideas should be written as short statements, such as "build a house on the moon" or "Give everyone a key to the building", rather than long descriptions that look like business plans. The short statements are like newspaper headlines for each of the ideas.

How are ideas captured?

Make sure that everyone has a pen and paper or sticky notes. This might sound remedial, but it isn't. If only one person is at the board writing down ideas, then they control which ideas are captured. When everyone writes, you avoid the "tyranny of the pen", where the person with the pen controls the flow of ideas and what is captured. In addition, if everyone has a pen and paper, they can write or draw their ideas in real time, without having to wait for a hole in the conversation. When they do speak up, they will have already captured their idea, so it will be faster to add it to the board.

Using sticky notes enables each person to write down ideas as they arise and then put them on the board when the time is right. They also force participants to write short "headlines" to summarize each idea rather than spending too much time writing lots of details. Sticky notes also allow you to reorganize and cluster similar ideas together as patterns emerge. All this adds to the creative spirit of the brainstorming session.

Another valuable way to capture all your ideas is using mind mapping. This is essentially a nonlinear way to collect ideas. Starting with a central topic on the board, you draw lines to words or drawings with related information, and then add details to those on smaller branches. For example, if you were using a mind map to brainstorm about the plot for a new mystery novel, you might put the title in the middle of a mind map. You would then draw lines to text or images around the center, which might include characters, settings, story line, and historical context. You can add ideas to each of these on smaller branches around them **. A quick online image search for mind maps reveals an endless array that you can use for inspiration.

** The main branches of a mind map might be who, what, when, where, and why.

{From: Tina Seelig, inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity, Harper Collins, 2012.}


[WPI] [CS]

dcb@cs.wpi.edu / Mon Oct 15 16:01:07 EDT 2012