How To Do Brainstorming Properly

How to Do Brainstorming Properly

Brainstorming is a fantastic technique which will ensure you're never left staring at a blank document wondering what on Earth you're going to write.

When you don't know what to do, do brainstorming.

These three quotations capture how brainstorming works:

"If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples, then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas."
(Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, 1856–1950)
"Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen."
(American author John Steinbeck, 1902–1968)
"The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away."
(American chemist Linus Pauling, 1901–1994)
Done properly, brainstorming is far more productive than just sitting around a table and having a chat about your issue. Lots of people do that, and they call it brainstorming. But that's not really brainstorming. I would call that sitting around a table and having a chat about your issue. Here's a quick overview of how we were taught to brainstorm in the British Army. It really works.

The Roles in a Brainstorming Session

There are three roles in a brainstorming session: the facilitator, the writer and the participants.

The Facilitator

The facilitator's tasks are:
  • Let 'Em Know Who's Boss.
  • The facilitator prepares the room and meets the participants (e.g., shows them where the coffee and biscuits are or shows them where to sit). This is useful to make it clear who's running the show and to give an air of formality to the meeting. Brainstorming can easily break into chaos (e.g., lots of debates going on at once), so establishing authority early is more necessary than you might think.

  • Define the problem.
  • The facilitator defines the problem to be tackled before the session starts. The first thing he does after his welcome is to seek agreement for his words that define the issue. Once done, the writer (we'll come on to him in a sec) writes the problem down in a place clearly visible for everyone. This is important to keep the session on track.
    "A problem clearly stated is a problem half solved."
    (New York-based editor Dorothea Brande, 1893–1948)
  • Outline the Rules.
  • Once he's defined the problem, the facilitator outlines the rules of brainstorming. These are the key to brainstorming's effectiveness. Participants must:
    • Understand that all ideas are potentially useful and not pass judgement.
    • Strive for quantity over quality.
    • Build on ideas.
  • Encourage Participation
  • Throughout the session, it's the facilitator's job to encourage participation. He does this with responses to the participants' ideas like "Yes, and…", "Like it. What else?" and "How can we develop that idea?" He must avoid words like "Yes, but…" and "That would never happen". And, laughing at someone's contribution is a real no-no.

The Writer

The writer has the hardest job. The first thing he does, as we've just said, is to write the problem to be tackled in a place that's clearly visible. After that, his job is to capture all the ideas offered by the participants on a whiteboard (or whatever) that everyone can see. He should try to group the ideas in themes and write sufficient words to ensure everyone can remember what the idea was.

The writer must be someone with the authority to tell the participants to slow down and to challenge the participants to present their ideas more succinctly or more clearly. "Hang on. One at a time. Jack, can you say your idea again?" (That sort of thing.)

The Participants

The participants' job is to generate ideas and state them to the rest of the group. Because the writer's job is so hard, each participant should also record his own ideas on a sheet on paper and hand it in at the end of the session. I've noticed over the years, that even the most formal brainstorming sessions don't do this. It's a mistake.

Get your participants to log their own ideas and hand them in at the end. These notes will help you decipher the writer's scribblings. The facilitator and writer are both active participants too.

At the End of the Brainstorming Session

At the end of the session, gather all the ideas, remove any duplicates, the impractical and the ridiculous, and use what's left to solve your problem or write your paper or whatever. Brainstorming is dynamic and productive. It's fantastic for freeing up mental blocks, for team building and for knowledge transfer between participants.

It's almost magical how ideas materialise as the participants are triggered by the other participants' contributions. Armed with brainstorming, you can tackle anything.
"No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking."
(French philosopher François-Marie Arouet or "Voltaire", 1694–1778)
What is business writing?