This post looks under the hood at various aspects of brainstorming – unlocking our collective minds to solve problems and seize opportunities. It looks at the importance of brainstorming, key elements and the natural brainstorming process, and approaches to brainstorming unique to strategy and project management.
Why is brainstorming important?
Sticky, thorny, unclear problems require a lot of brainpower combined with well-directed action. Brainstorming helps to bring the best solutions into focus.
So often we look at problems with preset solutions in mind. If it’s this type of problem, let’s apply that framework to it. If it’s that type of problem, put that methodology into action.
But this does not always work.
Our preconceptions, prior experience, and overall knowledge can help…but can also hinder.
In this day and age, prior approaches and solutions may be applicable in whole, in part – or not at all! We don’t need to throw away our prior knowledge, but need to find ways to navigate to the appropriate solution for today. A key way we do that is through brainstorming.
Brainstorming involves leveraging knowledge and ideas from diverse sources…and being open to new solutions and approaches. Let’s take a closer look at the key elements of brainstorming.
Key Elements of Brainstorming
One well-known proponent and widely acknowledged expert on brainstorming is Stefan Mumaw, an author, speaker, creative director, and faculty member at the University of Kansas. Mumaw provides these five elements as key to successful brainstorming:
- Collaborative – Brainstorming cannot be done in isolation! The idea is to get everyone “out of themselves” and contributing ideas. Ideas from others simulate thinking across the group. Ideation is a team sport – and the value of the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts.
- Safe and fun environment – Everyone participating must feel free to express their ideas. This may be a challenge in politically charged or highly competitive environments. Highly structured environments can also be an impediment because they incorporate roles and hierarchies that can thwart open communication and free expression of ideas.
- Set clear goal – While you want everyone to think freely and “out of the box”, you also want the brainstorming to be directed. The way to do that is to have a clear goal for the brainstorming – like a solution to a particular problem, or a way to unlock a particular opportunity.
- Use visual aids – Words can come and go – and seemingly evaporate not long after spoken. Use a visual aid or some sort of visual props to rapidly capture ideas as they come. It will help the group to visualize, remember, and connect thoughts – to marinate. It will also create a common group memory and evolving product of the brainstorming effort.
- Seek quantity more than quality – Do not nix bad ideas – at least not until later. Adopt an attitude of “anything goes” or “there are no bad ideas here”. Try to fill the idea hopper as full as possible without judging any; simply capture the ideas without passing judgment. And set rules and conditions so that everyone is doing the same.
Brainstorming is about generating a lot of ideas before sorting through them. While 80% of the value will come from 20% of the ideas, the more ideas you have, and the greater quality, the better off y will be.
Let’s look beyond these best practices and explore what actually happens during the brainstorming process in practice.
Brainstorming in Practice – Process, Obstacles, Solutions
So what happens when you actually get into the dynamics of brainstorming?
The graphic at right, developed by Stefan Mumaw, shows a notional process of how a brainstorming session or extended process might evolve.
Using a vertical axis of Number of Ideas and horizontal axis of Length of Time, the graph shows three distinct “milestones” in the brainstorming process:
- Relevant Ideas – As the group starts to brainstorm, there is hopefully a focus on an ultimate goal. People will spill out all the “low-lying fruit” ideas. This is the easy part – the things that are obvious and top of mind. These ideas may be obvious, and will also tend to be logical – and hence relevant.
- Ridiculous Ideas – As the quantity of “low-lying fruit” ideas dwindles, the number of ideas being generated decreases. At its low point, you could easily characterize the ideas as “ridiculous”. People are stretching well beyond the obvious – and even beyond the logical. Since “anything goes” and you have agreed to capture as many ideas as possible, people are throwing more and more crazy stuff out there.
- Creative Ideas – As the group gains momentum and opens up to the possibility of crazy ideas, the wheels get turning and begin to combine the Relevant and Ridiculous in novel ways – or even coming up with entirely new and novel ideas. At this point, the ideas are getting more Creative. This process continues to a peak and eventually the number of ideas dwindles to nothing.
This process illustrates the importance of all the elements of brainstorming in Mumaw’s list in the prior section. If all of those things are in place, people will likely follow a pattern resembling the graphic.
One of the key takeaways from this graph is that brainstorming is not a linear activity. You need to keep at it to reach a tipping point, and the graph helps to to navigate there.
Strategy and Brainstorming
Where are we going? Where do we want to go? Do we need to change direction?
Do we need to change the business model, revamp the value chain, or even select a different strategic framework?
These are some common strategic questions. Brainstorming can be the most effective way to begin to answer them. But the key is getting the right people in the room and setting up ideal conditions for effective brainstorming to occur.
Here are just a few of the key stakeholders that would be relevant and helpful to include in some strategic brainstorming:
- Specific Middle Managers – There people are intimately familiar with certain problems and opportunities and should be included accordingly.
- Customers – It may be helpful to get some key customer voices – or someone who can represent them – at the table. This could even include expertise outside the company.
- Operations – You’ll need to consider the logistics of how (and if) things can be done to come up with viable strategies.
- Finance – Ensure that you have the financial resources, especially in relative priority with other initiatives.
- Marketing – Get input on how the message will get out.
- Product and Technology Development – What is possible, how complex, and when?
The focus of the brainstorming should primarily be on what, where, and why. And the conditions and process should be set to check the boxes of the section above on key elements and process.
If you are consulting, consider the “Brainstorming for Consultants” (paid link) 23-slide ppt slide deck package to set yourself apart in a structure, focused, and logical way.
Let’s turn now to the implementation side
Project Management and Brainstorming
The list of stakeholder participants on the implementation side will overlap with participants on the strategy side – but there will be some differences. Here are some ideas of whom to include:
- Sponsor – Arguably the most important stakeholder, the Sponsor is at the center of the need for the project and support for getting it accomplished.
- Users – Ensure that those that will use the product of the project have continuing input as you brainstorm how you will deliver. They can provide unique insights on potential customer experience.
- Builders – Whether you are building a structure, or software, or something else, those who are hands on, in the trenches, are needed in brainstorming sessions.
- Financial – Someone needs to represent the financial constraints to the project.
- Operations – Someone needs to represent the logistical aspects of the effort to produce lean innovation.
The focus should be on implementation – what, how, when, and where. Indeed, project management innovation is gold!
It may help you to have a pre-packaged, professional slide deck on brainstorming. See “7 Steps to Brainstorming” (paid link), a 20-slide ppt of creative ideas for developing innovative products, timesaving process improvements, and implementing for growth.
There are a myriad of problems to solved to get to the end goal – leverage the power of the team with effective brainstorming to get the best results!
Conclusion and Further Resources
This post has examined various aspects of brainstorming – opening up the collective minds of resources within the organization – to solve problems and seize opportunities. It looked at the importance of brainstorming, key elements and process, and approaches to brainstorming in strategy and project management.
The following 5-minute video on brainstorming techniques provides a slightly different take: