How to Brainstorm

All people and all organizations have some level of creativity. Unlocking this creativity on a normal workday is considerably difficult, especially for solving complex problems and issues. One way to spark creativity for effective problem solving is through brainstorming. Brainstorming is an informal process of using a diverse group of people to get at the root causes of problems.

The basic steps for brainstorming are:
1. State the problem or objective
2. Set some ground rules / agenda for everyone to follow
3. Give everyone an opportunity to participate
4. Solicit ideas and put everything down for people to visually see (no ideas can be rejected until you go through consensus building).
5. After you have exhausted the generation of ideas, eliminate ideas that are not relevant or duplicative.
6. Finalize the process by reaching consensus on those ideas that warrant the highest priority. A system of voting (such as assigning points to each idea) may be required.

Brainstorming requires considerable diversity in order to be effective. So don't be afraid to mix it up, including all types of different people who can come at a problem from various points of view. Keep in mind you are trying to find a solution that fits and this requires a broad mix of people to flush out all possibilities from both convergent thinkers (important for consensus building) and divergent thinkers (important for the generation of ideas). Therefore, brainstorming requires a group of people with very diverse backgrounds and knowledge.

The first step in brainstorming is perhaps the most important since it requires a clear definition of the problem. The key is to make sure everyone comprehends what the issue is – What are we trying to resolve? Everything else feeds from this initial step and unless people understand the problem, ideas cannot be generated. Sometimes it's best to start by asking: What are we trying to accomplish as opposed to defining a specific problem.

Another important part of brainstorming is consensus building. This starts by allowing everyone to put forth their ideas. All ideas must be encouraged and put on the table before you go through consensus building. Consensus begins by connecting ideas together and removing those ideas that are redundant. Since resources are limited for addressing problems, priorities have to be established by assigning a level of importance to different ideas. This is the “nuts and bolts” behind consensus building.

Although brainstorming is best applied in a group setting, it can be appropriate at an individual level if:

- Getting a group together is not practical since you work in a very small organization.
- People are not interested in brainstorming
- The problem really doesn't require a formal brainstorming session, just need to run the ideas by another person.

A good physical setting can help facilitate brainstorming. Select a neutral setting with no distractions, including no cell phones. Six to twelve people is the widely accepted number of participants for a brainstorming session. And don't forget to bring plenty of markers, stick pads, voting cards, and other supplies to capture the session outputs.

Brainstorming is not appropriate for every problem. For example, analytical problems may not benefit from brainstorming since the range of possible solutions is usually very narrow. Brainstorming tends to be more appropriate where there are many possible solutions to a problem. Additionally, you may want to have a more formal structure for problem solving on complex issues, such as running the issue through a fishbone diagram.

Brainstorming is best applied for getting unstuck on complex issues in a fast and informal way. And since so many issues are complex, requiring rapid resolution, brainstorming is one of the best ways to generate a raw list of ideas. Once you have the ideas, you can further explore the ideas through other quality tools (feasibility testing, prototype models, surveys, etc.). Don't forget – brainstorming is not about analyzing and testing the ideas – it's about the mother of innovation – creating the ideas! And since innovation is so important in this fast changing world we live in, brainstorming can be an invaluable management technique for staying on the road of innovation.

matt evans photo Written by: Matt H. Evans, CPA, CMA, CFM | Email: | Phone: 1-877-807-8756

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