Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a creative problem-solving process. It involves focusing on a problem, and then coming up with as many solutions as possible and by pushing the ideas as far as possible. Program staff and management teams can use this resource to further their understanding for using alternative approaches to problem-solving.

 

"Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." —Thomas Alva Edison

What is Brainstorming?

Brainstorming is a process for developing creative solutions to problems. It works by focusing on a problem, and then deliberately coming up with as many solutions as possible and by pushing the ideas as far as possible. One of the reasons it is so effective is that the brainstormers not only come up with new ideas in a session, but also spark off from associations with other people's ideas by developing and refining them.

The steps for brainstorming are:

  • Gather the participants from as wide a range of disciplines with as broad a range of experience as possible. This brings many more creative ideas to the session.
  • Write down a brief description of the problem - the leader should take control of the session, initially defining the problem to be solved with any criteria that must be met, and then keeping the session on course.
  • se the description to get everyone's mind clear of what the problem is and post it where it can be seen. This helps in keeping the group focused.
  • Encourage an enthusiastic, uncritical attitude among brainstormers and encourage participation by all members of the team. Encourage them to have fun!
  • Write down all the solutions that come to mind (even ribald ones). Do NOT interpret the idea; however you may rework the wording for clarity's sake.
  • Do NOT evaluate ideas until the session moves to the evaluation phase. Once the brainstorming session has been completed, the results of the session can be analyzed and the best solutions can be explored either using further brainstorming or more conventional solutions.
  • Do NOT censor any solution, no matter how silly it sounds. The silly ones will often lead to creative ones - the idea is to open up as many possibilities as possible, and break down preconceptions about the limits of the problem.
  • The leader should keep the brainstorming on subject, and should try to steer it towards the development of some practical solutions.
  • Once all the solutions have been written down, evaluate the list to determine the best action to correct the problem.

Bird's eye view of people brainstorming around a table

Brainstorming variations

  • One approach is to seed the session with a word pulled randomly from a dictionary. This word as a starting point in the process of generating ideas.
  • When the participants say they "can't think of any more ideas" then give them about 15 more minutes as the best ideas sometimes come towards the end of long thought-out thought processes.
  • Brainstorming can either be carried out by individuals or groups. When done individually, brainstorming tends to produce a wider range of ideas than group brainstorming as individuals are free to explore ideas in their own time without any fear of criticism. On the other hand, groups tend to develop the ideas more effectively due to the wider range of diversity.
  • Keep all the generated ideas visible. As a flip chart page becomes full, remove it from the pad and tape it to a wall as that it is visible. This "combined recollection" is helpful for creating new ideas.
  • If the brainstormers have difficulty in coming up with solutions, you may have to reinstate the problem.

Selecting a Solution

When you are sure the brainstorming session is over, it is time to select a solution.

By using a show of hands (or another voting method), allow each person to vote for as many ideas on the original list as they want. Note that they only have one vote per generated idea.

Write the vote tallies next to the idea. You can use a different color than the idea to help it stand out.

Once the voting is completed, delete all items with no votes.

Next, look for logical breaks. For example, if you have several items with 5 or 6 votes, and no 3 or 4 and only a couple of 1 and 2, then retain only the 5 and 6 votes. The group can help to decide the breaking point.

Now, it is time to vote again. Each person gets half the number of votes as there are ideas left. For example is you narrowed the number of generated ideas down to 20, then each person gets 10 votes (if it is a odd number, round down). Each person will keep track of his or her votes. The scribe should again tally the votes next to the idea, only this time use a different color.

Continue this process of elimination until you get down to about 5 ideas.

Put the remaining ideas into a matrix. Put each idea into its own row (first column). Next label some columns using selected criteria. For example:

Generated Idea

Low Cost

Easy to Implement and is Feasible

Will Help Other Processes

TOTAL

Outsource it to a vendor        
Hire a new employee        
Share the extra workload        

Next, working one column at a time, ask the group to order each idea. Using the above example, which one will cost the least, the most, and will be in the middle.

Repeat by working the next column until you have completed all columns. Total each column until it looks similar to this:

Generated Idea

Low Cost

Easy to Implement and is Feasible

Will Help Other Processes

TOTAL

Outsource it to a vendor

2

2

2

6

Hire a new employee

3

1

1

5

Share the extra workload

1

3

3

7

It this case, the column with the lowest number, "Hire a new employee," would be the best solution.

Note that you should work each column first (not each row).

Some of the columns will require much discussion, as choosing an arbitrary number will not be that easy in some cases.

Often, you will have a couple of ideas that tie, but having it diagramed out in a matrix makes it much easier to make a decision.

"Brainstorming." Clark, Donald. Leadership Training and Development Outline. 2000. English.

Last Reviewed: October 2012

Last Updated: August 10, 2015