Learning Center

Using Brainstorming to Get Results

We’ve all had the experience of confronting a problem – often in the form of a maddeningly blank piece of paper – and having no ideas, or even a place to start. Alex Osborn, a pioneering advertising executive, was preoccupied with ways to spark creativity and get beyond that frustrating mental inertia.

Osborn was convinced that everyone can be creative. In one of several books he wrote on the subject, he maintained that “each of us does have an Aladdin’s lamp, and if we rub it hard enough, it can light our way to better living – just as that same lamp lit up the march of civilization.”

In 1953, Osborn published his masterpiece, Applied Imagination, which is considered a landmark work on the subject of applied creativity. In it, he coined the term “brainstorming” to describe a concrete process that anyone can use to generate new ideas, helping identify creative solutions to problems of all kinds.

Rules for successful brainstorming

Osborn’s four basic rules for successful brainstorming are:

  1. Focus on quantity. Osborn emphasized that people should voice all their ideas, not just the “best” ones, because quantity breeds quality. An idea that seems silly or unworkable might spark a much better idea for someone else. As with improvisation in music, a lot of what you generate won’t be worth keeping – but great riffs can emerge if you open up and keep throwing things out there.
  2. Do not criticize ideas, your own or anyone else’s. It’s easy to dismiss new ideas because they’re impractical, too expensive, too radical, overly time-consuming, or any number of valid reasons – but these concerns shouldn’t be mentioned at this phase of the brainstorming process. Don’t self-censor — there’s no such thing as a “bad” idea at this point. Rather than criticize ideas, focus on developing or modifying them. Figuring out what could actually work comes later.
  3. Welcome unusual ideas. People should be encouraged to come forward with new and exciting ideas. A brainstorming session is the ideal time to think about a problem from a new perspective, and to leave inhibitions behind. Think beyond the way you’ve always done it. As Osborn wrote, “It is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one.”
  4. Combine and improve ideas. As the list of ideas grows, participants can combine them or take elements of one idea to improve another. Can you take someone else’s idea a step or two further?

In short, the trick is to suspend assumptions, and go for it.

Leading a brainstorming session

“Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom, while discouragement often nips it in the bud. Any of us put out more and better ideas if our efforts are truly appreciated.”

Alex Osborn / Author, Applied Imagination

Brainstorming can be done alone, but it’s often done in a group. In a business context, brainstorming can even be a team-building activity – and for the purposes of this article, we’ll assume you’re brainstorming in a group.

As Osborn explained it, a good brainstorming session should focus on one major question or problem rather than several – if you need to address more than one problem, hold more than one session.

So to successfully lead a brainstorming session, first present the problem and outline the guidelines for the brainstorming session as described above. Other ideas for leading the session:

  • Hold your brainstorming session somewhere other than where you usually work. This isn’t always necessary or practical, but sometimes getting people out of a familiar environment helps them think in new ways. Alternatively, set the mood with a funny prop, by serving food, or in some other way making the session seem different than a typical work meeting.
  • Write the ideas down. This can be done on a whiteboard, easel, or whatever makes sense for your session. You can even write ideas on individual Post-It notes, and group them by theme as the session goes on — this can help in a later phase of the session, when you begin to refine ideas into a concrete solution.
  • Break into smaller groups for brainstorming. If many people need to be involved in the session, it can be less intimidating if the leader breaks them into smaller groups of 4-5 people.
  • Be sensitive to group dynamics. We’ve all been in meetings where one person holds the floor, making others less willing to contribute. Your job as the leader of the meeting is to find ways to neutralize anyone who’s dominating, and to draw out shyer people. You want your participants smiling, laughing, and creating lots of positive energy.

Refining the ideas

Generally, as a brainstorming session continues, people begin to see one or more potential solutions, or elements of solutions, as the number of ideas offered begins to wane. The best ideas can then be evaluated and refined into one or more solutions, and often the group begins to do so on its own.

If this doesn’t happen organically, the leader can choose a point to turn the group’s focus toward evaluating and refining the ideas into one or more solutions, depending on the complexity of the problem and how you’ve structured the session. Alternatively, this can be a task assigned to another individual or group, or even become the topic of a follow-up meeting.

Before wrapping up, it’s a good idea to recap what’s been discussed, and develop a list of action items.

Variations on basic brainstorming techniques

There are a number of brainstorming techniques that can be used to vary the process. Some of our favorites include:

Make the problem more challenging. If your problem is to increase the number of leads by 20%, brainstorm how you could increase the number of leads by 40%. What extreme measures would have to be taken? What mountains would you have to move to achieve that seemingly impossible goal? The advantage to this technique is that it helps get people out of their comfort zones and stop focusing on why ideas can’t work. If the problem is ridiculously radical, people give themselves permission to offer radical solutions, too. Plus, brainstorming solutions to an even more challenging problem makes the original problem seem much more manageable.

Reverse brainstorming. In this fun technique, you brainstorm the opposite of your problem – for example, if you’re a bakery and your problem is how to encourage repeat business, you pose the question, “how can we make customers extremely dissatisfied so they never come back again?” Potential answers to that question could include offer new flavors that nobody likes, make it harder to custom-order cakes, be rude on the phone, put tacks in the chair cushions in the lobby, send a nasty follow-up e-mail to all inquiries, and so forth. Some of those silly answers might reveal something that could be done to address the real challenge — develop a survey to see what new flavors should be offered, create an online order form for custom cakes, install another phone line so customers are never on hold, redecorate the lobby with more luxurious furniture so customers want to come in, send a thank-you note after an inquiry even if the customer doesn’t buy the first time. That’s a fairly straightforward example, but the reverse brainstorming technique is especially useful when it’s hard to find direct solutions, because it forces people to look at the problem in a completely new way.

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