Eight Tips for Fixing Your Brainstorming

2 Nov
Cover of "The Ten Faces of Innovation: ID...

Cover via Amazon

Most brainstorming sessions are awful.  I recently sat in a ninety minute session that, as one colleague said, “made me want to put a fork through my hand.” What a waste!

Effective brainstorming requires planning.  Here are eight tips to make you a better brainstormer:

1) Define the problem from the perspective of the person you are trying to help: If you wanted to improve utilization of a college counseling program you should start with talking to students who are and are not using to program.  In doing this you may find out that students don’t use the center they feel embarrassed about needing help to plan for college.

2) Frame the problem in ways that allow people to empathize with the problem:   My issue of student embarrassment at not having their college plans turns into a vignette:

  • Juan is a student who needs help making a plan for college. But he is feels embarrassed about asking for help because thinks everyone else already has their plans together.

3) Use “how might we” questions: To get the brainstorm focused you need to atomize Juans problem into lots of smaller issues.  To do that you can simply brainstorm the list about generating lots of ways that we can help Juan such as:

  • How might we me let Juan know that lots of students need help planning for college?
  • How might we make planning for college a community act so Juan doesn’t do it alone?

From here you can pick a set of how might we statements and work as smaller groups of no more than 5.

4)Make space for everyone to participate: Use lots of vertical writing space and post-it notes to enable everyone to participate. Avoid the scribe who filters ideas.  Five sets of hands working to capture ideas is a lot better than one.

5) Build on the ideas of other people:  Nothing kills brainstorming faster than the realist.  Good brainstorms occur when people use the idea of their collaborators to sharpen their own thinking.

6) Set constraints:  Thinking beyond the usual limits is critical in effective brainstorming.  Simple constraints like:  The next 10 ideas must…cost less than ten-thousand dollars…involve the whole school…cost more than one million dollar…can do wonders for the quality and quantity of ideas generated.

7) Select the best idea for refinement:  Now that your brainstorm is complete…the time has come for you to select the idea.  I like to ask people to select ideas in three categories-most breakthrough, the darling, and safe bet.  We may choose one idea in each category that gets the most votes.

8) Refine the idea: Just because you had a brainstorm doesn’t mean you are done.  The idea you have is in its roughest state.  You now need to refine the thing into something you can actually use.  A smaller group of folks can take an idea and work on it.

Want more information…check out Ten Faces of Innovation by Thomas Kelley and Jonathan Littman.  It’s a great book

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