Making Brainstorming a Highly Effective Creative Tool


By Mick Carroll, PhD

Brainstorming is easily the most common activity that an organization turns to when it needs to be creative.  First, let’s take a look at what brainstorming is and why it is so ineffective as most commonly practiced.

The origins of brainstorming can be traced to back to the 1940s and ’50s to an American advertising executive, Alex Osborne.  This process was based on the creative characteristics of:

Fluency, i.e., the ability to generate a multitude of ideas

Flexibility, i.e., the ability to change perspectives and thought patterns

Originality, i.e., the ability to express new concepts, relationships or ideas

Awareness, i.e., the ability to see beyond the given rules and principles

Drive, i.e., the motivation, energy and confidence to take chances and fail

The biggest problem with these creative characteristics is that they are not normal ways that the human brain functions. The brain is programmed to immediately search for solutions.  The brain has evolved to be a survival instrument always looking for the quickest ways to size up a situation or challenge it — and then quickly provide the best path to resolution.

Brainstorming requires the following rules, which make intuitive sense:

  • No criticism. The atmosphere for brainstorming is supposed to be open; the purpose is to encourage ideas, not judge them prematurely.
  • Freewheeling discussion and free expression are desired — more than carefully thought-out ideas.
  • Quantity over quality of ideas is desired.
  • Combining, improving and adding on to ideas are highly encouraged.

So why doesn’t brainstorming typically result in many creative and useful ideas?  It has to do with how the brain is wired and what people know.  The thought process is driven by neural connections that people make based on something called “knowledge clusters.”  This is a fancy way of saying that people have created ways of knowing and processing information, and this becomes deeply engrained, habitual and many times automatic.  Simply putting people in a room and telling them to be creative has no impact on their highly patterned ways of thinking.  Often, this is described as “stuck thinking.”  Unless tools and mental processes that make a person make new associations, relationships and thought patterns are introduced, very few new or creative associations and relationships will occur.

The main purpose of this post is to answer the question “How can you make brainstorming a highly creative and generative process?”  The main ingredient of creative thinking is to achieve new combinations, relationships and associations among the knowledge points or clusters that one has stored in his or her head.

Keep in mind that, for brainstorming to succeed, you have to change  the patterned ways in which your brain wants to think. Here are some steps that can be immediately taken to improve your next brainstorming session:

Two weeks before the planned session, send out a notice that there will be a brainstorming session. Include on the notice a clear statement of the issue/problem/opportunity the session will be addressing, e.g., “The purpose of the brainstorming session scheduled for two weeks from Friday will be to generate ideas around how we find more effective ways to process internal workflow to speed up our delivery to customers.”

Have participants rewrite this statement at least two different ways and send them  to you within two days. Depending on how many people will be attending, give individual or team pre-assignments.  Depending on the purpose of the brainstorming session, the following assignments should be given:

  • Have participants research three companies in your industry and report back on how they handle your issue.
  • Have several people go on small “field trips” to different places (e.g., museums, restaurants, sporting events) to see how these environments might have possible solutions/ideas about your issue.
  • Similar to above, have several people search for analogous activities (e.g., an election, air traffic control, Library of Congress cataloging) that might be similar to how you handle your issue.
  • Have participants draw a picture or pictures of the problem/issue that you will be addressing at the brainstorming session.

Here are a few guidelines for the actual session:

  • Have each person or team report on their assignment.  Allow time for ideas to flow during each report.
  • Periodically during the session, ask three questions and document the answers on a flip chart: (1) What is the purpose here? (2) What is happening here? (3) What is the value here?
  • It is critical that someone in the meeting organizes, illustrates and displays the ideas for the group.  Pictures are key stimulators of ideas.  It is also extremely helpful that someone draws out the current process that you are trying to improve upon.  Seeing what you currently do can help the mind look for alternatives.
  • When harvesting ideas, don’t throw any away — rather, drop them into different buckets, such as: ready-to-use, “seedlings” (i.e., the beginnings of a good idea) and “useful directions” (i.e., useful broad concepts), ones that aren’t ready at the moment but may have future value.

Alternate approach to classic brainstorming:

“Six Thinking Hats” Ideation Each hat color (see below) represents a persona, attitude or approach.  Have each participant pick a hat color/role that represents qualities that are out of their comfort zone. The idea is to change the way you normally think about things.  (Have fun with this; humor relaxes the mind and causes new connections.)

Another variation calls for everyone wearing the same color at the same time.  At a designated time,  everyone will change to the next color and assume the associated thinking approach or attitude.

White Hat:  Data and information. “What data is available?” “What data is needed?” “Let’s run some projections.” “How do we get the data?”

Red Hat:  Feelings, intuition, emotions, no data or evidence. “My gut tells me…” “I don’t like the feeling of this.” “This just feels right.”

Black Hat: Caution, risk averse, critical judgment. “This won’t work.” “We’ve tried this before.” “We don’t have the resources.”

Yellow Hat: Optimistic, positive, benefits, figure a way to make it work — opposite of Black Hat. “Let’s pretend money is no object.” “What do we need to do to make this work?” “Who needs to be involved?”

Green Hat:  Creative thinker, new ideas, variations, challenges conventional thinking, movement.  “What are the main concepts we are looking at?” “Let’s look at five great companies inside and outside of our industry.” “Let’s have weekly ideation sessions around this.”

Blue Hat:  Process, control, manages process, keeps process moving. “Let’s summarize.” “What are next steps?” “Let’s go back and review Red Hat’s points about _____.”

Could these tactics help prime the pump at your next brainstorming session? Or are they too zany to fly at your organization? Let me know what you think by connecting through LinkedIn. I’d love to hear from you!

Mick Carroll holds a PhD in educational philosophy and is the founder of BetterThink, a business consultancy specializing in using creative thinking to solve problems.


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