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Brainstorming – how to generate new ideas

All businesses need ideas to grow. But where do those ideas come from? Sometimes an employee has a “Eureka” moment. Sometimes a customer suggests something? Sometimes the idea creeps up incrementally? Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe there are no new ideas and the company begins to stagnate. This raises the critical question as to how we can take the initiative and develop ideas without having to wait with our fingers crossed that something will happen.


A tried and tested method of idea generation is brainstorming. It works on the premise that two heads are better than one or more likely that 10 heads are better than one. Brainstorming seeks to generate ideas by bouncing them, like pinballs, around the group.


In the innovation section of this website there are 18 frameworks linked to innovation. Not all of them relate to idea generation but they all have one thing in common – they work on the premise that it is necessary to think fresh and leave yesterday’s and today’s ideas behind. This is easier said than done. Ideas are not generated by simply flicking a switch and saying “now we are in new idea mode”. If that was the case we wouldn’t need frameworks for idea generation.


There are some things that prepare the ground for idea generation. Edward De Bono suggested that members of a brainstorming session should wear metaphorical hats. He recommends six hats, each a different colour and each with a different influence. Someone who is asked to wear a red hat would promote ideas that are hunches and emotions. The wearer of a yellow hat would be optimistic about ideas while someone with a black hat would be more cautious.


In many respects De Bono was doing what moderators do in a brainstorming session – they ask participants to clear their mind and think creatively. They ask them to think differently. This isn’t always easy, especially if you are sharing the session with people you know and whose responses are fairly predictable. It is why moderators use icebreakers to breach traditional thinking.


Researchers have found that different ideas emerge at different stages of a brainstorm. At the beginning of a session there are good ideas that are low hanging fruit - people present ideas that have been hanging around for a while and that are very practical. The more creative and original ideas come later when people have the courage to suggest things that may not work but are worth mentioning just in case.


And then there is the issue of who should attend a brainstorming session. Sometimes people are recruited for their creativity. They may be asked a few questions before the brainstorm to see if they are able to think laterally. “Think of 10 uses for a house brick that doesn’t involve building a wall?”. It is also important to have people who understand the subject or at least are able to make practical contributions. I mean how many of us could make a useful contribution to a brainstorming session on how to improve the manufacture of semiconductors if we are not in that line of business?


Once the group has warmed up, the moderator may grease the thinking wheels with some “figure storming”. They may say “imagine that you were the CEO of the company, what would you do?”, or “I’m going to give you a magic wand that will do anything you ask. What would you ask it to do?”. Holding the session in an offbeat location may help. I once ran a brainstorming session in a games arcade. Inevitably ideas begin to dry up and the group needs to be reinvigorated. Half an hour in the games arcade brought them back in a new frame of mind.

The key to good brainstorming is good preparation. Choosing the right location, the right moderator and the right participants and deciding what results you want from the brainstorm will help towards a good outcome.