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Creative Group Discussion: Brainstorming Techniques

A group of people has organized to find creative solutions to the pressing problems of their organization. Everyone knows that these are the top "brains" in their departments, and everyone has heard them come up with brilliant ideas around the coffee machine and in the lunch room. Yet there they sit, unable to think of a single thing, no one volunteering, no one even pretending enthusiasm about the challenge ahead.

This is all too often the response to a "brainstorming" session. Calling the best and the brightest together very rarely supplies the answers to managerial or training needs. This is too bad, because brainstorming at its best can achieve incredible results by training people to think creatively, to define and solve real problems, and to identify alternative courses of action.

The brainstorming session usually fails to get off the ground right at the planning stage. It isn't enough to sit down, draw up an agenda, and figure out who to invite. Certain techniques must be followed if you want to obtain the best results in the time available.

Establishing the environment for a brainstorming session is often the most difficult part of the preparatory activities. Finding a balance between a casual setting and one geared toward output is a matter of great delicacy. It is often helpful to think about the physical aspects of the situation first.

Getting Started: Participants need to be seated informally, and the group limited to less than 30. (The optimum size is 7 to 15). Some way of recording the forthcoming ideas, such as a tape recorder, stenographer, or, ideally, a flip chart must be provided; the use of more formal devices may tend to alienate your group and hamper individual creativity. The physical surroundings must be geared toward reducing tension, and any reminders of the pressure to perform will surely destroy the nonjudgmental atmosphere you are attempting to create.

The following ground rules for the brainstorming session itself must be followed to encourage the most thought in the short and intense amount of time allotted for these sessions.

  • Ideas need to flow freely — the silly and irrelevant as well as the weighty and grand plans. There must be no evaluation, no criticism. In short, no judgment at all can be advanced at this stage.
  • Encourage freewheeling thinking. Encourage everyone to say exactly what they are thinking at the time it occurs. Nothing is too strange or funny to be voiced. This is really the only way to draw out the really creative ideas.
  • Generate as many ideas as possible. Making quantity a goal will help relieve your group participants of their fears about quality.
  • Build upon the ideas of others. Modify and combine whatever occurs to anyone in the group. Remember that an effective session of brainstorming will often sound like the repartee at a poker game; laughter and jokes will help participants voice their more controversial ideas.

Keep Going: Once the session begins, the group leader needs to state the problem that has been the impetus of the session. Don't dwell on the prohibitive factors involved in possible solutions, as this too may tend to be discouraging. Advise group participants of the "guidelines" of the session that there will be no judgment of ideas, that everyone is welcome to speak, etc. Throw in an idea of your own, even a preposterous one if you must, to break the ice. Encourage those who first voice their ideas, and try to get everyone involved in the discussion.

Write down on the flip chart all ideas generated. When one sheet of paper is filled, tape it to the wall. Often the sheer volume of solutions generated will encourage group members to relax and voice their ideas more spontaneously. Encourage new ideas by adding your own, or encourage other participants to expand on those they have already stated.

Nip certain tendencies in the bud when they occur. Do not allow criticism or ridicule — if one member of the group "shoots down" an idea because he or she thinks that it's impractical or inadvisable, remind them that this is not what the brainstorming session is for. The purpose is to produce the greatest number of solutions, no matter how outlandish.

Continue as long as the ideas keep coming. In a brainstorming session which I once attended, the topic was gun control. Given the many problems of collecting existing guns, and the long shelf life of ammunition, no one could come up with a law or enforcement technique which would pull in all the available guns. Finally, one person voiced her own admittedly ridiculous thought: Promise every neighborhood their own policeman if the residents turn in all their guns.

The initial response was critical—how could every neighborhood be given its own 24-hour-a-day policeman? Yet this idea ended up the best one generated. With only a little modification, it became the proposal given to the mayor: Promise that each neighborhood that surrenders its guns will be given more police patrols and instruction in other methods of preventing crime in their homes.

Brainstorming ideas are not supposed to be logical, coherent or practical. The most far-fetched ideas give birth to previously elusive solutions.

Evaluation: Finally, after the flow of ideas comes to a halt, the solutions generated must be classified from the most unlikely to the most likely, usually in three or four categories.

Next, take a long, hard look at the ideas classified least likely. Is there any way to modify these ideas, to make them practical? (As in the case of the gun control problem) If the solution to the problem of employees taking very long lunches is to have the company provide lunches in the building, could this be made possible by contracting a catering truck? Even when the answers in the Least Likely category appear entirely inappropriate, it is important to go over them anyway. This reinforces the message that any answer is "all right," and that nothing is too strange or silly for consideration.

Brainstorming has its limitations, of course. It does not teach people to think creatively—it only sets up an environment conducive to creative expression. It is never a substitute for training, and it cannot provide a structured learning experience.

Brainstorming is best utilized occasionally. Once-a-week idea sessions are about as likely to produce meaningful results as the suggestion box on the company president's desk.

But when creative solutions to resistant problems are the primary objective, efficiently handled brainstorming sessions can produce the greatest number and diversity of them.

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Copyright, A.E Schwartz & Associates. All rights reserved.
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