How to form great ideas: A guide to brainstorming at work

16 July 2020

Regardless of the sector, brainstorming is a crucial component of any workplace, one that leads both teams and businesses down a path for success that allows them to flourish. But surely such fruitful ideas are only governed by chance, coincidence or acts of God?

Is it not true that the greatest "Eureka" moments are only the preserve of history's most brilliant minds? They are the concepts and theories born from genius intellect, that just so happened to be stumbled upon, right?

Far from it. Inspiration doesn't strike out of nowhere. A great idea is one that's developed and shaped over time by the necessary preparation and research, not merely something that arrives without warning. The right ideas need to be cultivated in the right conditions and by the right people – which is where brainstorming comes in.

More than merely a group getting together and hashing out random thoughts, effective brainstorming needs reliable idea generation to work. Here, we'll run through some tips and advice on how to conduct an ideas session to ensure your meeting of minds is a good use of everyone's time.

The origin of brainstorming

Although brainstorming seems inextricably linked to the modern workplace, it's actually been around in some form or another since 1948. This was the year advertising executive Alex Osborn published Your Creative Power, a book that included a chapter on brainstorming. In it, Osborn specified "using the brain to storm a creative problem—and doing so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective".

brainstorming session

He then published another book, Applied Imagination, where he noted the efficacy of group brainstorming over coming up with ideas on one's own. Noting the basic principles that go into a productive group brainstorming session, Osborn mentioned the following:

  • Defer judgement: don't point fingers when bad ideas are presented
  • Reach for quantity: focus on the quantity of ideas over quality

Although you often hear "quality over quantity" in the workplace, Osborn stressed the inverse, echoing what we said earlier: great ideas don't appear fully formed, they require tinkering. Not every idea you come up with will be worth holding onto, but the good ones should be cultivated and worked on. The challenge, however, is to put these principles into practice in a way that results in effective, productive idea sessions.

How to make the most of your group brainstorming

  • Create diverse teams

Instead of sticking to sessions with your team or department, look towards the rest of your business too. Creating a cross-team group of people from different parts of the company can have the benefit of offering a diverse array of viewpoints and skills.

Working on the same projects, going to the same meetings, and sitting next to the same people is can lead to creative stagnation. By bringing new faces to the fold, it'll ensure your sessions avoid falling into a rut, allowing for a mix of contextual knowledge and new perspectives without groupthink becoming too common an occurrence.

  • Give brainwriting a go

In group brainstorm sessions, we must take care not to be too easily swayed by the first ideas shared so that they cloud the rest of the meeting. They tend to disproportionately influence what follows, informing the notion of what the most appropriate solutions should look like and overshadowing any remaining suggestions the team may have.

Building ideas with the team

Overcome the potential for bias by having the team do some brainwriting. Participants write down their thoughts before or at the beginning of a session, and then discuss what they've produced. To optimise the conditions, make the suggestions anonymous by writing them on post-its, stick them to the wall, and have team members choose them at random.

Sometimes, underprepared meetings can often lead to some uninspired ideas, so by giving your team some lead time, you'll also overcome the silence that can come with such sessions too.

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  • Use the 6-3-5 method

A variation on the above, the 6-3-5 is a great way to make your sessions more productive. The basic idea is that six people come up with 3 ideas in 5 minutes. If your session is half an hour long, then that's 108 ideas the team can produce. Six is the ideal number of participants, though you can still do it with fewer team members – you'll just generate fewer ideas. Any more than six, however, and the meeting will be tougher to control.

Everyone has an individual piece of paper with which to write three ideas down in five minutes. Then have them pass their paper to the right, and come up with a further three ideas in the same amount of time. This repeats until each piece of paper has made its way back to its original starting point.

  • Don't discount the worst ideas

Try to make your sessions as constructive as possible by approaching the team's worst ideas from a new perspective. Ask everyone to write down their least feasible ideas and then task them with somehow turning them into good ones by changing or adding a key detail or doing the opposite of their proposal. It'll help people to think creatively if they're in a rut and who knows, you might end up turning them into something worth pursuing.

Discussing ideas with the team

Don't forget about the evaluation phase

Remember, brainstorming doesn't end when the meeting is over. It's important to cast a critical eye on the suggestions, proposals and ideas that have been generated too, which requires a different mindset. Give them a break or have them return to the ideas the next day so they have time to adjust to this different approach.

In the meantime, come up with a list of criteria that you can use to rank each idea with. Whittle down the ideas that most apply, ideally between 3 and 5, and give a short description of each criterion, for example:

"Criterion: Time to market

Description: The likelihood of executing the idea within 6 months"

Then, when it comes to evaluating everyone's ideas, try the following approach:

  1. Create a shortlist

Ask participants to write down their top 5 ideas on a piece of paper.

  1. Write the shortlist on a flipchart

Write down everyone's ideas on a flipchart. At this stage, the ideas are in no order of preference. Be sure to make this clear to avoid miscommunication.

  1. Hand out the criteria

Give each participant the criteria that were prepared earlier, along with a criteria scorecard. Have everyone write all criteria in a single column on the left of the criteria card, and write down all the ideas from the flip chart horizontally, at the top of the card.

  1. Rate the ideas on each scorecard

Ask the participants to rate each criteria from 1 to 5, with 1 being very bad and 5 being very good.

  1. Share the best-ranking ideas

After collecting the scorecards and adding up each idea's points, you can then reveal the highest-ranking suggestions to everyone. Discuss the results with the project's key players including the project manager and decision-maker, and adjust the scoring of the criteria if necessary.

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