Brainstorming is without doubt the most commonly used technique to generate great ideas. But a common misconception is brainstorming is as straightforward as listing random thoughts and pick out the best of the bunch…
The goal of this article is to explore & explain the actual how and why of ‘the brainstorm’. How does it work and why is it such an effective method? For the conditions and rules of conducting a brainstorm see one of the previous articles: ‘The 10 commandments of brainstorming’.
Waves of inspiration
The goal of every brainstorm is to generate creative, new solutions to a problem. Ideally you have gathered a team of 4 to 10 people to participate in the brainstorm. You’ve appointed a reporter, a leader and the participants and are ready to go.
But where do you start, wand what exactly constitutes as a good brainstorm?How do you generate those truly remarkable ideas?
A common mistake is to dive right into the brainstorm. Everyone says what they think of first until all ideas are dried up, then call it a day. The brainstorms conducted this way are not likely to generate any truly original and constructive ideas.
It’s essential to know ideas come to you in waves. Especially within a brainstorm where the real advantage is the ability to get inspired by each other’s ideas. Mix up concepts and contexts and take ideas to new levels. Everyone generates ideas, and everyone can mix and match or add their own interpretations to those ideas to create new concepts. Below is a visual representation of these waves, and incremental creativeness of its 3 participants during a brainstorm session.
In the warming up you do a ‘mini-brainstorm’ to get ready for ‘the real deal’. A simple question like ‘give me ideas to use a paperclip on a deserted island’ will help spark the process if idea generation and give the participants enough time to get used to sharing their ideas.
It’s also an opportunity to spot participants that give feedback on the ideas of others, and remind them this is not a discussion but about quantity.
After the warming up, present the topic of the brainstorm as clear as possible, and start the timer.
Wave 1: The Braindump
The first ‘wave’ of idea generation within the brainstorm is ‘the braindump’. All participants speak their mind freely, usually offering ideas from within their own experiences based on similar challenges as that of the topic of the brainstorm. These are often obvious ideas but essential to the progress of the brainstorm.
After a while usually the frequency of ideas offered starts to slow down. The participants have put their ideas out there. This marks the end of the first wave. Give the reporter time to catch up with the notes, and list the ideas so far.
Wave 2: Divergent Thinking
When the ideas get read back to the participants, this will serve as inspiration for the second wave. This is where the real process of divergent thinking starts. Opening up to the ideas of others, and making variations and combinations with their own. Creating mixed concepts and a new level of originality.
Ideas in the second wave are the result of a combination of experiences instead of a single context. In this phase most ideas focus on concepts, the links between ideas.
Wave 3: Creative Ideation
The final phase is the true Creative Ideation: The new creative ideas and concepts generated in the second wave become inspiration for actual solutions. Even though there should be no process of conscious filtering, the more inspiring ideas will naturally generate more new branches of ideas – resulting in relevant and original answers to the problem.
- 1st wave: List of individual ideas
- 2nd wave: The connections between 1st wave ideas generate new concepts
- 3rd wave: The 2nd wave ideas and concepts get converted into original, new solutions
After a while even the third phase will lose its momentum – either resulting in less relevant, off-topic ideas, repetition or no more new ideas. Several brainstorming techniques can be employed to stretch out these waves and generate more accurate ideas. But at some point, you run out of potentially valuable ideas and are just wasting time.
When this happens, it is time to evaluate, pick out the really good ideas and push the project ahead.
Creating a real, solid solution from the large pile of ideas generated by the brainstorm is called ‘convergent thinking’. You evaluate each idea not just on its level of creativity, but also apply other factors such as budget, time, previous experiences with the client et cetera.
There are several pitfalls when it comes to this process of idea evaluation so I decided to dedicate an entire article to convergent thinking (to be published later this month). If you don’t want to miss it – why not sign up to our updates per email or RSS?