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How to Brainstorm, better

19th September 2016

 
It’s safe to say that everyone should have a pretty good idea as to just what ‘brainstorming’ is and involves. As we’re guessing you’ve very likely been involved in your fair share.
 
Brainstorming is a process that originated way back in the 1940’s, when advertising executive Alex Osborn was looking for ways to improve the creative output of his employees.
 
He advocated that group thinking gave rise to more, and better, ideas than simply thinking alone did. But to do so, he stated two key principles must be followed:
 
1. Don’t judge – There is no such thing as a bad idea
2. Quantity over quality – the goal is to come up with as many ideas as possible
 
Pretty simple principles to follow, right? Well, not exactly. The actual difficulty in abiding by the aforementioned principles, is perhaps why brainstorming as of late, has come in for a fair bit of criticism.
 
Let’s begin by quickly looking at some of the key reasons why brainstorming is receiving some flack.
 
 
 

5 key problems with brainstorming

 

1. Dominant characters

Leaders and extroverts often take centre stage and lead discussions. This behaviour therefore clearly dictates the direction of conversations, and so the ideas generated. Generally, a few people do 60-75% of the talking in a brainstorming session.
 
 

2. Fear of judgement

While leaders and extroverts are not afraid of voicing their thoughts, those who deem themselves to be lower down the pecking order, feel afraid of presenting theirs. This is primarily because they think their superiors will think of them as weak, maybe even leading them to question their importance in the company.
 
 

3. Social pressures

Building on from the above point, are other social pressures. Social pressures are essentially how you feel around others.
 
For example, if you are naturally introverted, you are less likely to want to participate. So to if you don’t want to contradict other employees for fear of ruining relationships.
 
Basically, social pressures help to breed a phenomenon called conformity pressure. In a group situation, no one wants to look stupid. Therefore, once the obvious idea is presented, most people will conform and rally around it.
 
 

4. Ideas take time

The most ineffective brainstorming sessions are those that are impromptu. You know the one’s. You get a call saying ‘brainstorm, now’. Coming in completely cold to a brainstorm – without an understanding of the problem, or any initial thoughts – is not conducive to the creative process, at all.
 
Actually, it’s probably best we quickly remind ourselves on what the creative process involves. We can do this by looking at one of the first models of the creative process. Presented by creative theorist Graham Wallas, back in 1926. Wallas stated that the creative process can be broken down into five clear stages:
 
1. Preparation – Be clear on the problem, by reflecting on the area individually.
 
2. Incubation – Let the problem enter your mind. Nothing will happen in way of external output.
 
3. Intimation – You start to get that feeling that something is going on in your head. It feels like a solution could be soon be on its the way.
 
4. Illumination – The idea(s) come to your awareness.
 
5. Verification – Your main idea is confirmed, developed further, and then brought to life with the appropriate execution.
 
Now, do you really think you can move through all of these stages of the creative process, within a single impromptu brainstorming session? Exactly.
 
 

5. Focussing on the solution instead of the problem

Looking at the first point in the previously outlined creative process, is where we think the biggest problem with brainstorming lies.
 
To put it simply, the vast majority of the time, people jump straight into trying to come up with a solution to solve the given problem.
 
It’s an easy trap to fall into. We all love creating things. But by jumping straight into the problem solving, we are assuming right from the get go, that we actually know what the problem is that we’re trying to solve. You’d be amazed to realise, that the problem we think we’re faced with, most of the time, isn’t actually the problem you should be trying to solve.
 
 

It’s time we all fell in love with the problem, not the solution.

 
 
 

Brainstorm the problem, not the solution

When Apps became the thing to do, all organisations wanted one. It became a potential solution for almost everything. Therefore, a client would likely approach an agency with a problem such as increasing engagement on a particular area/behaviour. But attached to that problem, from the client, would be the need to solve the problem by using a shiny new mobile app.
 
Now, many would fall into the trap of diving straight into the development of the app – the solution. Especially so when a predetermined problem is pushed onto a team. Consequently, the team would focus on finding solutions to app specific problems. And they would likely do so by holding a number of brainstorming sessions to try and get some ideas on what the app should look and behave like.
 
Following such methods as described above is, not so much a recipe for disaster, but a recipe for reduced effectiveness.
 
It’s time we all took a step back. And tried to truly understand just what the problem is we are trying to solve.
 
 
 

How to focus on the problem

To have a better understanding of the problem at hand – so as to focus on and create the best solutions – there are a number of key things that you first need to find out.
 
1. Know the user better – Ultimately, this is the person you are solving the problem for. Once you have a clear understanding of their issues, pain points and needs, then everything else should follow from there.
 
2. What is the bigger picture to the problem? – Often the problem you are trying to solve is part of a bigger problem. By not understanding the wider area, you run the risk of one step forward, two steps back. You must be clear on how your solution relates to and benefits ts wider context.
 
3. Be clear on what is already being done, or has been done, in relation to the problem – Often you will find a problem is not a new one. It is just trying to be approached in a different way – e.g ‘shiny new app. You need to be clear on why previous attempts at solving the problem failed. This understanding will greatly help to again identify just what the problem is that needs addressing. The reason for previous failure, could simply have been due to an inaccurate diagnosis of the problem!
 
4. Challenge the question being asked – What is being assumed to suggest the problem is right? – Get all the background to the problem faced. And push to see if this is the right problem, or if assumptions are inaccurate. Why is this problem a problem? What is the solution hoping to achieve?
 
To finish with, we wanted to briefly share a few of our top tips when it comes to brainstorming:
 
 

Top brainstorming tips

1. Provide context and goals well before the meeting
 
2. Come prepared with ideas
 
3. Try to have a diverse group of people
 
4. Share the ideas back – documented – after the brainstorm
 
5. Build on ideas. Use “Yes, and” instead of “No, but”
 
6. Instead of getting people to shout out ideas, have them write their ideas down.
 
7. Keep brainstorming sessions short in length – under 30 mins.
 
Our biggest tip of them all, and just to reiterate, is:
 
8. Focus first on the problem. So that you ensure you’re exposing the ‘true’ problem that you need to solve!
 
 
 

Conclusion

You really do need to avoid trying to jump straight into creating solutions. Take a step back and almost pause, so that you can investigate the problem thoroughly. That is how you will then come by the best solutions.
 
Therefore, when it comes to brainstorming, our best bit of advice would be to first brainstorm questions about the problem, not solutions to the problem.
 
Keep your eyes peeled, as we’ll be bringing you more tips on generating ideas in near future blog posts. Our next post will focus more specifically on how to effectively run a brainstorming session.
 
Until next time…
 
Rima
 
 

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