Brainstorming do's and don'ts

Brainstorming is a structured way of working where people in a group generate ideas to solve a problem. In a brainstorm session resources are focussed on resolving a problem so that we get the maximum return on time spent to come up with a solution.

A good brainstorm session is done in group. Why? Because individual assumptions often prove to be very wrong. Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy at the "Ecole Superieure de Guerre", said once "Airplanes are interesting toys, but of no military value". Do you think he would have come to the same conclusion if he had discussed it in a group? Probably the outcome had been different.

When I teach on brainstorming I like to show my trainees the following video on youtube and aks them to generate afterward a list of the do's and don'ts for brainstorming. Although the video is quite old it is still relevant. Please have a look at it before reading further.

the do's

As said at the beginning of the article brainstorming is a structured way of working. This means you need a facilitator who makes sure that you keep working in a structured way and do drift into chaos.

It is also a group effort and the quantity of the solution will strongly depend on the group composition and knowledge of the group. You will need to have the people who stand close to the problem you try to solve in the group. If not possible to have them physically available at the brainstorm session, go interview them. It is also very important to have people from different disciplines in the group, to have different points of view on the problem. Most of the time people only offer ideas for improvement about things that they know well.

Another keystone is what is called green light / red light thinking. During the green light phase, you try to come up with as many ideas as possible. the focus is on quantity and no idea is too crazy. Try to think outside the box. In this phase, it is not allowed to criticize the ideas. During the red light thinking phase, you have to start making decisions about which ideas are good ideas and which ones are not. The focus is now on the quality of the ideas. It is very important to keep both phases separated. The red light thinking phase has to follow the green light thinking phase.

The don'ts

A typical pitfall is that the most senior person thinks he must have the best ideas or talk the whole time because he thinks it is expected from him. It is up to the facilitator to make sure that everybody can contribute his share to the brainstorm session. If you notice that only a few people are contributing you could suggest that the participant write down their ideas individually and then explain them to the group. In this way, you make sure that everybody can contribute.

Before you can solve a problem you have to understand the problem. Don't try to find a solution before you understand what is really the problem. Go and see what the problem really is. Let the people who experience the problem explain it.

Another pitfall is once you understand the problem that people tend to jump to one solution. It is normal human behavior. Make sure that you first generate as many as possible ideas during the green light phase. Have several iterations on the proposed ideas, look for alternatives, or try to combine the strong points of several ideas into one new idea. Once you have found your final solution do not forget to evaluate it with the users before implementing it definitively.

shopping cart solution

To come back to the video. these days you can find back many elements of the solution the team came up with on shopping cart. do you recognise them:

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This article was updated on November 30, 2022