When it comes to harnessing ideas, brainstorming has been around for decades as a go-to method for unearthing creative, out-of-the-box solutions. It’s a way to tap into a company’s most powerful resource, people and their imaginations, to solve problems and innovate.
Whether you’re a project manager, an account director, a CEO, a business owner, an advertising executive, or an entrepreneur—brainstorming is an excellent way to explore new ideas and approaches to things like marketing and sales collateral, project execution plans, task assignment, and even setting up of processes. Brainstorming sessions also create more opportunities for an overall feeling of cohesiveness and teamwork.
Nearly 90% of executives recognize innovation as being essential to the success of their business. Nonetheless, the majority of organizations have no formal process to harvest new ideas. With this in mind, 47% of companies define themselves as pioneers in innovation. This comes as no surprise.
What is brainstorming, exactly?
In the 1930s, advertising executive Alex F. Osborn found that regular presentation meetings generated lackluster creativity from individuals. The issue, he felt, was that traditional sessions were often unhinged by judgmental behavior and uninspired thinking. In 1953, Osborn popularized the concept of brainstorming in his book Applied Imagination, and the methodology has since integrated as a common practice in our everyday lives.
But what is it? While the term is often used casually—for example, “let’s meet up later and brainstorm”—real brainstorming is a technique that requires a lot more planning, thought and true collaboration.
Best practice brainstorming
Today’s standard practice of exchanging ideas through email and other virtual messaging applications and calling it “brainstorming” does not lend itself well to true collaboration, or the discovery of compelling ideas. Here are some ways to make the most out of your brainstorming sessions while also integrating the latest software tools.
1. Set the stage
To generate no-holds-barred ideas, you must create an environment in which there’s no judgment, no negativity, and no such thing as a stupid idea. To pull this off, you need to follow a few guidelines:
- If possible, host the meeting in person. Gathering people into a room or a creative space to bounce ideas off of one another, whiteboard, or build on each other’s ideas will move true creative ideation into a flow state.
- Make sure your group is diverse enough to maximize innovation. This can mean pulling in people from different departments, as well as different backgrounds, and demographics to create an inclusive mix.
- Be respectful of everyone’s schedule. If this becomes just another thing on an already full to-do list, it may not be as effective. Engagement by everyone requires for it to work.
- Give attendees a clear question or problem to generate ideas prior to beginning your session, so they come prepared with starter ideas.
- Make sure it’s a relaxed, judgment-free zone. Initially, no idea is bad, and no idea is good.
- Encourage big, or even “crazy” ideas. Focus on quantity at first, rather than quality.
- Take the best ideas and build on them. You may even need more than one session.
- Stay focused on building out one idea at a time.
- Create an outline to keep everybody focused and moving in the right direction.
- Select a facilitator. The person in charge of heading up the group should select participants, inspire discussion and keep everyone on the same page, ensuring the best outcomes.
- Use brainstorming software. Sticky notes and whiteboard are a great place to start but adding software will bring your projects and plans to the next level, allowing your teams to edit and iterate as you build. We’ll dig into more on this later.
2. Know and use the different types of brainstorming
Brainstorming is creative in nature. Still, it’s important to be able to turn those new ideas into specific, actionable steps. Here are a few of the popular types of brainstorming techniques:
This method is the “how do we get there from here” approach. Begin by stating where you are, and then state where you want to be. Create a roadmap by filling the gaps between the two with creative answers from the team. Once you’ve gathered all the answers, organize them, and come up with a plan of action.
SWOT and PEST analysis
SWOT is an acronym for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. It’s a popular analysis that requires your team to define these areas and then come up with strategies and recommendations based on those answers. Often, it is used to analyze your organization, a new product, initiative, internal policy or something else. Your SWOT analysis can offer insight into how to use strengths and opportunities to overcome weaknesses and threats. PEST analysis is similar, but it focuses only on external factors that can affect your business: political, economic, social and technological.
Mind mapping or idea mapping
This technique is a great way to help you better visualize a problem and come up with solutions or to take one idea and run with it. It’s hierarchical in nature and usually created around one single idea, goal or problem. Imagine an image in the center of a page. Your group then connects ideas to it, and other ideas branch out from those, generating a radial structure or a “spider diagram.” Now you have a visual representation of, for example, how outdated time-tracking software is contributing to reduced productivity. Of course, you can hand-draw it on a whiteboard or piece of paper but using mind mapping software is probably the simplest way to do this.
This is similar to mind mapping. But instead of beginning with one concept and branching out, a concept map starts with many ideas and then connects them to show a relationship. The result is a tree-like structure with multiple branches. For example, you define a topic and then gather all the ideas, thoughts or concepts that come to mind. You would then draw your ideas on a concept map and make connections.
As the name indicates, this visual is in the shape of a 6-pointed star. In the middle of the star is your problem or product. At each of the six points is a word: who, what, when, where, why and how. Use these words to generate questions from the team. For example, you own a coffee shop, and the product in the middle is a low-calorie, organic latte you’re considering. Some questions this might generate are: What do our customers want? Why are we creating this? Who will buy it? When should we launch it? Where’s the best place to introduce it? How much should we charge? All these questions will generate even more discussion.
3. Integrate brainstorming software
While notetaking can undoubtedly work in a brainstorming session, using idea management software is ideal. When equipped with brainstorming functionality, online software offers a quick, simple and effective way to get the job done. Here are a few of the benefits:
- Create professional-looking brainstorming diagrams effortlessly.
- Choose from a robust library of built-in and third-party brainstorming templates for popular techniques like gap filling, mind mapping, concept mapping, SWOT, PEST and more.
- Integrate smart shapes and add visual cues.
- Link your shapes and diagrams to data from internal and external sources to visualize real-time information.
- Customize diagrams with built-in themes and effects to apply a completely different look to your design.
- Collaborate better throughout the brainstorming process by:
- Getting or giving feedback easily on a diagram or shape with in-app commenting.
- Using co-authoring capabilities that let you complete diagrams faster, with multiple people working on the same diagram at the same time.
- Sharing your work easily as a secure web-based link, attachment, image or PDF.
- Working together efficiently by choosing software with integrated communication tools.
- Always communicating the most up-to-date version.
- Easily sharing diagrams in your favorite browser with anyone across your organization.
- Accessing diagrams and processes on the go, from just about anywhere.
Once the brainstorming session is complete, decide on the next steps of the project at the end of the meeting—and follow-through. Often people feel inspired and excited immediately after brainstorming, but without any actionable steps, the energy quickly fades and often the idea.
- Organize a summary of themes, key idea platforms, and questions for follow up.
- Make sure you’re on the same page about the team’s next steps and assign ownership each step or initiative.
- Create a project execution plan or a work back schedule—start setting up your processes.
- Document everything. Make sure you’ve not only recorded valuable ideas, but also any discussion, dissent, apprehensions, questions and potential roadblocks that were mentioned. Those are important know as they may help form other good ideas.
- Archive your great—but not for now—ideas so you can go back to them one day.
When all is said and done, give credit where credit is due by rewarding ideas, including the smallest suggestions. Recognizing those who bring them to your attention builds morale and encourages open communication in the workplace.
From process to new product innovation, no matter the business or industry, brainstorming can be the key to unlocking success—all by bringing your most valuable resources together: people.