Better Brainstorming: 4 Ways to Generate Great Ideas

Last Updated May 20, 2010 11:07 AM EDT

In my last post, I enumerated all the reasons why brainstorming sessions so often fail to be productive. But of course what we all need to know is whether there's a better way to do brainstorming -- and if so, what is it? Here's how brainstorming came to be the de facto creativity tool, along with four suggestions for generating more -- and better -- ideas. Brainstorming was invented in 1941 by Alex Osborn, an advertising executive who was one of the founders of BBDO -- he was the 'O.' Codifying it in two books, Your Creative Power and Applied Imagination, he laid out five basic rules:
  1. Criticize nothing
  2. Go for large quantities of ideas
  3. Encourage freewheeling, wild, even apparently nutty ideas
  4. Build on ideas
  5. Stay focused on the task
The Texas A&M academics who've studied why brainstorming so often fails point out that many teams simply forget the rules. So going back to basics, they argue, is the first step. Beyond that, their experiments identified some ways to do brainstorming better. Call these the new rules of brainstorming. They don't replace the old ones -- they just make them work better.
  1. Try electronic brainstorming. Using any form of instant messaging or chat software, let everyone work individually when they contribute to the session. In experiments, this produced the largest number, variety and breadth of ideas. It works even better when you...
  2. Brainstorm anonymously. Experiments in which participants could throw in ideas without fear of criticism produced more ideas than when everyone knew whose ideas were whose.
  3. Alternate brainstorming alone with group sessions. Remember that group sessions inevitably introduce a strong element of conformity, so don't depend on groups alone.
  4. Take breaks. Since idea generation drops off after about five minutes, you will develop more ideas when you brainstorm in short bursts. There's no advantage to longer meetings. So forget those exhausting two-hour sessions that leave everyone feeling drained.
I'd like to offer one more suggestion. Go home. Most of my best ideas -- and all my best technology ideas -- came to me as my brain started to relax on the drive home. I've lost count of the number of people who've had the same experience. Keep a pad and pen in the car, or use the voice recorder on your PDA -- but go home. It's often when we look away from the problem that we find the best solutions.
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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.