Brainstorming is a group problem-solving technique that is intended to help members develop innovative new approaches to a problem in an unthreatening environment. First developed by A.F. Osborne in 1941, brainstorming in its most basic form involves stimulating all the members of a group to express a variety of ideas, which are built upon and recorded for future reference. Critical judgment of the ideas is reserved until later in the process, when the ideas are evaluated, combined, improved, and changed until the group reaches a final resolution of the problem. Brainstorming can be particularly useful in providing creative solutions to problems that have defied traditional problem-solving methods, as well as in such applications as new product development.
There are three critical factors that determine the success of a brainstorming effort. First, the group must strive to produce a large quantity of ideas, as this increases the likelihood that they will happen upon the best possible solution. Second, the group must be certain to withhold judgement of the ideas as they are expressed, since the negative thinking of one group member can make others less willing to participate and thus derail the whole process. Third, the group leader must create a positive environment for the brainstorming session and channel the creative energies of all the members in the same direction.
In his book Thinkertoys, Michael Michalko outlined a series of steps that should be followed in setting up a brainstorming session.
* Select the problem to be addressed, defining it as specifically as possible.
* Choose suitable participants for the group. Ideally, the group should consist of six to twelve participants from diverse areas of the company, including non-experts as well as experts. They should be flexible thinkers and independent personalities. They should also have a positive attitude about the brainstorming process, as well as a genuine desire to improve the performance of the company. It may be helpful to include one member who has the power to make decisions about the problem being addressed, as long as that person understands the brainstorming process. Everyone present should be a participant rather than an onlooker.
* Choose a suitable environment. Brainstorming requires a comfortable, unthreatening environment to work effectively.
* Select a group moderator. This person should have strong interpersonal skills as well as a good understanding of the process. The moderator's duties include planning the meeting ahead of time, preparing and distributing an agenda, employing various creativity techniques to get members'ideas flowing, and keeping the group focused on the problem at hand. If the discussion should become stagnant—perhaps because members have trouble overcoming their disciplined ways of viewing the problem—it is the group moderator's job to get it moving.
* Select someone to record all the ideas generated by the group, possibly on large wall sheets or a chalkboard. Sometimes it is helpful to record the flow of ideas in graphic form rather than creating a linear list.
* During the brainstorming session, meanwhile, participants should keep in mind the following:
* The aim of the session is to generate a large quantity of ideas. Self-censorship is counterproductive. A brainstorming session is successful when the sheer quantity of ideas forces participants to move beyond preconceived notions and explore new territory.
* Discussions of the relative merits of ideas should not be undertaken as they are voiced, for they slow the process and discourage creativity.
* Create an environment in which seniority and rank are suspended so that all participants feel equal and encouraged to be creative. Participants have to feel free to share the full range of their ideas, however impractical they may seem at first glance, for a brainstorming session to be successful.
* Use conversational devices to enliven group discussions if the session begins to lag in energy and enthusiasm. For example, a brainstorming team might try to look at a problem or issue from the perspective of a specific third party, such as a famous celebrity or businessman.
After the brainstorming portion of the meeting has been completed, the leader or group should arrange all the ideas into related categories to prioritize and evaluate them. These lists can then be evaluated and modified by the group as needed in order to settle on a course of action to pursue. After the conclusion of the meeting, it may be helpful to send participants a copy of the idea lists to keep them thinking about the issue under discussion. The group moderator may ask members to report back later on ideas they considered worthy of action, and to offer any ideas they might have about implementation.
There are a number of variations on the basic theme of brainstorming. In brainwriting, the members of a group write their ideas down on paper and then exchange their lists with others. When group members expand upon each other's ideas in this way, it frequently leads to innovative new approaches. Another possibility is to brainstorm via a bulletin board, which can be hung in a central office location or posted on a computer network. The bulletin board centers upon a basic topic or question, and people are encouraged to read others'responses and add their own. One benefit of this approach is that it keeps the problem at the forefront of people's minds. Finally, it is also possible to perform solo brainstorming. In this approach, a person writes down at least one idea per day on an index card. Eventually he or she can look at all the cards, shuffle them around, and combine the ideas.