Brainstorming is divergent thinking!

Brainstorming is about broadening the base not tightening the screws. The goal is to generate many different ideas over a short period of time without evaluation, criticism or commentary.

Strategic Futuring, a vision-centered strategic planning workbook developed by a team of facilitators at Michigan State University Extension, suggests that brainstorming is a useful divergent or ‘idea-expansion’ tool. A tool that can:

  • Foster creativity by encouraging people to think beyond the conventional
  • Record all ideas, with clarification and discussion later in the process
  • Take advantage of a synergy that occurs when people think creatively together
  • Equalize the influence of all members of the group by posting and considering EVERYONES ideas.

As defined in the Strategic Futuring workbook, “Brainstorming is a structured process with specific rules that encourages the generation of a large quantity of ideas in a group setting”

The key to initiating a successful brainstorming session is to develop clear guidelines, which are written on a flip chart or white board and large enough for the whole group to review and reference later in the process. The group leader should review each guideline and ask for the groups input, understanding and agreement. Changes or additions may be added based on group consensus.

A few excellent guideline examples from the Strategic Futuring workbook include:

  • All ideas are okay. Don’t censor your ideas.
  • Aim for quantity not quality.
  • Wild ideas are Ok – they may generate usable ideas.
  • Do not discuss, evaluate, criticize or comment on ideas during the idea generating period.
  • It is ok to build on others’ ideas.
  • Say ‘pass’ if you run out of ideas.

The most efficient group size for brainstorming is 3-8 people. If the group is larger, they can be divided into smaller clusters. The time it takes to complete a successful session depends on the group itself and the quantity of ideas generated. The process of generating ideas can be structured (round robin – one person at a time, moving clockwise or counterclockwise around the group) or popcorn style (participants ‘shout-out’ ideas in no particular order). Participants should be allowed to pass their turn without issue.

It is important to allow plenty of time for ideas to flow, but not drag; keeping the process moving. When people have run out of ideas, it may be beneficial to allow a few minutes of quiet time, to think and reflect. Sometimes the best ideas emerge during a second round of brainstorming.

Without judgment or the evaluation of an idea, the final step in the brainstorming process is for the group to clarify the written verbiage and if appropriate, combine similar items. At this time, the ideas are still NOT yet assessed for value or significance!

The following are two are slightly different variations of the above brainstorming process, and may be better suited to certain situations, the type of questions being asked or the diversity of the participants:

  • Anonymous brainstorming – participants write their ideas on a sheet of paper, passing them around to other group members who build on the ideas. This technique is helpful when people are reluctant to speak in front of a group, the topic is sensitive or an outspoken person tends to dominate verbal brainstorming.
  • Sticky note brainstorming – participants write one idea per sticky note and place them on a wall for everyone to see. Ideas are then grouped by topics or themes.

Brainstorming is an excellent divergent or idea-generating tool that can create possibilities and help a group move beyond individual perspectives to solve problems. It can also help to establish buy-in of the final plan or outcome, as participants had the opportunity to contribute. If the planning process continues, convergent or narrowing tools may be used to prioritize and create action plans based on the diverse perspectives generated in the earlier brainstorming sessions.

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