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4 Tips for Better Brainstorming and Innovation

Big Think Edge | June 14, 2018

There are many areas of society and business that need creative solutions — where we need new ideas or new ways of doing old things. Coming up with innovative ideas can be done through several ideation methods: brainstorming, brainwriting, brain-dumping, and brainwalking. Each of these methods has a different approach to generating creative solutions.

Brainstorming is the most commonly used approach. But, brainstorming for the sake of brainstorming is a misuse of the process that leads to poor results. How can your organization make brainstorming sessions more effective? What brainstorming techniques can you use?

1) Keep the Group Small

Effective brainstorming does not happen when too many people have their hands in the pot. Big Think expert Bill Burnett, a product design and behavior expert who serves as executive director of the design program at Stanford University, equates brainstorming ideas with a successful jazz ensemble: It needs to be small to be effective.

In “Brainstorming: Is Your Mind Wild Enough to Make a Conceptual Leap?” Burnett says:

“Maybe you can have a trio or a quartet. A quintet, maybe. Past that, you can’t play jazz. It’s just too complicated, too many people… Brainstorming works great for coming up with lots of ideas and very diverse ideas, particularly if you have a really good jazz team that can play off each other.”

2) Approach the Process from a Human-Centered Perspective

Big Think expert and IDEO President and CEO Tim Brown says that people need to focus on identifying and defining solutions in ways that focus on the user. What do they want or need?

In his video “Use Design Thinking: An Alternative Approach to Solving the World’s Greatest Problems,” Brown says that this human-centered approach helps you to identify and solve the challenges that people face rather than creating new solutions and trying to figure out their appropriate applications.

3) Try a Different Approach: Brainstorm for Questions, Not Answers

While brainstorming traditionally approaches the ideation process as coming up with solutions, another way to approach this is to try to generate questions rather than answers. Hal Gregersen, a Big Think expert and executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, says this approach can help you become a disruptive innovator.

In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, Gregersen says:

“Brainstorming for questions rather than answers makes it easier to push past cognitive biases and venture into uncharted territory… The methodology I’ve developed is essentially a process for recasting problems in valuable new ways. It helps people adopt a more creative habit of thinking and, when they’re looking for breakthroughs, gives them a sense of control. There’s actually something they can do other than sit and wait for a bolt from the blue.”

4) Do Not Just Walk Away

Burnett says a common mistake a lot of groups make is that they stop the brainstorming process when they are done generating ideas. Once the ideas are on sticky notes on a wall or whiteboard, they take pictures of the notes, and everyone goes back to work. However, the reality is that they are only part of the way through the process when they think they have reached the end of it.

Instead, Burnett says, this is the time that groups should be evaluating the ideas and figuring out what to do with the ideas: It is about evaluating and organizing the ideas into concept clusters, then taking those clusters and putting them into framework buckets and seeing what is viable in reality.

In the previously mentioned video, Burnett says:

“At the end of my brainstorms, if you ask somebody what happened, they’ll say we had 150 ideas. It turns out they were in about six different categories and then we ranked the top ideas in each category and we have seven ideas we would really like to build a prototype of because we think these seven ideas ask the most interesting questions around the problem or the space that we’re doing… That’s an actionable brainstorm.”

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