Brainstorming – but doing it right

Brainstorming is an important creative method.
Brainstorming is an important creative method. - Foto:

Brainstorming is also an essential method of Design Thinking. But it is usually misused. Used correctly, it has the potential for authentic creativity.

Brainstorming itself is an established method in many different fields. It is often used in groups – and often in the wrong way: Brainstorming has become a buzzword and is used in many contexts only as a group discussion, where someone writes some aspects on a whiteboard. The whole group discusses them critically.

And that is the first mistake: a critical discussion. Brainstorming is a method without critical discussion. Any intention is allowed, crazy ideas, absurd ideas – of course, “good” ideas too. Do not judge the thoughts as good or bad!

History of brainstorming

One of the earliest founders of the technique, Alex F. Osborn, observed brainstorming in 1939 during group thinking at his company. Here he called “brainstorming sessions.” And he defined brainstorming as “the use of the brainstorm a creative problem – and to do so in commando fashion, each striker boldly pursuing the same goal.”

Quantity in brainstorming

And likewise, Oswalt suggested some fundamental rules: No judgment or criticism of an idea, “freewheeling” as ideas spread wildly, focus on quantity rather than the quality of ideas, combining and improving ideas as complements. To sum it up: Quantity is king. Write down as much as you can, free-flowing!

Brainstorming mistakes

Nicely describes other typical mistakes, for example, the brainstorming article by Christopher Schulz:

  • Unclear questioning: If you ask only vague questions, you will get only abstract answers. For us, however, it is the exact answer that counts.
  • Boss does brainstorming: Someone stands in front and tells what he thinks. Everyone else remains silent.
  • Ignorance of the quiet: Some say nothing at all. But that doesn’t mean they have nothing to say.

Everyone has undoubtedly experienced that only the boss was right in a brainstorming session. Even though this is also an elementary violation of the mindset of Design Thinking (LINK): This is also a no-go in brainstorming as a creative method because one primary aspect is that all answers should be considered equal.

Do brainstorming alone

Another interesting aspect: brainstorming is more beneficial when group members do it alone. For example, Guido Hertel pointed out in an interview about brainstorming that “brainstorming in groups leads to fewer ideas than when the same number of people develop ideas alone.” One reason for this is that “team members interfere with each other’s flow of ideas and impair their creativity,” as Hertel describes.

This leads to two consequences:

  • This method is very applicable for solo entrepreneurs.
  • Of course, the mixture of different individual results in a group then leads to a great variety of aspects.

Different brainstorming methods

And, last but not least: Brainstorming exists in different methods. Here I would like to highlight just a few examples:

  • Normal brainstorming: Michael Michalko, for example, points out the freedom of brainstorming in his book “Thinkertoys” by listing all ideas here. The good ones and also the stupid ones 😉
  • Negative or reverse brainstorming: For instance, Michael Lewrick and his co-authors describe this kind of negative brainstorming. This is where people try to come up with ideas that make a problem worse. I also like to apply it to deliberately write down the negative of something good from a previous phase and vice versa.
  • Figurative brainstorming: looking at the problem through another person’s eyes is the essence of figurative brainstorming. “Think about how your boss, a celebrity, or even the president of the United States would handle the situation,” suggests a weblog on brainstorming here.

There are plenty more brainstorming techniques. Maybe I’ll get into them in later weblogs. But one thing is clear: It is indeed very beneficial to use different methods, perhaps in combination or even at other times.

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And efficiently, I have developed the Design Thinking Box, where you can find cards and templates to make agility work for you – for example, as a solo entrepreneur. And surely feel free to contact me if you have questions – or use the comments for it.

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