Cast Light on Your Brainstorming Sessions

Have you facilitated a brainstorming session where two people dominate idea generation while everyone else gives up on getting a word in and, instead, discretely plays Candy Crush on their phones to beat boredom?  

Despite your best effort to establish clear and fair ground rules, only a few people participate and, well, the ideas they generate are everything but bright. At the end of the session, people (including you) are frustrated and the whole thing feels like a giant time-sink.

To generate better, brighter ideas, ditch traditional brainstorming.
— Lisa Bourdon

Brainstorming is supposed to solve problems, not create more of them. Right?

Don’t despair if your brainstorming sessions aren’t founts of innovative and bright ideas. According to Leigh Thompson, it’s not your fault.  

Leigh Thompson is the J. Jay Gerber Distinguished Professor of Dispute Resolution and Organizations in Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. She found that in six-person brainstorming sessions, two people do at least 60% of the talking, and if the group gets bigger the problem only gets worse. Regardless of the ground rules or the skill of the facilitator, a minority of the people do the majority of the talking so these sessions become little more than a showcase of dominant personalities.

The Brainstorm Era

Alex Osborn, an advertising executive in 1941, originally developed this brainstorming process as a means to find innovative solutions by amassing ideas generated orally by a group. He referred to it as “up think.” He thought that quantity produced quality. The rules he developed are simple:

  • No criticism of ideas

  • Go for large quantities of ideas

  • Build on each other’s ideas

  • Encourage wild and exaggerated ideas

Osborne wrote a book entitled Applied Imagination that explained brainstorming, and the idea went viral. The Osborne rules are still followed in traditional brainstorming sessions today. 

The problem is, following the traditional rules doesn’t work. 

Decades of studies show that Osborn’s brainstorming rules actually result in fewer ideas and fewer good ideas than people would develop while working alone. 

So what’s a team-leader in need of some bright ideas to do? 

A few group-smart people have built upon Osborn’s brainstorming rules to produce new brainstorming tactics that will problem-solve your brainstorming sessions and get bright results. These four techniques side-step both the brainstorming-dominators and the time-sink frustration by moving the “storming” to pen and paper, inviting creative participation by all group members. 

1. Brainwriting

Professor Leigh Thompson’s simple Brainwriting method quickly and quietly generates lots of ideas while avoiding the problem of personalities.

Here’s how Brainwriting works:

1. Give everyone a pen and note cards. 

2. State a clear problem in need of a solution. Set the timer for 10 minutes, and invite people write down every creative, unique idea on a note card.

3. Every idea gets posted on the wall.

4. No one signs their cards or identifies their ideas, and allow no guessing and no confessions. This keeps the focus on ideas not personalities.

5. Set the timer for 10 minutes and let everyone quietly read the ideas and think about them.

6. The group then votes on the ideas that they found to be the most helpful and exciting. 

2.  6-3-5 Brainwriting 

6-3-5 was developed by Bernd Rorhback for a German sales magazine in the 1960s.  This method invites 6 people to write down 3 ideas in 5 minutes – 6-3-5!

Here’s how it works:

1. Six participants get a pen and a worksheet. The worksheet has a grid on it; the columns are named Idea 1, Idea 2, and Idea 3 and the rows are numbered  1- 6.

2. Set the timer for 5 minutes and ask the participants to generate 3 ideas and write them in the first row.

3. After 5 minutes, the worksheet is passed to the person on the right. That person can build on the ideas already posted in row 1 or come up with new ideas. These ideas are written in row 2. 

4. This pass-to-the-right process continues until all 6 rows in the worksheet are full. 

5. Everyone gets a few minutes to review all of the ideas, duplicate ideas are deleted, and then the top 3-5 ideas are selected for further discussion. 

3. Brainswarming 

This new technique is inspired by the method ants use to communicate. With each other. Developed by Dr. Tony McCaffrey, Brainswarming can generate 115 ideas in 15 minutes, and it uses both the problem and the available materials that can be used in the solution as creative sparks for idea generation.  All you need is a pen and some sticky-notes.  Watch the video to learn more. 

4. Disney Perspectives Method 

This method adopts a technique borrowed from the epitome of creativity: Disney. The Disney method involves inviting people to role playing from four different “views” to generate intriguing and practical ideas. The “views” are: Spectator, Dreamer, Realizer, and Critic. (This method works particularly well with do-er diverse groups.)   The idea is that when people adapt these four views, they get fresh perspectives on the problem or design, and this leads to creativity and innovation.

Watch the video to learn how to use the Disney Method

Say goodbye to the dark days of bad brainstorming sessions! Try one of these four techniques with your team and generate better, brighter ideas fast. 

Better, brighter ideas. Problem solved. 

Allie Rice