#steamA2Z – B is for Brainstorming

Jacqueline: Hi. Welcome to another STEAM Information Podcast SIP. Our letter for today is B. B stands for brainstorming. That’s going to be our topic.

Brainstorming: A lot of you may know this word. It’s a common catchphrase used in creative, innovative, design, and problem-solving type environments and discussions. Brainstorming—the definition—is a group of creativity techniques by which efforts are made to find a conclusion for a specific problem by gathering a list of ideas spontaneously contributed by the members. The term was popularized by Alex Faickney Osborn in 1953 in his book Applied Imagination.Image result for brainstorming transparent

As always, we’d like to give you a reference. Of course you have the reference to the book. It was written in 1953, but for those who are curious and those who like to read, it’s always good to look back and see that everything old is new again. Also, we’d like to leverage the Wikipedia. I’m picking up some of the definitions and am going to describe to you some techniques based on wikipedia.org. Go to the website and search on brainstorming. Another word for brainstorming is disambiguation. You see why a lot of people just like to call it brainstorming. That’s a mouthful.

Let’s explore a little bit further. Brainstorming came from an advertising executive, Alex Osborn. He began developing methods for creative problem-solving going all the way back to 1939. He was frustrated by employees’ inability to develop creative ideas individually for ad campaigns. His idea was to use the collective ideas of team and teammates, and that’s where the whole brainstorming techniques came about. In response, he began hosting group-thinking sessions and discovered a significant improvement in the quality and quantity of ideas produced by employees. Osborn outlined his methods in his 1948 book Your Creative Power, specifically in chapter 33, titled “How to Organize a Squad to Create Ideas.”

Osborn claimed that two principles contribute to ideate efficacy. Basically, how to maximize getting a lot of different ideas, bringing them together, and leveraging them to come to a conclusion or a solution. Again, you can always throw out random ideas, but you also have to take the next step in order to get consensus. Those two go hand-in-hand. The two principles he claimed are defer judgment and then reach for quantity. The goal of brainstorming, initially, is to just put as many ideas out there as you can without judging, eliminating, or categorizing. Just put them out there. Whatever comes to mind. It allows people to have a free-flow consciousness and to not be self-conscious about what they’re saying.

Also, the beauty of brainstorming is you start collecting other people’s ideas. Combined with your own filter of ideas, next thing you know, you’re coming up with hybrid ideas. This is where some of the real creativity comes up, because you alone might not have come up with that idea, but it’s the combination of what other people are saying and your own ideas that you really start pushing the envelope. The synergy: using other people’s energy and your energy to collectively come up with the best of all worlds.

So, following Osborn’s two principles were his four general rules of brainstorming established with the intention to: one, reduce social inhibitions among group members; two, stimulate idea generation; three, increase overall creativity of the group. In brainstorming, it’s encouraged to set ground rules. One of the things I like is you can’t pull rank in brainstorming. You can’t use your title or your position in the company. When you bring a group of people together, all ideas are equal. In one group, we used to say leave your title at the door. Now, let’s look at his four general rules that follow up to the initial two principles we talked about.

1) Go for quantity: This rule is a means of enhancing divergent production. Divergent meaning diverse or different ideas. Of course, diversity has a special place in our podcast, because we talk about diversity in STEM. In order to maximize diverse ideas, you have to have diverse people with different experiences, backgrounds, and cultural contexts. You can’t have diversity if everyone sitting at the table all look alike and think alike. Keep that in mind. The assumption here is that the greater the number of ideas generated, the bigger the chance of producing a radical and effective solution. Also, what we say in the world of diversity and inclusion, is you want solutions that consider the audience. If the audience is diverse, then you need to make sure the ideas generated are from people that are representative of who is going to use the solution or who is going to be impacted by the solution.

2) Withhold criticism: In brainstorming, criticism of ideas generated should be put on hold. Instead, participants should focus on extending or adding to ideas, reserving criticism for a later stage (the critical stage) of the process. By suspending judgment, participants will feel free to generate unusual ideas. I have an exercise we do in one of our workshops where I ask people to come up with as many ideas as they can about how to use a paperclip. I’ve had people talk about piercing your ears. Now, not necessarily a safe idea, but it’s worth putting out there. We don’t pass judgment when people initially put it out there. Later on we might eliminate it or talk about the risk or impact, but for the sake of ideas, the team gets rewarded and recognized for its many different ideas. The more unique the idea, they get extra credit without judgment.Image result for osborn 4 rules of brainstorming

3) Welcome wild ideas: To get a good long list of suggestions, wild ideas are encouraged. They can be generated by looking from new perspectives and suspending assumptions. These new ways of thinking might give you better solutions. One of the things we say when we’re trying to brainstorm a solution related to technology is, “Pretend there’s no budget, no deadline, and no limitations on our technical resources or their knowledge of their software or the solution.” So, imagine what we would call “the perfect project” and use that as your parameters for brainstorming. Take way all those limitations and boundaries. What I have found in other teams and projects, every time someone would throw out an idea, you would have someone from the technical team say, “Oh, that’s too hard. It’s going to take too long. It’s going to be special coding. We don’t have that knowledge.”

By them criticizing, critiquing or passing judgment on the idea, it starts to slow down the process, and people start closing off and holding back their ideas because they’re afraid it’s going to be scrutinized. They just eliminate it without them even saying anything. That’s what you don’t want to do. That’s the worse-case scenario and the exact opposite of brainstorming. What we want here is encouragement of new perspectives. I can tell from the team’s reactions when they’re really exploring the wild side, letting down their inhibitions, and just going for it. That’s what I want to look for when a team is brainstorming.

It says here: these new ways of thinking might give you better solutions. Again, the more people feel free and able to explore wild ideas, the better the solution.

4) Combine and improve ideas is the last step of the four general rules: As suggested by the slogan “1+1=3”. That’s something we say in brainstorming. One person puts an idea out there. You might have your own idea, but when you combine it, you all come up with exponentially even more ideas, because there are hybrids based on your two individual ideas. The whole idea of brainstorming is we stimulate each other’s creativity and we bring out each other’s creativity and ideas so you can continue to build upon ideas. Intentionally take two ideas, put them side-by-side, and brainstorm how many different things can come from that combination.

These are just a few notes and suggestions and even a light framework around the idea of brainstorming. It’s about bringing a group of people together. There are some suggestions about the best number of participants, which is maybe around 12. You don’t want it to get too big because you want to make sure everybody has a chance to be heard. There are also other variations on brainstorming. If you are a professional facilitator or if you are an informal facilitator, it’s great to explore that there are different techniques.

You’ll hear some terminology like phenomenal group technique, group passing technique, the team idea mapping method. There’s directed brainstorming, and there’s also guided brainstorming. There’s the individual brainstorming style and the question brainstorming style. There’s even something called electronic brainstorming (EBS). There are various software applications that help lend in the efforts of collaboration and brainstorming. These tools are great, especially if you have a team that might be separated and not in the same place. One tool is SAMM (Software Aided Meeting Management). This is by GroupSystems. Again, taking advantage of technology to still leverage team collaboration, but doing it when people are remote and not necessarily face-to-face.

So, this is just some context around brainstorming. Again, it might be a word that you’ve heard of before, but now you realize that when you peel it back, there’s a deeper perspective. This might be something you want to dive into and learn a little bit more. There are classes on facilitation. Our partner B2TTraining teaches a class on brainstorming and facilitation, and brainstorming is one of the techniques. It’s something we teach business analysts in our essential skills class. Dive in; learn more. Brainstorming is an important part of problem-solving. Problem-solving is the key and the backbone of what drives STEAM. Thanks for listening to today’s STEAM Information Podcast.

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