Seven Ways to Fix Brainstorming

It’s no accident that great songs are often sketched out on a napkin or that great products often begin with a series of sketches on a whiteboard. An author will have a story concept and suddenly it’s scribbled out in random phrases in a list or as a sprawling web with lines bouncing back and forth.
In design thinking, these moments are part of the ideation phase. It’s that beginning spark that leads to the eventual creation. It’s the pre-outline phase in writing. It’s the conceptual phase when you’re working on the design of a website or a platform. It’s the doodling that eventually leads to something you could never have imagined. It’s the list of seemingly random ideas that ultimately lead to the unexpected moment when you realize the answer is way different than what you had imagined.

As I look back to every creative project I’ve worked on, I’ve had these moments of brainstorming. In many cases, they didn’t look like a traditional brainstorm. Some were webs or diagrams or pictures. Others were lists of words or phases. (One of my favorite techniques in writing comes from Pixar — where you brainstorm a list of bad plot ideas and ultimately you realize that one of the “bad” ideas is pretty awesome).

So, tonight I was intrigued when I read a post questioning whether or not brainstorming leads to innovation. George does a great job curating the research.However, I found myself shaking my head. It’s not that I disagree with the research. What bothers me, however, is the binary reaction the media creates when explaining the research. We get headlines like, “Why brainstorming doesn’t work” or “Why brainstorming is overrated” or even “Why brainstorming kills creativity.” While these statements are great for SEO (search engine optimization) they are pretty lousy at conveying the nuanced reality about ideation, brainstorming and creativity.

When you start analyzing the research, you realize that they’ve created a straw man argument where brainstorming is treated as a limited practice where a group sits down together in isolation and jots down ideas and then they decide on what works best. The researchers then make statements like, “You should really break down the problem into facets and create optional solutions.” Um, last time I checked, that’s called brainstorming possibilities.

One researcher created a different model, “Here’s how it works: you start with a problem or situation where you aim for an innovation, break that down in to elements of the problem, and then search for precedents that solve each element.”Again, searching for multiple precedents is essentially brainstorming possibilities — though in this case, it’s all about precedents. As I read through the research, I noticed that just about every solution included some type of brainstorming — combining two ideas from the past, breaking things up and listing possibilities, quiet ideation.

So, really, the problem isn’t that brainstorming doesn’t work so much as it doesn’t work when it’s implemented poorly.

How do we fix student brainstorming?

  1. Start with quiet ideation before leading to a group brainstorm. This allows every person to have a voice and allows for the group to specifically avoid groupthink. I will often ask students to find trends and then see if they can brainstorm solutions that are opposite of those trends. Here the goal is to purposely think differently than what they already assume to be true.
  2. Use multiple brainstorm prompts that include questions like, “How have you seen someone else solve this problem?” or “Is there someone in _______ area who might solve this differently?” or even “Could you combine two different ideas?”
  3. Try different brainstorming visuals. In other words, use lists but also include webs that work as collective mind maps or allow brainstorming to include visual sketches of ideas.
  4. Experiment with formatting. For example, a round robin brainstorm might allow all students to get a chance to share ideas. Here, each student moves clockwise, one at a time, and shares an idea. Another formatting method might be to have each student copy and paste the ideas into one shared document, followed by a period of reading the ideas and then adding more as a group.
  5. Create breaks for individual reflection. So, if you start with an individual brainstorm and you move to a group brainstorm as a list, end it by having students look at the list and create at least three new ideas based upon what others have written. I use the question, “How can you build on another person’s idea?” or “What is something you might be missing?”
  6. Move students to new groups in order to change up the perspective, avoid group think and offer a divergent perspective.
  7. Integrate brainstorming into a larger framework. So, we use brainstorming in the research phase (thinking of possible sub-topics) and in the ideation phase. However, we also use it when students are “stuck” in prototyping and need to step back and list possibilities.

The truth is we often brainstorm in our lives without realizing that we are doing it. It doesn’t have to be a formal activity. Brainstorming is simply the act of generating possible ideas, solutions or products. We do that naturally when we make things.

I would hate to see teachers abandoning brainstorming because of headlines with such sloppy copy as “Brainstorming Kills Creativity” when, in fact, just about every creative endeavor includes a period of brainstorming.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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