5 tips to maximize your brainstorming session

Stephen Corsi
Published on January 28, 2015
By Stephen Corsi
We’ve all faced it. Perhaps it’s an approaching deadline for a marketing campaign, a need to come up with some fresh ideas to help pitch a new product, or, for designers, it could be the pressure to come up with something creative for a design project. The blank computer screen or blank sheet of paper staring back at us compels us to instantly generate some brilliant new idea to help save the day! At times like these, brainstorming (either alone or with a team) can be a godsend to help stimulate the creative process and generate ideas to solve the problem at hand. Whichever brainstorming process you like to follow, here are some tips to help improve creativity and maximize your brainstorming session.

Group etiquette

When brainstorming as a team, ensure that everyone present has a voice and participates. Otherwise one or two individuals may dominate the session, and the group may fixate on the first idea that is generated – which may not be the best idea.

A great way to start is that at the beginning of the session, everyone writes down their own individual ideas first, and then shares their ideas out loud in a systematic way. Sometimes posting the ideas on a wall without names attached with everyone voting on the best ideas helps ensure a meritocracy of ideas rather than group pressure to pick the most popular one (or often, the idea generated by the most senior person in the room!). Once ideas have been generated, discussion can begin as you chip away at the problem.

One important consideration for group brainstorming sessions is the time of day. Some people are more creative in the early morning, others need the afternoon or evening to think of their best ideas. One thing is certain though – Monday morning brainstorming sessions rarely result in productivity.

Finding inspiration

Few people can generate ideas in a vacuum. By assembling and surrounding yourself with art or images to inspire you can help accelerate the brainstorming process. Magazines, art books, illustrations or photographs should be spread across your desk and perused to help get ideas flowing.

Another area that often leads to innovative ideas is reviewing data and research support for the project. Having all of the data up front, and scanning it for opportunities or anomalies, can help generate unique ways to leverage the facts creatively. The more transparency you can get (whether it is customer research, impromptu focus groups or research on what the competition is doing,) will help you think of new ideas that are on target and relevant.

Play instead of pray (for ideas)

There is a direct correlation between creativity and play. Just watch any group of children playing a game and you can see their imaginations come to life. To that end, in your brainstorming session have items like Play-Doh, Silly Putty, crayons, markers and sketch pads at hand. Getting physical with objects and toys will open up your inner child and trigger the right side of your brain.

Play word games to generate ideas. Choose random words that capture the essence of your objective, or descriptive words that embody the solution you are striving for. Don’t be afraid to push the envelope and choose words that are the exact opposite of what you would expect. Language can also be the gateway to creativity. While you are at it, ask questions and challenge the status quo. Play with “what if?” scenarios. If you get stuck, also try running with prompters like who, what, when, where and why to generate more words and ideas. If you do enough of this, you may start to see patterns emerge. Circle the word patterns and themes that are related as these may be a subtopic worth exploring.

Don’t be afraid to go too far with a big idea. Even if what you come up with may be too crazy or too expensive to launch in the real world, the essence of it may be something that could to lead to a tangible or innovative solution.

If after some time you don’t feel the ideas are coming, take a break. By letting things settle in and coming back to it later (a few hours or the next day,) often an idea will germinate from a seed planted in your mind from your earlier brainstorming session. 

Use the right tools

If you must be in front of a computer screen to do your best thinking, there are several tools that allow you to make the most of your brainstorming session. In the same way you might pin ideas or images on a boardroom wall in a group session, you can do the same with pin board tools. These tools allow you to free associate images from around the web that strike you as visually pleasing or important to your project. Many of these tools also incorporate drawing, text or photo and filter effects. Some favorite tools for this purpose are,  moodboard, MindNode, and of course Pinterest

Taking your brainstorming a step further

If you find the above suggestions aren’t generating enough good ideas, there are many other approaches you can use. You could try virtual brainstorming with Stormboard, a tool that facilitates online brainstorming and collaboration (also known as “brain-netting”.) This tool is often used by developers in collaboration with other productivity tools like Skype and Google Hangouts (for virtual meetings) and Google Docs and cloud storage for file sharing.

“Rolestorming” is a form of group brainstorming whereby members of a group take on other people’s identities while brainstorming. This reduces inhibitions that many people feel when they are asked to share ideas in front of a larger audience. It also helps people create ideas that they might not have otherwise considered. You could assign one role to each person in the group, or the whole group could play the role collectively and then move on to another role after they’re done. The roles or characters you choose could be anyone – a target customer, a celebrity, a major competitor, a leader from the past – just as long as it is not someone who is actually in the current group. Allow each person to get into character, thinking about how the person views the world, what is their personality like, how do they solve problems, what are their strengths and weaknesses, what are their feelings and motivations. Then begin to brainstorm while in character. You can encourage participants to use phrases such as “my character likes…” when presenting ideas as this helps create the distance that people may need to feel in order to speak freely. Also by brainstorming as “someone else,” it frees your mind to really be creative.

No matter what approach you use to generate ideas, the key is to step outside the normal and enjoy the creative process. Happy brainstorming!

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