Facilitation Tools: Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a creativity technique centred around the accumulation of ideas. It is effective as a facilitation tool because everyone is encouraged to participate. The spontaneous contribution of ideas by group members can be used to find conclusions for an endless number of specific problems and tasks. With little time for evaluation or scrutiny of suggestions, there are no bad ideas when it comes to brainstorming, that all comes later. 

As the go-to idea generator, brainstorming is one of the most common process tools used both by individuals and groups. It is a starting point. Providing some ground rules can be useful in terms of setting participants at ease in the process. Clarifying that there are no bad ideas, for example, may coax a voice that would have been otherwise unheard.

The term 'brainstorming' was first made popular by Alex F. Osborn in 1963, when his book Applied Imagination was published. Osborn declared four general rules of brainstorming, with a view to stimulate idea generation and increase overall creativity within a group:

Brainstorming Rule 1

Focus on quantity. This rule is based on the idea that quantity breeds quality. The more ideas, the better. The assumption being that if more ideas are generated, the chance of coming up with an effective solution will increase.

Brainstorming Rule 2

Withhold criticism. Building on the first rule, participants should focus on extending or adding to ideas, reserving criticism for a later stage. If judgement is suspended, participants will feel free to suggest more unusual ideas.

Brainstorming Rule 3

Welcome unusual ideas. A further build on the previous rules. In order to get a decent list of ideas, unusual ideas should be welcomed. They can be generated by suspending assumptions and thinking outside of the box. These new ways of thinking may provide better solutions.

Brainstorming Rule 4

Combine and improve. Good ideas may be combined to form a single better good idea. It is believed to stimulate the building of ideas by a process of association.

Ideally, brainstorming should address a specific question. The clearer the question, the easier it will be for group members to suggest relevant ideas. Furthermore, it is important that the problem actually requires the generation of ideas rather than judgment. Osborn envisioned groups of around 12 participants, including both experts and novices. A good mix of participants should provide a good range of answers, expected and unusual.

To read more about facilitation tools, check out our Infographic: Process Tools for Effective Meeting Facilitation

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