Sunday, April 5, 2009

Brainstorming – An “Oldie”, but a “Goodie”.

To many people, brainstorming is something that forms part of a training program, yet it still remains a very powerful tool on the job. Brainstorming can be used to help uncover causes of problems, identify new solutions, involve a team or simply to get creative.

This month’s newsletter looks at brainstorming and takes the opportunity to provide some ideas for you to try next time you are looking for a creative solution to a problem.
The purpose of brainstorming is to help individuals or teams step out of “mental ruts” and unleash themselves from the habits of thought that may constrain their ability to understand a problem, a situation, a potential solution and to explore new ideas.

Key Question

Brainstorming focuses on the basic question, “What would this (problem, solution, etc) look like when viewed from another perspective?”
Brainstorming is most useful early in the process of problem solving, for example, after an individual or team has considered the most obvious causes of a situation, and especially when most of those involved have begun to take for granted that they understand the likely cause or outcome.
Directions for Using Brainstorming:

1. Identify a brainstorming technique that you and your group are willing to try.
2. Apply that technique to your case for as long as it provides new and divergent ideas.
3. Select another technique, or make one up of your own, and repeat the process.
4. Stop when you have identified truly divergent ideas that have not before been considered.
5. Review the ideas to identify the “grain of truth” that some may represent.

Helpful Hints

• Choose one of the 25 ideas listed below as a starting point. Don’t be afraid to create your own, new ideas. Don’t be afraid to reword the idea to get closer to the particular issue or situation you are considering.

• Be sure everyone in the group understands that this is a “no holds barred” activity that is expected to yield a large number of (possibly ridiculous) ideas and a few useful ones. But also remember the last time you had a “good idea” that came from a totally unrelated comment or idea.
• Encourage rapid, non-reflective responses, focusing on quantity rather than quality.
• Maintain a spirit of freewheeling fun, worrying less about whether the “rules of the game” are followed and more about generating a large number of diverse ideas.
• Do not allow any evaluative comments as ideas are submitted, although you may ask for clarification of what someone means.
• Try to think from perspectives outside of your normal point of view.
• Use one or more note takers, using a flip chart or a pad of paper, to record responses as quickly as they are given to avoid slowing down the process.
• Competition between small teams may enhance volume of ideas.
“On Your Feet” Strategies
• In situations where it may be inappropriate to use a freewheeling, non-traditional approach, look for ways of adapting some of these techniques into normal discussions. For example, you might casually ask, “I wonder how they solved this problem before the Internet,” “What alternatives have you in mind?” or some other hypothetical question which might generate a different set of ideas.

25 Brainstorming Ideas

Here are 25 ideas that may be useful in different circumstances:
1. Write the letters of the alphabet in a column and try to identify a possible cause for each.
2. Think of an obvious and accepted cause, and identify its opposite. Then, try to identify a way in which this opposite situation may also contribute to the problem.
3. Ask: “If this situation were like a [any unrelated situation], what would be some possible causes?” Unrelated situations could include any other issues related to the workplace, home, family, equipment, processes, etc.
4. Two-person teams within a group write down as many contributing factors to a situation as possible within a 2-minute time limit, including extremely minor and insignificant ones. Then teams take turns describing individual causes on their lists, starting with the least likely causes.
5. Roll a pair of dice and try to think of something that has as many letters in its name as show up on the dice.
6. Page through a dictionary and identify words that suggest possible causes or solutions to a problem.
7. Draw five to eight columns on a page and label each by a category of possible causes [for example: internal people, external people, places, things, recent events, long past events, processes, hidden assumptions, etc.] and brainstorm as many possibilities as you can for each column.
8. Adopt the role of another specific person [parent, grandparent, child, boss, competitor, customer, head of another department, taxi driver, lawyer, doctor, politician, etc.] and make a brief statement of what you think about the problem and its cause or the situation and how to resolve it.
9. On the telephone call up people you know with different perspectives from your own, including family or friends outside of the business. Briefly explain the problem and ask for their immediate perception of possible causes.
10. At random times throughout a day or week, pull out a pad of paper and write down whatever ideas about a situation come to mind.
11. Post a bulletin board in a common room with a brief description of a problem and ask people to contribute possible causes, perhaps holding a contest for the quantity, quality, or creativity of the suggestions.
12. Take five minutes of time from a business meeting called for an unrelated purpose and ask participants to contribute their ideas about possible causes, perhaps using one of these different techniques.
13. Send an Email to a variety of individuals with diverse perspectives, briefly describing the situation, problem or desired outcome and ask them to reply by naming one obvious and one not obvious idea, cause or solution.
14. Make a list of each major business unit in your organisation and, for each, ask yourself, “If I were in that business unit, what type of solution would I most hope for?” Repeat the process asking, “What type of solutions would I least hope for?”
15. Ask: “If this situation were like a [briefcase, glass of water, automobile, spaceship, football game, family picnic] how would I deal with it?” Exhaust the possibilities of one item, and then move on to another.
16. Ask: “If I were a member of [another department, industry, culture, age, generation or profession], what solutions might I want to consider?”
17. Take turns around the table answering the question, “If you could change just one thing to solve this problem, what would you do?” Impose a five-second limit to think of a response and continue around the table until no one can think of another item. Repeat the process when no one is left because people will continue to think of ideas after they have dropped out.
18. Make a list of a variety of unrelated problems that have been successfully solved within and outside of your organisation. Then, for each, ask yourself, “What aspect of this solution might apply to my current problem?”
19. Write a fairy tale about the perfect solution to a problem based on a well-known fairy tale, including both realistic and “magical” strategies. Then, test for reality.
20. Ask: “If this problem had occurred in the [Stone Age, the Dark Ages, the 18th century, twenty years ago], how would it have been solved?”
21. Ask: “What technology not yet invented would solve this problem for us?” As each new technology is suggested, identify one or two key features that would be particularly helpful. Relate back to the current situation.
22. Interview members of a project team who solved a similar problem to determine what lessons the team learned which could be applied to your problem.
23. Identify solutions that would not work, and then identify those aspects that would need to be changed to make that solution workable. What do these suggest for a positive change?
24. Ask: “If we had only one percent of the resources available to us to solve this problem, what could we do to at least partially resolve the problem?”
25. Ask: “If we had all of the resources in the world available to us, what would we do to solve this problem?”

Insight – Problem Solving

Brainstorming is one element contained in the InfoWorks one-day Insight – Problem Solving program, a highly interactive learning experience intended to provide all levels of an organisation with a variety of problem solving tools supported by a common problem solving model for use in diverse workplace situations.

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