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Brainstorming.

Introduction

The purpose of this checklist is to enable a manager, without previous experience of the technique and with a minimum of preparation, to introduce brainstorming to a group and then go on to brainstorm a specific problem or opportunity. Numerous fresh ideas and concepts can be rapidly generated in a brainstorming session and the technique can be fun and simple to learn.

Organisations continue to use the well-known technique despite some controversy over its effectiveness. The use of a well-trained group facilitator can overcome most difficulties and additional benefits from the brainstorming process including, employee involvement and the group experience, have been identified.

National Occupational Standards for Management and Leadership

This checklist has relevance to the following standards: D: Working with people, unit 1

Definition

Brainstorming is a technique for generating ideas, developing creativity, or solving problems, in small groups, through the free-flowing contributions of participants. Several variations of brainstorming and related techniques have emerged, such as brainwriting, where ideas are written down by individuals, nominal group technique, electronic brainstorming, and buzz groups.

Action checklist--Preparation

1. Select the problem / opportunity to be brainstormed

Select an item important enough to justify the participation of others. It should also be one where there are a number of possible solutions and imagination is required to identify them.

2. Think of structure, aims and objectives

Although a brainstorming session is an open, 'no-holds- barred' affair, establish where you are going, what you want to achieve and roughly how to get there.

3. Choose the Facilitator

This should be an open, outgoing person with enthusiasm and the ability to stimulate interest and enjoyment. Choosing the right facilitator is vital. They need not be the most senior person at the session, but will need to set the scene by relaxing the participants and creating an open atmosphere, controlling dominant people, getting and keeping them on track by highlighting the issues, and creating a sense of fun. Perhaps most importantly, they should be adept at keeping ideas flowing.

Should the facilitator be internal or external? An external facilitator can be especially useful when senior managers are involved, but if the issue is not too complex or contentious, an internal facilitator may be used, provided they have some experience.

The facilitator should feel comfortable running activity-based sessions, and should have clear plans and tactics for arriving at expected outcomes or targets. The facilitator must also ensure, as much as possible, that the group works as a team and owns what it has achieved at the end.

4. Select an appropriate venue

This depends largely on the time set aside for the session. If time is available then somewhere away from the routine place of work is often more suitable and a fresh perspective can be brought to the business in hand.

5. Consider the mix of participants

As well as those with a specialist contribution to make, include those who have little or no knowledge of the problem to be brainstormed. They will not be concerned with detail and will offer a fresh approach. Consider the introduction of outsiders for this, although it can backfire if they are seen as intruders or spies. Work on getting the group dynamics right in order to put the group at ease, avoid snide or put-down comments and create a 'free-from-blame' atmosphere. All participants are equal and none are more equal than others.

6. Think of the right number

There is no right number, although more than ten might be unmanageable when ideas really start to flow, and less than five might not be enough to generate creativity. Six to eight is usually about right, although this will depend on the style of the facilitator and the nature of the problem to be tackled.

7. Get the equipment right

You will need to record the ideas that come up. Tape recorders may not seem appropriate here and may well act as inhibitors to the free flow of ideas. The traditional flip-chart should suffice, with completed sheets being blu-tacked to the wall in full view to help stimulate further ideas.

8. Get the layout right

Do not use a room with fixed rows of seats. Something more relaxed, even random, is preferable; a circle or U-shape is fairly usual. If the facilitator is not familiar with the room to be used, they should check it beforehand and prepare it appropriately.

9. Get the timing right

Think of your own powers of concentration and remember that brainstorming of ideas can go from dynamic to exhausted, and back again. 10-20 minutes may be needed to get people relaxed; two hours can be a long time to brainstorm--stop for a break if people show signs of tiredness. Arrange for a 20 minute break after an hour's uninterrupted flow, or if and when the flow slows to a trickle. The break may be enough to stimulate an active re-start, perhaps with a change in the seating of individuals.

10. Get the time of day right

Unfortunately hard advice is difficult here as we are all different. Some people are better when their mind is less active and more relaxed and when their routine work has been dispensed with. Others may prefer the morning when collective mental energy is at its highest.

Provide sufficient notice of the session, and an outline of the problem to be tackled.

Action checklist--The session

1. State the problem / objective

State the problem and explain it to the group. Make sure everyone participating has a clear understanding.

2. Restate the problem

Encourage the group to stand back from the problem, walk around it, and see it from every angle. Suggest re-wording it in 'How to' statements. Some restatements may be close to the original, others may illuminate new facets. Write re-statements on the flip-chart for all to see.

3. Brainstorm the problem with the following guidelines:

a) Suspend judgement: avoid evaluative comments such as 'that won't work' or 'that sounds silly'. Laugh with wild ideas, not at them.

b) Use the following techniques for generating further ideas.

* Call for a one-minute break, asking the group to look over ideas already noted before starting the flow again

* Offer a target: e.g. 'we just need six more to make 50 ideas!'

* Reflect and concentrate on one idea, e.g. how many ways can we do this?

* Look back at the re-statements to pursue other lines.

c) Freewheel: encourage (within limits) drifting or dreaming; try to bring the subconscious into play; the wilder the idea, the better.

d) Go for quantity not quality--the more the merrier; suspend judgement, evaluation comes later.

e) Cross-fertilize: pick up somebody's idea and suggest others leading from it.

4. Ask the group to choose a really wild and apparently senseless idea from the lists marked up and generate ideas from there

5. Closure

Give a warning of when the session will close about five minutes from the end. Participants will want to know what happens next. Explain that the lists will be circulated and do this within 24 hours to retain freshness and familiarity. Tell the participants that they will be informed on the ideas chosen for further action or recommendation. Ask them one last time for any comments, ideas or further thinking.

Action checklist--Evaluation

1. Get the team to scrutinize all the ideas to pick out any instant winners

Rank ideas giving 3 points for those which stand out, 2 for those which have possibilities and zero for those which appear unsound, require too many resources, or do not meet the original objectives.

2. Reduce the number of '2s' to a minimum, apply such criteria as cost, acceptability or time-scales

3. Use reverse brainstorming

* In how many ways can a particular idea fail?

* What are the negative factors?

* What is the potential downside for the organisation?

4. Apply the key evaluative criteria

* What will it cost?

* Will it be acceptable to management, staff, and customers?

* Is it legal?

* Is it practical?

* How long will it take?

* What competition will there be?

* How urgent is it? (If it is not done now, will an opportunity be lost?)

Managers should avoid

* allowing critical or evaluative comments

* letting the session be dictated or sidetracked by dominant individuals

* letting the session go on too long

* recording the session.

Additional resources

Books

Creativity in virtual teams : key components for success, Jill E Nemiro

San Francisco Calif: Pfeiffer, 2004

Why didn't I think of that, Charles W McCoy Jr

Paramus NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002

Successful innovation, Michel Syrett and Jean Lammiman

London: Economist Books in association with Profile Books, 2002

Ultimate book of business creativity: 50 great thinking tools for transforming your business, Ros Jay

Oxford: Capstone, 2000

This is a selection of books available for loan to members from the Management Information Centre. More information at: www.managers.org.uk/mic

Related checklists

Managing creativity (177) Solving problems (012)

Internet resources

Brainstorming.co.uk: www.brainstorming.co.uk

Site provided by Infinite Innovations Ltd. Includes tutorials on brainstorming and creative thinking as well as articles, a newsletter and listing of recommended reading.

Space for Ideas: www.spaceforideas.uk.com

Sponsored by the East of England Development Agency, this site provides tips and information on how to develop creativity and generate new ideas. Includes; exercises, case studies and articles by management thinkers.
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Title Annotation:Checklist 014
Publication:Chartered Management Institute: Checklists: Managing Information and Finance
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 1, 2006
Words:1548
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