Brainstorming is a method of eliciting ideas without judgement or filtering. It is often used in the early stages of futures workshops and in many other contexts. It involves encouraging wild and unconstrained suggestions and listing ideas as they emerge. It is more of a technique or tool rather than a method per se. It is widely used in any method involving group thinking. The main objective of brainstorming is to elicit ideas from a group of people. Used in a structured way, this technique can be highly effective way of moving participants out of conflict and towards consensus. Brainstorming is founded on the principle that the quantity of ideas increases their quality.
It is a very widely used technique to extract the most creative thinking out of expert committees and consultation groups. It can be used every time when large quantity of information is generated before problem solving, decision making, or planning – and in scenario analysis. Brainstorming helps participants to move into a working group mode, by ‘breaking the ice’ and allowing unusual ideas to be expressed. As such brainstorming does not produce results that are particularly useful or targeted to a group, but rather they are fed into a wider process.
Anyone can participate in a brainstorming session. No skills are previously required. It is useful to encourage participants from diverse backgrounds in the issues to be discussed. Effective brainstorming sessions are small (from 7 to 12 participants) and larger groups should be divided into smaller ones.
This technique has the following basic components:
• Generating as many creative solutions as possible to tackle a problem
• Setting time limits
• All opinions are equal
• Subsequently, grouping ideas to reduce redundancy, allow for related ideas to be brought together
• Evaluating or assign priorities to the ideas.
• Listing every idea presented without comment or evaluation – deferring the judgment of ideas improves the volume of participant input and consequently the value and encourage creativity
The first and most important phase is a period of freethinking, which is used to articulate ideas. The facilitator introduces the topic and the purpose of this session (briefing information might be sent in advance to participants). He begins the discussion by asking specific open-ended questions. The answers, reactions, comments, contributions should be collated and written down without any comments or further analysis (that’s the main concept). This reduces participants’ inhibitions about throwing out ‘wild’ ideas. Demands for clarification are allowed and ideas may be spun off from earlier ideas. This phase is also termed the diverging phase because individual thinking goes in many directions. The first phase ends after a set time, when a sufficient number of ideas has been generated, or when the group feels comfortable that there are no more ideas to add.
Then converging phase takes place. The ideas collected previously are revisited, clustered, prioritised, etc. Participants are encouraged to ask clarification or more information on what was meant by each item. The material is then taken as the basis for more analytic discussion.
Brainstorming is a low-tech, always feasible technique. A skilled facilitator and a way to record and display the ideas/information are basically the only requirements. There are now also computer-based group decision aid software tools that support brainstorming and other related activities by offering alternatives to the traditional use of whiteboards and flip charts. They add value but do not compensate for a lack of skills in facilitating the session.
The outputs are a lot of creative ideas and an open state of mind towards the issue, which subsequently need to be fed into further stages of the process.
Pros and cons
The main advantages of a brainstorming exercise are that it brings new ideas on how to tackle a particular problem – the freethinking atmosphere encourages creativity, even imperfectly developed thoughts may push the thinking of other participants. Problems are defined better as questions arise and alternatives appear in a new or different perspective and novel approaches to an issue can arise during the process. Brainstorming helps to reduce conflicts by helping participants see other points of view and possibly change their perspective on problems. All participants have equal status and an equal opportunity to participate.
The drawbacks however are the importance of the moderator, which is often under-estimated. Furthermore the two phases are often confused, ideas start to be discussed just after they are thrown out and the specific value of this technique is wasted. Sometimes the ideas produced are also unworkable. The outcomes depend on the ability of the facilitator of maintaining the discussion alive. Opponents may refuse to consider each other’s ideas. It is important to explain to participants how the results will be used to underline that they are not wasting their time.
The gathering of ideas can be managed by using different types of techniques to boost productivity of brainstorming. For example among the most common used techniques there is: role-playing, mind mapping, story boarding, card clusters.
As mentioned here-above, brainstorming is usually part of any methods involving group thinking such as scenario building.