Though I often catch my self reminding people creativity can’t be forced, or at least I like to believe it can’t, sometimes you must. As much as I’d like to wait for the ideas to just come, brainstorming is part of any creatives day. For me, as for many creatives, brainstorming just “happens”. Though over the years I noticed for some people this is not the case. In a professional setting you don’t always get to choose with whom you brainstorm, or for what reason. Out of pure curiosity I started analyzing what went right or terribly wrong during my brainstorms. I looked not so much to the outcome of the brainstorm but to the actual brainstorming itself. After reviewing all my notes I concluded the better brainstorm sessions all had three things in common. I have summarized these in three simple “rules” I like to follow. Before I start I do however want to press having a great brainstorm doesn’t necessarily bring forth a brilliant idea, and good brainstorming takes practice. But we should always aim to build the climate to have an optimal brainstorm and a happy team.
Thinking inside the box.
When I was in college “Thinking outside the box” was all the rage. And it might even still be. But I like to think inside the box, or rather, hang on to the rim of it. For me, giving myself boundaries means I have a clear frame of reference. In the end it’s important that all noses are pointing in the same direction and all involved feel satisfied with the final idea. Often when everything is a possibility, people choke, not knowing where to look for ideas. When everything goes, the team tends to lose focus. During this article I will be talking a lot about focus. I do want to point out I am not talking about focus as in concentration. Though that can be important too, many creatives (like me) are off the rails and work best like that. The focus I am talking about is the common goal of the team and what the team wants to get out of the brainstorm.
Just as focus, another important part of brainstorming is “bouncing off” each others ideas. This “adding” on to ideas, develops the ideas and enables everyone to pitch in. But when everyone is thinking worlds apart this is near impossible. Besides, when there is no common vantage point, strong creative minds (at least in my personal experience) like to push their own ideas, making it harder to come to a common conclusion. Therefore having a frame of reference is important to know where to look for ideas. Remember the box you are thinking in is by default infinitely large. Having a box therefore does not exclude any idea, but it should bring the team together in the core of it’s idea’s. Starting a brainstorm needing to come up with a poster campaign for a client and finishing with a first person shooter is what we want to avoid at any cost.
How do you create that box I hear you ask? In some cases when there is a clear question that needs answering the box is clear. However sometimes a brainstorm could just be about “Create a campaign to improve our ratings”, or “Let’s come up with the next Minecraft”. In these cases it’s important you formulate your own questions. A way to look at a brainstorm is as problem solving tool, so figure out what the problem is you are trying to solve. Don’t just put “how” in front of it, “How do we create the next Minecraft!”, that doesn’t help anyone. But really look to the core of what you are trying to do. Why do you want to create the next Minecraft? To make money? Then your question could instead be, “What video game in the current market would sell best?”. Or do you want to give players a gamifyed creative experience? Then your brainstorm should be about “How do we gamify an creative experience”. Your motives are important when you brainstorm. When working for a client, try and figure out what your client wants. There is a saying “Tell us the problem, not the solution”. If a client wants to improve it’s ratings, figure out why the ratings are low and fix that problem instead.
Earlier I shortly mentioned bouncing off each others idea’s. I think associative thinking is of great importance when brainstorms. A little game to train associative thinking is the “five steps game”. It is really quite simple, just take two random words (for instance the first two words you see in a newspaper) and make 5 “logical” steps, associating from the first word to the second. Key is to always to use 5 steps, even if you could do it in less, this is what should trigger you to think differently. Try not to use basic properties like color or size. Using applications, historic backgrounds or trivia proves way more fun and challenging.
One of the most important rules. Never in a brainstorm say “no” or use any other form of negativity. I always compare a brainstorm to a train. It needs to pick up speed and once it’s moving it should keep going, and everyone should get on board. This again ties in to “adding” and developing each others ideas. The train should only stop when the end station is reached. Saying “no” or something in line of “That is a terrible idea” usually stops the train. Even more so it gives the originator of the idea a bad feeling, making it more likely for him or her to stop sharing idea’s. The absolute opposite of what you would like to see happen in a brainstorm. Now this might sound a bit childish, but believe me I have seen grown people act like 2 year old’s.
Still it is very human to judge the ideas that you will hear during a brainstorm! It is just a part of the brainstorming process. Judging the ideas, or any brain-fart for that matter, by itself does not have to be a bad thing. And it shouldn’t have to be a negative influence on the brainstorming process. As with almost anything the trick lies in how we communicate. Rather than just blatantly say “that’s a terrible idea”, and stopping that metaphorical brainstorm train, try diverting the train instead. I noticed this can easily be done by using a “or..”-sentence. “Or” works great in brainstorms to divert the conversation, without disrupting the flow, while still treating all participants with respect. Being negative, as we concluded is a bad thing. Being critical however is not. Soem ideas might actually be really terrible or completely fall outside the carefully crafted box. Then a great way to change the direction is simply by asking a question. Asking how an idea fits in the given assignment or helps solve the problem can help clear the air, and even change your perspective on the idea. But remember to always stay positive! You should always try to create a safe environment for a brainstorm. Everyone should know they can always say anything without being shunned or laughed at. Having everything be shared is most important. You never know what could trigger the perfect idea. And whenever a great idea comes up that has nothing to do with the current brainstorm, just write it down and move on.
In my opinion “No No” is one of the most important rules, even more so when working with children or teenagers. It’s important for them to realize each individual can (and should) contribute, and a team can come up with an idea together. Learning to use and hear other peoples ideas and visions instead of dismissing then right away, is a valuable life lesson.
Spill your guts out
For some people this is the hardest rule. Instead of using the “box” sometimes people feel trapped by it. Have you ever noticed during a brainstorm you were about to start a sentence but instead said “nah, forget it”. Did you ever had an idea but then realized it didn’t quite fit the assignment or just felt it was not good enough so you didn’t share it with the team? I think anyone has had that experience. When I notice this I always ask what they were about the say, and I encourage you to do the same. Sharing every thought with your team is the best thing you could do! Don’t fear if what you are about to say derails the train.
When we look at what really triggers an idea or inspires people. Is it words? Surroundings? Memories? Past experiences? The movie you saw last night? I believe all those and many more. During a brainstorm you might not be able to have your full mind-palace on beacon call. When a brainstorm is stalling or people are just plain out of idea’s what often happens is the team falls silent. There is this fear for bringing up stupid or crazy idea’s which makes people think to much about what they are going to say. The best thing to do in a situation like this is just say anything that comes to mind (even if it breaks the first two rules!). Talk about anything to get the train moving again, you can worry about getting it back on track later. Talk about that amazing movie you saw the other night. Talk about a project or case you found interesting. Even if it has nothing to do with the current question you are trying to solve, never keep anything to yourself. Your ideas or even the smallest word you say could trigger an idea in a team member. Which in turn can lead to just the idea you need.
That concludes the three main “rules”. Keep these in mind and you should be able to keep better, and most importantly more pleasant brainstorms. And remember brainstorming take practice! Before I close there are two more pointers I’d like to share with you. They are not with the main rules as they are not so much rules but more personal standards I try to adhere to when brainstorming.
Less is more. I have a personal rule to never brainstorm in a large team. A large team for me roughly means more than 5 people. Though I always preach anyone can have ideas, I firmly believe not everyone in a company or large project-team should attend a brainstorm. Having too much people in a brainstorm can build unwanted tension, discussion, and is a guaranteed recipe for losing focus. Whenever a new assignment drops, there is a new business opportunity or a pitch, it is in a creatives nature to come up with ideas. Everyone in a creative company will have ideas. Therefore it is a great idea to get the input of every employee or team member. But get it beforehand and separate from the brainstorm. Have everyone pitch their idea via email. Then have the brainstorm originator pick the people with the best ideas to sit in on the brainstorm. This way there is also a bigger sense of “our-idea” in the company or team.
Time is everything. Don’t overdo it when it comes to the length of a brainstorm. In my personal experience after 2 hours most of the people are dried up and need recharging. If you haven’t come up with that killer idea, take a recces. Take a walk, a coffee break, go do some other work. Split up and most importantly relax. Don’t get stressed if the idea’s don’t come. I have had my best ideas in the train ride home after a way to long frustrating brainstorming session. Sometimes it is just better to take a break and come back later than to just keep brainstorming.
To summarize this all, I believe better brainstorming can be done by keeping these three simple rules in mind; Think inside the box, get your frame of reference right from the start. It is easier to come up with great idea’s if your team knows where to look for ideas. Never say no. Keep you brainstorming-room a “safe” zone. Respect you team members and try not to shoot anybody down to keep the ideas flowing and going. And last but not least, share everything. Never keep and idea or “brain-fart” to yourself. You never know what could trigger another great idea. Combine that with a small team and short bursts of time and you’re brainstorm is all set and ready to go!
There you have it some simple “rules” or guidelines that could help you get more out of your brainstorms. I would love to hear about your experiences brainstorming, and if using any of the rules helped your brainstorms yield better results!