Do You Know How to Brainstorm Effectively?

A team gathered in a circle, someone standing next to a board, a pile of Post-its, a long list of ideas. That’s the image we have of a classic brainstorming session. This highly productive creative method is undoubtedly the most widely known. However, it has also become the most trivialized, often even perceived as the sole way of resolving a blockage of ideas.

That is what a professor of digital design at Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (UQAT) has observed. As part of the Forum Avantage numérique, held last March in Rouyn-Noranda, Cathy Vézina attempted to demystify what brainstorming really is and define the rules of the art of effective brainstorming.

Rule #1: Brainstorming is not the only way to generate ideas!

“Brainstorming is somewhat a victim of its success. To this day, it is seen as the only way or as a miracle method,” says Ms. Vézina. The expert therefore suggests combining one or several other creative methods as part of a brainstorming session because, in her opinion, “pure brainstorming” is next to impossible. Among other things, she thinks of idea association techniques such as those infamous word clouds known as ‘mind maps.’ “It’s a good technique that I will often use as part of a warm-up seeing as people are not very comfortable when it comes to breaking the ice. We’ll start with a term that has to do—or not—with the subject and we’ll start to spontaneously make associations,” she explains.

In addition to association techniques, she also proposes ball throwing, whereby the participants throw a ball among themselves and the person who catches the ball is obliged to add an idea to the list. Conversely, the group may also opt for the ‘purge’ which consists of drawing up a list of all unwanted options. These exercises may contribute to releasing creativity after an initial brainstorming session, for example. The six hat method, drawings, game storming and Google storming can also be used to trigger or resume exchanges.

Rule #2: The expectations set must be realistic

Brainstorming in combination or not with other creativity methods in no way guarantees that miracle solutions will be found, however warns Ms. Vézina. It is, however, imperative to set a specific objective for the session and to limit its duration. “Students often tell me that they’ve been searching for ideas for 8 hours but haven’t come up with any. It’s normal! A good brainstorming session usually lasts an hour or two. After that, it’s time to stop,” she suggests.

However, creativity in a group setting is not always easy even if an objective and a duration have been set. “Research has indeed shown that the number of ideas generated will decrease as the size of the group increases,” points out the university professor. It’s common for someone to monopolize the discussion and for someone else to tend to make the others laugh. And then, there are the famous “potted plants” as Ms. Vézina calls them, who are present in body but not in mind and who do not participate in the exchanges.

Nevertheless, a well-organized brainstorming session may lead to fruitful reflections seeing as group creativity creates a bandwagon effect. “Certain participants feed off the ideas of others. Someone jumps in, explains an idea and someone else decides to jump in next. The power of association is multiplied tenfold and the different points of view lead to the production of original ideas that are richer and more varied,” points out Ms. Vézina.

At the end of a brainstorming session, however, you will not have necessarily found THE turnkey solution. The work will continue during a later stage (see rule #6) before you choose the best scenario in the circumstances. In short, brainstorming is only one step of the process!

Rule #3: A brainstorming session must be planned, it cannot be improvised

“Sometimes, exchanges cease simply because of a lack of knowledge. We want to realize a project, but we don’t know how to go about it or aren’t familiar with the subject on which we want to work,” observes Cathy Vézina, who suggests completing a minimum of research before showing up for a brainstorming session.

This tip applies not only to participants but also to those who organize creative sessions. In addition to minimally mastering the subject in question, they are also responsible for selecting the participants, communicating the goal set for the meeting and determining the creative methods that will be implemented. It is also recommended to inform the members of the group of the people who will be taking part in the brainstorming session.

Rule #4: The winning conditions must be gathered

When planning, a certain number of winning conditions must be gathered, notably with respect to how many people will be selected to participate. “If you are only two, the process will not last long. If you are 8, 10 or 12 in total, it may quickly become a mess because the participants will begin to discuss among themselves instead of discussing all 12 together, for example,” warns Ms. Vézina.

The environment in which the creativity session unfolds also plays a significant role. For example, a round table will favour better contacts between the participants to an exchange. The presence of a facilitator is also essential to prevent participants from getting cut off, make sure that all points of view are expressed and remind participants of the objectives set for the meeting.

Another fundamental aspect is note-taking. Whether notes are taken on a blackboard, a whiteboard, Post-its or sheets of paper is of little importance. However, the idea is to keep track of all of the exchanges. If deemed necessary, take a picture of your board at the end of the session without having to sort through the ideas.

Rule #5: The creative process must unfold in the absence of judgement

No critical judgment, no censorship, no obstruction of ideas. Save your criticism for later! In keeping with the very spirit of brainstorming, anything that is conjured up needs to be accepted in order to find the most potential solutions possible. “The goal here is quantity more than quality,” says Cathy Vézina. “An idea that appears to us to be crazy, stupid or completely off the mark may, to the contrary, lead to something else in the thought process. And you need to ‘piggyback’ on the ideas of others.”

It is moreover in this optic that the creativity specialist insists on speaking in terms of brainstorming. “Brainstorming says what it is, a storm or an exchange of ideas. It’s a term that was invented by practitioners in the United States in the 1950s. It has nothing to do with a “storm’ but has everything to do with the verb ‘to storm’ in the sense of ‘attacking’ or ‘taking over.’ It refers to attacking a person’s brain from every possible angle.”

Rule #6: The work following the session

“It’s often the period that is neglected,” insists Cathy Vézina. In fact, brainstorming is only one step of the process, after which you need to pause, reflect and establish ties between the ideas that have been expressed. Simply said, this incubation time may lead to the emergence of other ideas! It is therefore false to believe that you must necessarily leave a brainstorming session with a definitive solution. “Sometimes, the solutions that are found are very good, but do not meet the initial objective and adjustments are needed,” warns the expert.

Émélie Rivard-Boudreau
Like some kind of tree, Émélie Rivard-Boudreau has been rooted since her childhood in Val-d'Or, Abitibi. From there, she has been doing her work as an independent journalist since 2013. As a freelancer, she writes regularly for the newspaper La Terre de chez nous, Rando Quebec magazine and the and Ricochet websites. She also works as a radio and web journalist for Radio-Canada. Her texts have been published in many Quebec media including La Presse, Quebec Science, Journal de Montréal, as well as the magazines KMAG and Oxygène.
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