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Beyond basic brainstorming: A process for better ideas

4 min read


Kevin Eikenberry is a expert on leadership development, author, speaker, trainer, consultant and coach. You can learn more about him and read more of his writing on his blog.

You’ve been to those meetings. In a sterile conference room with a whiteboard or flip chart, the facilitator (maybe even you) encourages the group to come up with some creative ideas. It’s time to brainstorm …

While much has been written about the brainstorming process, (and while most have been to at least one training class to learn how to do it more effectively) the reality is that the basic strategy as outlined above is flawed and almost without question won’t generate the best ideas.

Two reasons for the flaw

Have you ever tried to think of someone’s name, and it didn’t come to you until a day or two later — almost out of the blue? Have you ever gotten a great idea or a solution to a problem at an unexpected time? These experiences are common to everyone and are predictable, not in the timing of the answer, but because both show the power of the subconscious mind to work on a problem and come up with solutions. When we brainstorm in a meeting on demand, we operate largely without the power of our subconscious mind.

Recent research by Nicholas Kohn and Steven Smith, two researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington and Texas A&M University, found that collecting initial ideas in groups is less effective in part because of cognitive fixation — the concept that, when exposed to the ideas of others, people focus on those and block other types of ideas from taking hold.

So given those flaws, a new approach is in order.

A new approach

  1. Set the context, purpose and/or problem. It is important that everyone involved is working on the same issue. Providing this focus is critical to generating the best ideas and for activating our powerful subconscious.
  2. Allow time for individual mindstorming. Mindstorming, as popularized by Earl Nightingale, is a strategy of individually coming up with 20 possible solutions before deciding or implementing any. While the strategy as stated is great, let’s tweak it just a bit. The two key components are clear problem statement and the individual creation of 20 ideas. Step 1 gives us the clarity. Here we want to give people time (a couple of days, overnight or, at a bare minimum, 20 minutes in a different environment to create a list of ideas. When there is time, give people longer, especially a chance to sleep on it. Always give people a numerical number to come back with — 20 or more.
  3. Share lists. Have people bring their lists back to the larger group to share their ideas. Now, with time to have reflected on the problem, people are prepared for a more productive idea session. Have people share their lists, capturing a master list. Remember that you are still brainstorming so the typical rules apply — no evaluation or judgment. There will be time for that later. As you create a master list, allow new ideas to bubble up as well.
  4. Clarify, extend, combine. Once the list is complete, take the step to clarify the items so everyone knows what each one means. Often at this stage other new ideas will form. If that happens, make sure you add them to the list. And lastly, since people created their lists independently, make sure you combine very similar items and delete duplicates.

Final thoughts

Chances are, if you have a team of five people and each person comes back with 20 ideas (even if there are many duplicates), you will have more ideas than you have ever generated before. And that was the point of this step! Once you have your list of ideas, you can process and analyze them as you already know how to do. But every subsequent step — including final solution or implementation — will be more productive if you use this new approach to brainstorming.