Brainstorming is a matter of throwing out ideas and hoping they stick. You don’t have to evaluate the ideas before presenting them, but rather allow them to flow like a stream of consciousness until you come up with something that works as a single solution. But sometimes we can only generate a few ideas, even after a long period of time. Other times, we are full of possible solutions, but it turns out none of them are actually effective. This is why it’s vital to understand how brainstorming works so we can do it successfully.
Individual Brainstorming vs. Group Brainstorming: The Winner Is…
Most people assume brainstorming in a group is the best way to come up with numerous ideas. Some companies even require group brainstorming sessions among their employees. The more opinions you have, the more likely you are to find the right solution. Right? Not necessarily. Studies1 have found that individual brainstorming is more effective than group brainstorming:
The empirical evidence clearly indicates that subjects brainstorming in small groups produce fewer ideas than the same number of subjects brainstorming individually…The role of social inhibition receives particular attention also in terms of suggestions for research.
This means the lack of success when it comes to group collaboration is largely due to the fear of sounding silly voicing ideas in a group; We censor our thoughts and only share the ones we think worth mentioning. In many cases, there tends to be a dominant voice in a group brainstorm who limits the potential by setting criteria. This can immediately hinder the group’s creativity, as it causes everyone to overthink and doubt themselves.
Diffuse Mode vs. Focused Mode: Pick the Right Tool at the Right Time
Though brainstorming is all about abstract ideas, there are ways to organize those thoughts as they come to you. One of these strategies is to use Focused or Diffuse thinking, depending on the scenario. Focused thinking is exactly what it sound like – focusing. This is easier to do in a solo brainstorming session, as there are automatically less distractions. Diffused thinking is all about distractions, making it more ideal for a group collaboration.
Consider a flashlight. You can have a concentrated beam of light that only illuminates a small area very brightly or you can have a less concentrated beam that illuminates a much broader area with a dimmer light2.
Focused thought allows your brain to analyze specific information and only work with what you allow yourself to use. Diffuse thinking multitasks with the presented information and doesn’t worry about getting too deep with any of the possible solutions. In keeping with the flashlight analogy, remember: Both flashlights will take you out of the darkness, but which one you use is solely dependent on whether you want a broad view of your path, or a narrow route.
5 Ways to Make Brainstorming More Effective
Whether working alone or in a group, there are steps to take in order to achieve success in brainstorming:
Have a clear objective before you start brainstorming
Many people have the misconception that no boundaries should be set for brainstorming, but that’s false; even if you are happy to generate tons of ideas, they may end up being useless if they’re not helpful in fixing the problem.
Let’s say you are working on an annual fundraiser that seems to have declined in community participation recently. The objective would be to find out why the numbers are declining, not how to generate excitement about the event once more. Though both elements are important, you can’t come up with ideas about revamping the fundraising event until you determine the cause of disinterest.
Give yourself a time limit
The shorter the better. Sit down with a pen and paper or a tape recorder if you prefer to say your ideas aloud. Keep an eye on the clock or the timer and begin to list off ideas. Allow them to flow out and don’t worry about analyzing them yet. Keep listing ideas that come to you until your time is up.
Be specific with the number of ideas you want to generate
Before you begin brainstorming, decide on a realistic number of ideas you want to come up with. This doesn’t mean all of the ideas have to be useful in the end, only that they exist3.
Don’t duplicate your thoughts
If you’re coming up with many similar points, you’re only deceiving yourself when it comes to your success. Using the fundraising example from point one, let’s say you come up with the following: People are no longer coming because they don’t like the event. The event is boring, so people don’t have any interest in coming. These are only two versions of the same thought. Always keep in mind that quality and quantity are equally important in brainstorming.
Imagine that you are someone else
How would they think? Does this mindset present solutions you wouldn’t have otherwise come up with? For instance, if your best friend is very creative and approaches things in ways you would typically shy away from, put yourself in their head space. What kind of right-brained ideas would they come up with as an explanation for a decline in fundraiser attendance? Once you’ve created a list, you can revisit it in your own mindset and narrow the focus.
Whether brainstorming on your own or in a group, if you take the steps outlined in this article, you set yourself up for success, not frustration. Some of you reading this may think, “but I don’t really have to brainstorm at work. I feel like we all collaborate pretty well.” If that’s true, that’s awesome! But consider being aware of your daily life and the problems you are sometimes faced with. Do you ever run through a list of possible solutions? If so, you’re brainstorming without thinking about it. Don’t be afraid to incorporate the tips you learned by reading this. Just because it’s your life and not your company doesn’t make problem-solving any less important.