Brainstorm without snapping branches

Ah, the rumble of an impending brainstorm. In some organizations, it is a prized tool that puts a sparkle in the eye and wind in the sails. In others, it’s a feared term and a necessary evil.

And what exactly is a brainstorm anyway? Many disciplines, whether design, business, technology, or otherwise, have their own brainstorming voodoo, though it can seem like this vision is transported via secret handshakes and smoke signals. Everyone knows something is going on, but no one really articulates what. After all, it’s really just the time when we get together and come up with stuff (hopefully of the clever variety), right?

I’ve found myself brainstorming to many tunes over the years, from industrial design rock-fests to a modern interaction design synthpop, a visual design rumba to a change management cha-cha. And this often little-understood microcosm of society has an uncanny way of pushing buttons and exposing long-held beliefs right when they’re on the way to the chopping block. It’s the place where the skeletons come out, and can remain fraught with quicksand no matter how long you’ve been doing it.

So why bother? Sure, they can be challenging. But they are also where the magic happens. Where the mish-mash of life experiences come together to create something from nothing. And the principles that make this magic happen don’t change.

This is what I’ve learned along the way…

Be present — Put it away.

A single person checking their email or starring out the window can have a ripple effect on the whole room. This is your time! The time for the great idea. Be there for it.

Be the dynamic — Say it, show it, repeat.

Make explicit the desired group dynamic alongside the goals for the session outcome. Discuss the goals with the room, get agreement, and then keep those goals in sight. While focusing on a new idea, people can easily forget themselves and relax into old (sometimes less constructive) habits; it’s only human. So stick up those dynamic and outcome goals (to your forehead if you have to) as an ever-present target.

Be a good citizen — Build a community with your bricks.

A highly-functioning brainstorm participant is both an individual contributor and advocate for the group at the same time. Each of their ideas serves a dual purpose – to contribute to the output of the session, as well as to act as a springboard for someone else’s next idea. Do both with intention.

Be positive — See the good, and say so (and don’t throw those bricks.)

See the good in your own ideas, and articulate the positive in the ideas of others. This is how the momentum gets started, and how to keep it going. Make “Yes, and also…” your favorite phrase.

Be safe — Keep the wolf at bay.

Ask clarifying questions if you need to, but keep those ideas away from judgment or analysis; Try setting aside a separate time for processing later. One wacky idea is all it takes to ignite the twinkle of the idea in someone’s eye. Analysis and judgment are the big-idea-stealers in disguise, and guarantee discord will break the momentum before you ever get to the REALLY BIG idea.

Be flexible — Keep the energy up.

Once you have the momentum going, be flexible and go with the flow. And don’t forget to pause for the occasional office Nerf gun battle if you’re stuck. (You do have an office Nerf gun, don’t you?) Sometimes there’s nothing better to shake loose those brain cells or energize the room than a little silliness and a good laugh.

So what’s the result of all this? You’re ready to…

Be highly generative — Have more and better ideas, and have them fast!

Brainstorming is as much about intuition and free-association as it is about brainpower or knowledge. Speed and quantity help break through the ‘low-hanging fruit’ ideas, and get the brain-juice flowing. The result? You push through to new combinations and insights that will surprise and enlighten you, pointing the way. You’ll get to better places than you ever thought you’d go, and I bet you’ll win the day.

So what brainstorming voodoo have you picked up along the way? What works for you? What doesn’t?

Dana Smith

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