The Perfect Brainstorm

Poet Robert Frost once described the brain as something that “starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office.” Okay, so you can jump start it again with a stiff cup of Folgers. The point is, much of what passes for work in the workplace requires—admit it—very little of your cerebral cortex.

The mundane tasks that constitute the average workday are often far from intellectually stimulating—but that’s probably a good thing. A certain amount of routine helps us balance the stressful elements of operating a business. Too much novelty can lead to overload and burnout.

Nevertheless, we all enjoy occasional opportunities that seriously engage our gray matter. Otherwise, going to work can become a daily visit to the Zombie Zone. Facilitating regular brainstorming sessions for employees at every level not only creates an environment for generating ideas, but also establishes an invigorating atmosphere for energizing employee enthusiasm.

The concept of brainstorming was originated by Alex F. Osborn in 1963 to help trigger creative ideas in advertising. Osborn found that giving people a method for airing out their brains often set their imaginations soaring and spawned a tempest of inventiveness. We probably have him to thank for some of the more inventive and entertaining TV commercials and print ads we’ve seen over the past three decades.

Today, the practice of brainstorming is employed more broadly in the business world. It has become an integral part of such basic business concerns as spurring productivity, serving customers better and sparking new products and services. Brainstorming is often the first step a work team takes to solve a problem, create a new concept or revamp worn out ways of doing things. A brainstorm is a hurricane of brain waves that can reshape the coastlines of our conceptions.

While there are no set-in-stone rules for brainstorming, there are certain conventions to observe in order to maximize the effectiveness of a brainstorming session. Here are some guidelines for triggering the perfect brainstorm:

1. Define your challenge. What is your group trying to accomplish? Write out your challenge concisely and make sure that everyone understands the mission statement and agrees with the way it is worded. Don’t worry about minutely defining your challenge at this time; you just need a target to shoot at.

2. Collect lots of ideas. “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas,” said Linus Pauling. Get as many ideas as possible from all participants in the brainstorming session. At this stage in the process, the purpose is to gather, not evaluate. There should be no criticisms or judgments made while ideas are being generated, no matter how silly or far out they may seem. The whole point is to be creative, so encourage people to go over the edge. Ideas that at first seem silly may prove to be very good or may lead to other ideas that are very good.

3. No comment. Absolutely no discussion takes place during the brainstorming activity. Stopping to consider the ramifications of an idea will squelch the creative flow that gives a brainstorming session its energy. The goal is to flood the room with a frenzy of thoughts, not strive for order and coherence. Laughing should be encouraged—not serious contemplation. Talk about the ideas after the brainstorming is complete. If someone has a detail he thinks just has to be addressed, tell him to write it down for consideration later.

4. Piggyback ideas. Part of the power of brainstorming comes from the way one person’s thoughts trigger a notion from another person. Combining and reconstituting ideas on the fly can lead in exciting directions.

5. Write everything down. Use a whiteboard or flipchart to write the group’s ideas so that everyone can easily see them.

6. Set a time limit (i.e., 30 minutes) for the brainstorming session. Experience with brainstorming and the particular focus of the session will determine how much time is required. Larger groups may need more time to get everyone’s ideas out.

7. Create criteria. Once your time is up, select the five ideas that the group likes best. Make sure everyone involved in the brainstorming session is in agreement. Write down about five criteria for judging which ideas best accomplish your mission. For example, your list of criteria may include statements such as: “It should be cost effective”; “It should be legal”; “It should be possible to finish before July 15”; and so forth.

8. Score ideas. Give each idea a score of 0 to 5 points, depending on how well it meets each criterion. Once all of the ideas have been scored for each criterion, add up the scores. The idea with the highest score will most likely resolve your challenge. However, be sure to keep a record of all of the group’s best ideas and their scores in case the best idea turns out to be unworkable.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge,” Albert Einstein said. Every successful organization owes its birth and life to an exciting and daring idea that began in someone’s imagination. Brainstorming blows open the doors to vision, inventiveness and adventure.