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How to do Traditional Brainstorming

First we will explain how to be a participant in a brainstorming session and then we will give you pointers on how to organize one yourself.

Many people find it easier to be a participant first, before they run a session, but if you and your colleagues approach learning with a flexible attitude then you should have no problems in running one straight off (but perhaps you should practise on a non-vital topic first to gain experience).

Brainstorming is "a conference technique by which a group attempts to find a solution for a specific problem by amassing all the ideas spontaneously by its members" - Alex Osborn.

How to brainstorm in a medium-sized group

Gather a group of between four and fifteen people together in one room. Have a central person to coordinate the proceedings, introduce the purpose of the brainstorming session and to outline the rules. This person should also ensure the rules are followed and should actively encourage the participants. This person is the facilitator (facilitate = to make easier).

Ideally you will then have a brief warm-up on a totally unrelated and fun topic. This will get your creative juices going and help establish a less restrictive mood. You should only start the main topic when the right mood is established.

With the purpose and topic established, everyone in the group shouts out their ideas and they are all written down so that they can be analyzed later. The most common method of recording the ideas is on flipcharts (large pads of paper) but it's fine to use a blackboard, overhead projector transparencies, a computer or individual pads of paper. A secretary or dedicated writer can be useful and for larger groups you may need two or three to ensure all ideas are captured.

You should all follow the standard brainstorming rules:

  • Postpone and withhold your judgment of ideas
  • Encourage wild and exaggerated ideas
  • Quantity counts at this stage, not quality
  • Build on the ideas put forward by others
  • Every person and every idea has equal worth

(These rules are explained in more detail later in this training course.)

It is essential that you encourage wild ideas from other people and do not criticize them. Not only does it reduce inhibitions in others but it also reduces your inhibitions because you can only put forward your own alternative ideas in a receptive environment.

You should record your ideas, however "irrelevant" or "silly" they seem to be. Your initial idea may not work but it may spark off a valid idea in someone else.

Your role as a participant is twofold:

  1. To suggest ideas which will work as solutions
  2. To suggest ideas which will stimulate solutions in others
Since you cannot presume what will stimulate solutions in others, it is your duty to provide them with as many original stimuli as possible, whatever they may be.

You will find that the brainstorming session will go through phases of very rapid idea generation, and then through slow awkward times when no ideas are being created. This slow time is when you should return to the ideas which have already been generated and build on them. Or you can make use of the Advanced Brainstorming techniques (explained later).

Your brainstorming session can last anywhere from 5 minutes to 2 hours depending on the experience of the participants and the nature of the problem to be solved. However the time should be split up into approximately 5- to 15-minute sections in order to keep people fresh. There should be short breaks for refreshments, relaxation, encouragement, congratulations and gratitude. People often use the breaks to do their own thinking and reflection. The breaks should not be strictly enforced and should be determined by the flow of the group. The freedom to stop and start is important as it relaxes any pressures on the group to perform.

You should now know the basics of what happens in a brainstorming session. It is a group of people who free themselves from social inhibitions to generate as many ideas as possible so that original solutions are free to surface. Your role is to say whatever ideas you think of, whether they seem to be relevant or not. You won't be criticized because that's what you are supposed to be doing.

The next stages of this training course will take you through an expansion of the rules of brainstorming, a set of principles of why the rules work, and a section on how to run a successful brainstorming session.
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