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Based on a real story about brainstorming

I ran a session on creative techniques recently, and I facilitated a brainstorm on how to be the best time manager in the organisation. Some of the ideas were really wacky, and one person committed to a radical behavioural change in their daily time management practice as a result of the session.

When I facilitated the brainstorming process we had used, most people said it had worked really well, something they don’t experience during ‘normal’ working life.

I think brainstorming is a technique that can provide unusual solutions to a dilemma or problem, and yet it is often used badly. The key things for me are the process; the environment, and the facilitator.

The Process

I’ve been to meetings when the Chair person has suddenly declared ‘Let’s brainstorm!’ and grabbed a flipchart pen, eager to start scribing, only to be greeted with blank expressions!

Brainstorming is a process, so we need certain conditions to get the best from our people:

  • We need to change our physical state to enable our mental and emotional state to engage creatively. Often during meetings we are encouraged to activate our left brain hemisphere – we discuss concrete things, such as %, trends and case studies. Discussion engages our verbal brain, and conversation can be logical and analytical. We need to change our physical state, to shift our thinking state, and part of this involves movement. I invite people to go for a short walk; go outside and stimulate their senses; take part in a game, such as catching a ball; or simply engage ‘all brain’ thinking by touching their right elbow to left knee, and vice versa.
  • State the problem you are working on, clearly and concisely.
  • State that we are working quickly – speed is important, as we want to engage our gut & heart brains – and stop the head brain from analysing.
  • Ideas should be received in a neutral zone – sometimes, the most senior person can unknowingly give signals that close a brainstorm down by saying ‘Great idea!’. It is important to neither praise nor monitor-evaluate any idea.
  • If you have some strong minded individuals, sometimes I encourage attendees to work individually, and to write or draw ideas to share with the group. This helps ward off ‘groupthink’ – where the group desires to achieve consensus and avoid conflict.
  • Use coloured, large, sticky notes.T he use of colour and having something tactile to touch encourages right brain hemisphere thinking.
  • Having completed the brainstorming period, I like to have another change of state – another walk, a change of scenery, an icebreaker or energiser – before facilitating the discussion on ideas raised. It’s amazing how another chance to stop thinking about a problem can stir up new ideas.

The facilitator

A skilled facilitator is key to the success of the process. We need to involve people without them feeling threatened, exposed, or silly.

I like to write up the ground rules so all can see them, that was I can step in and refer to them. This might be ‘Be neutral to all ideas.’. if someone laughs at an idea, I can invite them to work on keeping neutral. Once I’ve done this a few times, people start to speak without fear of ridicule. Plus they police themselves as a group.

As facilitator, you will need to be aware of groupthink, and the group stopping prematurely – for instance, if are spending too long on one solution. Once you realise the idea is now being agreed on (!),step in, and suggest we continue with ideas. This is where working individually can work well – we write our ideas down, and only speak when we are at the brainstorming board, flipchart or table. It can prevent groupthink setting in.

Just before you wrap up the brainstorming session when ideas die down, encourage the group to carry on. I’ve been part of meetings where the brainstorm has been stopped before it has really had the chance to get going. We are looking for the best option for a problem, so keep encouraging people.

A good facilitator will know how to manage communication styles. Some people’s primary communication style may mean their preference is to work quietly and analytically, so they made need more time to shift to a different way of thinking. Louder and faster communication styles can have high energy to begin with, then desire to move quickly onto the next stage. The best brainstorming sessions benefit from everyone’s thinking.

You could encourage the group to stand in a circle if they have been seated for too long, and encourage one more pull on ideas. ‘I’m your Fairy Godmother’ {draw out a wand to heighten the effect}, ‘…I can grant you anything to solve the problem of… {  } What will you ask for?’.  It’s amazing how rephrasing, changing where people sit, using sticky notes, movement, an energiser can up energy levels and creativity …these can all spark a different thought.

I was part of a brainstorm once when we moved into someone else’s office for the session – there weren’t enough chairs, so some of us sat on the floor. Every two minutes, we moved to a seat/location we hadn’t sat in before, and I remember the physical change was a surprise to my body. I’d never been in a meeting like that before, and we came out with a huge number of potential solutions to a project problem that had occurred.

The Environment

For people familiar with the Disney Technique, the dreams room is something that really helps us be at our creative best. Based on the working style of Walt Disney, there are three {metaphorical} rooms in the creative process – the Dreams room, with lots of space, colour, and stimuli; the Realist room for storyboarding (where project plans come to life); and the Spoiler or Critic room, where we look at the detail.

For creativity to occur, we need to change our environment. A big boardroom table with chairs all around it is not a great environment to switch from left brain to right brain – it is the Realist room. One client of mine has a Dreams room, a comfy and airy space to move to when you want to encourage a change of thinking. Bean bags, pods, relaxer chairs, a fake fireplace, fish swimming in a tank, and walls coloured with yellow, orange, red and violet make up a contrasting space to the rest of the working area.  You might not have the luxury of having a room for creativity, so think about changing the space people work in. I’ve asked people to brainstorm standing up, in a semi circle – and had balloons, cushions, invited people to sit or lay on the floor. It is all different from the norm. Be creative to encourage people to think creatively.

Back to the real story about brainstorming. I was recently told a lovely story about brainstorming. My client used to work in Canada, and a problem they experienced in the harsh winter months was ice forming on the electric cables, meaning the cables would fall under the weight, and areas would be without power. During a brainstorming meeting, someone suggested ‘Let’s train the bears to shake the pylons – that way, the ice will fall off the wires.”. During the story boarding session, the bears idea was the start of the solution. No, they didn’t use bears – remember, they hibernate during the winter! But they adapted the idea to flying helicopters over the pylons, and the movement shook the ice from the wires!

The wonders of brainstorming!

I hope this sparks some debate. I look forward to your comments.

Kay Buckby is a creative, and uses techniques in the classroom to enable learners to explore creative thinking.

Talk to me about designing and delivering a session to your people to help them work more creatively. Our courses help leaders, managers – and everyone – apply whole brain techniques to their work.

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  1. Kay Buckby-Green says:

    Thank you Lindsey, I’ve been meaning to write this blog for a long time, and the bears story was my ‘shove’ to write it. I think sometimes that ‘Ah ha’ moment really does light the imagination, and get the energy flowing.

  2. Great Structure to a completely creative process…thank you for describing Kay…real ‘brain food’ 😁

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