Effective Brainstorming Techniques

In a previous post, we examined the need to foster effective brainstorming in the project team. (For reference, please consult the post: Effective Brainstorming with the Project Team)

Brainstorming is a very effective means by which to glean a wide range of ideas from members of the team. When done effectively, it allows the team to ‘frame’ all the particular areas of interest and to give focus on key ideas or target concepts that manifested during the brainstorming procedure.

When it comes to actually running a brainstorming sessions, there are various techniques that the project manager can utilize to ensure that the ideas being presented are adequately catalogued, described, detailed and organized. Some of these techniques are itemized as follows:

Create an Objective for the Session

Brainstorming is meant to create the free flow of ideas. However, some context must be dictated up front. Otherwise, the team members may wind up scatter-shotting every idea and possible permutation that exists, which may take the meeting too far off on a tangent. As such, it is advantageous to give some context to the meeting as well as a clear objective. Putting the context in the form of a question, such as a ‘How can we…?’ or ‘What can be done…?’ may assist. So for example, a simple question up front along the lines of ‘How can we leverage new technologies for our existing solution?’.

Organize Topics by Type

As ideas are flowing from the team, they will invariably target certain key areas pertaining to the project as a whole. (Architecture, design, technology, workflow, etc) As the ideas are beginning to flow, the project manager should begin to start coalescing like ideas into clusters. These clusters will then become the primary ‘Topic Areas’. Organizing ideas in this fashion will also make overlap more obvious and allow for more direct comparison between similar ideas.

Use Process of Elimination to Condense Topic Ideas

Once several ideas have been proposed and organized into topics, it is important to begin some level of triage. Certain ideas, while they may have merit, may not be possible or within current scope. As such, they can be removed from the existing topic board or offlined for further discussion later. Note that this should be a collaborative exercise and the team should agree on which areas merit focus while which others may be something that is either not applicable or not viable.

Use Charts and Shapes

For more complex ideas, especially those that include dependencies or some advanced workflow, ensure that a good portion of this is displayed graphically. Attempting to explain complex topics in words will often lead to confusion and also fill the whiteboard with copious amounts of text, leaving less room for other ideas. A simple flowchart is often a powerful tool in brainstorming and can organize key items more effectively than a long worded explanation.

Try ‘Cubing’

The idea of cubing ideas basically boils down to scrutinizing in detail a particular topic point. The ‘cubing’ notion comes from the six sided nature of cubes and essentially indicates that you will be tackling the topic from six different sides. So from the standpoint of each idea, the following six approaches would be as follows:

  1. Describe It (be detailed)
  2. Compare It (How does it stack up against other ideas?)
  3. Associate It (Is there any overlap with other ideas?)
  4. Analyze It (What potential gotchas or issues might need to be addressed?)
  5. Apply It (How would it work in the context of the project?)
  6. Argue For or Against It (Exchange the virtues or pitfalls of the idea)

Snapshot the Whiteboard

As the brainstorming session moves forward, it will likely be necessary to erase sections of the whiteboard. Ensure that before you do so, you have someone use a camera on a cell phone to snapshot the current contents of the whiteboard. Do this at several points during the brainstorming session to ensure that no discussion points are lost. (Note that some fancy whiteboards are electronic and have this feature built-in, as do online systems such as WebEx or LiveMeeting if you are performing this session remotely)

Have Fun!

It may seem odd to state, but one of the key success factors for any brainstorming session is to maintain a certain atmosphere of levity. Allow jokes, allow for inane banter so long as neither end up derailing the session. The important note is that people in a more relaxed and jovial environment are likely to be more enthusiastic about the session in general and as such will likely be more forthcoming with ideas as well as be willing to participate.