Brainstorming is the most widely known and used method of group thinking. Thinking with others has a number of advantages over thinking alone. It increases the number of ideas we can have; it increases the quality of ideas; it allows us to scrutinise ideas more carefully; and it ensures that ideas that get supported have a better chance of successful implementation.
The name “brainstorming” was originally used in the 1950’s by Alex Osborn, the founder of an advertising firm. The aim of brainstorming is to produce the largest quantity of ideas concerning a problem in the shortest possible time. Osborn proposed 5 rules in brainstorming:
1.No evalution of ideas
2.Wild ideas to be encourged
3.Quantity of ideas is important
4.Participants should build on each others ideas
5.Apart from the above four, there are no other rules
It is possible that one idea might paradoxically have the basis of a solution: in this case, the office could agree to collect others’ bills and turn itself into an archive-centre.
Seeding is a brainstorming technique that takes a word that has nothing to do with the problem and seeing what connections you can make between it and the problem. For example, if we were looking at ideas to improve the way we organise office systems, we could at random propose the word “breakfast”. This could then seed the following ideas:
- keep all the paperwork files in empty cornflakes packets
- sort the papers out over breakfast
- stick the papers together with marmalade
- hold a breakfast meeting to discuss ideas
- devise a filing cabinet in the shape of a breakfast bar
- have a daily breakfast-time clear-out of files
- have a deadline on all incoming paperwork by breakfast time each day. and so on.
Wording is a brainstorming technique that takes each word or group of words that spell out what the problem exactly is and seeing what ideas each word sparks. For example, in the case of ideas to improve the way we organise our office paperwork systems, the following might be suggested:
“How…”: are there different methods we could try out? How do others do it? How are we in this mess? “can…”: are we capable? do we need expert help? what skills don’t we have that we need?
“we…”: is there someone else we can pass the problem to? do we need to change? “organise…”: why do we need to organise the papers?
“the paperwork…”: why papers? can’t we computerise?
“in the office…”: why do they have to stay in the office? why do they have to come to this office?
An Example of Brainstroming: The Honey Pot
Pacific, Power and Light (PP and L) is the electric utility responsible for providing power to the NorthWest Cascade Mountain area of the United States. This area faces severe weather in spring and autumn each year resulting in heavy ice deposits on power transmission lines. Lines frequently come down under the weight of the ice.
The company’s method of removing the iced lines is to send linesmen through the snow and up the icy pylons and to physically shake the ice off the lines. It is a long, arduous, costly and unpleasant way of dealing with the problem.
A brainstorming session is held to look at what can be done.
The PP and L group spend a whole morning looking at the problem but get nowhere. Frustrated and running out of ideas, the group decide to take a coffee break.
During coffee, Bill, a linesman, has everyone in fits of laughter.
“Last week I was chased by a bear. It even climbed a pylon after me.” As the laughter dies down, someone suggests,
“Why don’t we get the bears to climb for us?” “How?”
“We could put honey pots on top of the pylons.” “No, the raccoons would get there first.”
“Anyway we’d need helicopters to put the pots in place and they’d frighten the bears,” says one of the secretaries. “I remember the vibrations from helicopters in the Vietnam war when I was a nurse.”
There was silence as everyone realises they’ve struck gold.
Today it is standard practice in PP and L to use helicopters to remove ice from frozen cable lines.
Brainstorming isn’t always the best way to produce lots of ideas nor lots of good ideas. That’s because group dynamics often affect how people contribute. A group with low trust is never going to do well using the standard approach to brainstorming. The way round this is to use the related technique of Brainwriting. In Brainwriting, the group don’t work as a group, they work individually by writing their ideas down on a sheet of paper and then take turns in passing these round to others to add to the list. This way, people can share ideas anonymously and quickly and still come up with a large quantity of solutions to choose from.
Brainstorming, and brainwriting, are recognised as two of the best ways to use groups to improve thinking and creativity. That’s because everyone has the potential to be creative and imaginative rather than just the so-called “clever”. Not only do you get more ideas and more options, you also get involvement and commitment to the final decisions.
- You are likely to get more ideas from working with a group than from working on your own.
- The drawback to working with a group is that others may have different agendas from you.
- For groupwork to succeed, there must first be agreement on how the group is to work and make decisions.
- Brainstorming sessions should be held in a relaxed and non-judgmental climate.
- Be willing to try out crazy ideas in a brainstorming session.
- Brainwriting is an improvement on brainstorming when a group is not cohesive