Everybody knows those meetings: Dear team, today we will solve problem X. For this, we will start with a brainstorming. Who’s got an idea?
You all have been in that brainstorming meeting. Me too. And I confess: I have run such meetings. You too?
It does not work.
Better use the 18 methods–2 times 9 methods–in this article.
This article is also available in German: Brainstorming funktioniert nicht – 18 bessere Methoden…
Brainstorming: Group Creativity on Command
You set a group into a room and give order ”now be creative on this problem that I just served you.“
How is that going to work?
Maybe you get spontaneous associations from the group. If you are lucky, you can make up something of these.
What you don’t get from the group brainstorming, is a collection of well thought proposals for solution, weighed against each other. How should? Brainstorming inherently means throwing thoughts into the room.
It is like in Shakespeare’s Othello: ”How poor are they that have not patience? What wound did ever heal but by degrees?“ Instant great ideas on demand? Wishful thinking.
Doing it more slowly, developing and idea on the fly? That won’t work in brainstorming either, since everybody should have a go.
Innovation and Advance?
How many really well working process you know that evolved from a brainstorming?
How does a book come to life? How does a construction of a mechanical part evolve? How is software developed? What forms progress?
By unprepared chattering about?
Most of innovations that surround us, the advance, in principle comes from two alternate methodologies:
- Somebody sits down at the problem, thinks, calculates, puzzles, tries out, creates.
- Somebody sits at a problem and accidentally–by a mistake, a contamination, coincidence–finds the solution for another problem that was not tackled originally. To make this solution work for that problem: Go to alternative 1.
So why do we think we could solve anything by brainstorming?
The question obviously is: What do you want? Do you want a result? Or do you want to emulate interactivity. For the latter, brainstorming is ideally suited.
Brainstorming: Emulate Interactivity
Let’s be honest: brainstorming is popular because it is easy to set up.
You have got a dry topic, planned to do a PowerPoint campaign, but somehow feel compelled to take the audience with you, pull off some sort of interaction.
Something that later allows you to plausibly say: ”I facilitated the whole team on that topic, everybody contributed. Finally we all created the solution.“
You got team work, and this is highly credited. Unfortunately too often without deeply thinking (again this word!) whether team always must be the full team or better be a small sub group of two or three people who craft a proposal.
You want to feel good and so do a brainstorming.
How does that sound?
I was that person. And I still cop myself doing it spontaneously or intending to.
Not emulating interactivity but actually providing interaction is hard!
What looks like brainstorming but is not
But, you may argue, we do in fact sometimes sit together and develop ideas.
Yes. It can work. Get some people in a room that intensely have thought about a problem beforehand, and exchanged their proposals beforehand in writing. If you also manage them to leave their egos at the door, then a joint contemplation can work by seeking ways to improve, pros and cons for all solutions. This is also what Rebecca Greenfield /4/ writes.
But this is not brainstorming in its original definition, because this is not idea creation but exchange of expertise.
What works for finding solutions: Thinking
Over at Jochen Mai’s blog there is a good article about brainstorming /5/, in German. It makes the concept more tangible, unfortunately not more effective. However, Jochen also writes about how to use brainstorming individually.
The suggestions are good, but no longer a brainstorming. It simply means thinking. And thinking is the harder the more people are around you. So the classical setting of a brainstorming is not well suited.
The following list combines Jochen’s ideas with mine and integrates my experiences.
- Walking or running alone. Go out, preferably into the green. Your local will do, besides the river or into the woods is better. Walking as well as running will supply your brain with more oxygen, and this positively affects your thinking.
- Laboriously think. We don’t sit around and spontaneously have good ideas. Occupy yourself with the problem. Intensely. Until it hurts. Then let go.
- Write down and scribble. Maybe you call it sketchnote. Draw your problem. And your thoughts on it.
- Be alone. Go offline, off your computer. Look out of the window. Or closely watch how the milk swirls in your coffee (skip the cappuccino this time). Tea works fine, too.
- Take somebody for a walk. Walking alone works good, but taking a confidant for a walk, somebody that knows the problem and thinks about it. Together, you will get further, because you might need a soundboard for your thoughts. Like Sherlock Holmes needs John Watson to shine and vice versa.
- Have dumb ideas. You cannot have good ideas by command. The good ideas hide in the middle of a lot of dumb ones. You only will find the good ones by allowing yourself to have the dumb ones. Be brave.
- Sleep over. If you coped with a problem in the afternoon or evening, then sleep it over. Your brain links information differently when unconscious. By that you may have the epiphany in the morning.
- Try it out. If you can experiment with little effort, do so. By making the problem tangible, regardless whether mechanically or by creating a rudimentary prototype with your computer: You learn something about the gestalt of the problem.
- Read. Most likely you are not the first one to tackle this sort of problem. How did other solve? Look these others in your department, in your company, in your industry, in other industries with same tasks, globally. Read on their solutions.
How to involve my team?
What if you used brainstorming so far mainly for group activation, for simulating interactivity?
You have a training to give. You think you know everything relevant but do not want to present or just present.
What is suitable to give participants something that opens them up for the problem and creates a result that is better than you could have found yourself?
- Cooperation and co-creation. A task should be tackled individually at first, then discussed in small groups and by that co-create a solution, before showing that in the plenary. Divide et Impera is the motto here. Most important element: ”Everybody thinks alone first.“ /6/
- Activation and self-directed learning. Action orientation is key here /7/. You create exercises that you derive from the skills and capabilities wanted later. A clear goal is important. And also: this is not an easy-to-create substitute for frontal teacher-centered teaching.
- Polls. An easy means of activation for the start are polls by show of hands. Get your participants used to do something in your session. /8/
- Questions. Ask questions. Not just rhetoric question for which you neither expect nor await, but real questions. Questions with which you on the one hand learn something about the participants and their pre-knowledge, but also learn something new about the context of them and the problem. Begin with closed questions to warm up, then evolve to open questions–such cannot be answered with yes and now. /8/
- Small groups. Divide et Impera. Whatever you plan: with a high probability it works better when only a small number of people sits together. Exchange is easier, and introverts and shy have a better time to contribute. /10/
- Exercises. Let them work on exercises. In small groups or individually. Why chew for them, when participants should learn to act themselves? You share the room with people with pre-knowledge. Use that. /8/
- Role play. Often hated because one has to apply oneself, but incredibly educational. And very elaborate in conception, because you need introduction and scenarios that are fast to grasp and well executable, but still show what you want. /8/
- Problem based learning. Similar to exercises. You introduce a concrete problem and let it work on in small groups. The end product is not of interest, learning processes are important. /9/
- Project based learning. Similar to Problem based learning, but here the end product is of utter interest. Quality and functionality is in focus, the learning processes are to happen en passant. /9/
Pedagogy offers many additional methods and concepts. So if you want to teach something, you better think. Not brainstorm. Think.
How does this article affect you? What are your experiences with brainstorming?
Let the other readers and me have part in your thoughts and comment!
- /1/ Review of Gunter Dueck – Schwarmdumm in German
- /2/ Kevin Ashton: Brainstorming Does Not Work – Observer
- /3/ Adrian Furnham: Brainstorming Does Not Work – Psychology Today
- /4/ Rebecca Greenfield: Brainstorming Doesn’t Work; Try This Technique Instead – FastCompany
- /5/ Jochen Mai: Brainstorming: Regeln, Methoden, Tipps – Karrierebibel in German
- /6/ Ludger Brüning, Tobias Saum: Schüleraktivierendes Lehren und Kooperatives Lernen – ein Gesamtkonzept für guten Unterricht – BildungRP in German
- /7/ Herbert Glötzl: Das Prinzip der Aktivierung oder Selbsttätigkeit in German
- /8/ Andreas Fleischmann, Angelika Thielsch: Tipps, um Studierende im Hörsaal zum aktiven Mitdenken zu bewegen – ProLehre TUM in German
- /9/ Andreas Slemeyer: Aktivierung von Studierenden durch Problemorientiertes Lernen in German
- /10/ Aktivierung – Wie Sie Studierende dazu bringen, in Ihrer Lehrveranstaltung mitzudenken – ProLehre TUM in German