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The Art and Science of Brainstorming: A Three-Step Process

written by: Ed Gurowitz • edited by: Marlene Gundlach • updated: 3/11/2013

Brainstorming is more than throwing a bunch of ideas at the wall and waiting to see what sticks. Actually, it's a three-part process and in order for it to be valuable in project planning, you need to do all three parts and do them well. This article describes the three parts and how to use them.

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    Benefits of a Team

    A large part of the value of having a team working on a project is that, in general, a group of people will be more creative and come up with more innovative ideas than an individual will. There is a synergy to the "wisdom of crowds" that can be a valuable asset in project planning.

    Brainstorming has been a popular method for groups and teams since the 1930s, but has a generally poor reputation for value. Studies have failed to find evidence for its effectiveness because, I have found, it is generally not well done. For brainstorming to be effective and valuable it needs to be done in a three-step process.

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    Everyone in the session has to be there for the same purpose. Note that the word used is purpose as distinct from method (advocating a certain way to do things) or outcome (trying to achieve a specific, predetermined result): The question we need to be on the same page about is what meaningful or valuable vision is to be served. In order to gain that alignment, people need to say and hear what is important about what we are about to do for each person, what worries or concerns they have about it, and what circumstances need to be accounted for – the themes among these will give you the aligned intent of the session.

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    Free Creation

    This part is what people usually mean when they say “brainstorming." You want to generate and record a surplus of ideas that could achieve the purpose, done with no regard to resources, feasibility, etc. It’s meant to be an explosion of creativity with no censorship or criticism. All ideas are valid and put on the list with genuine appreciation for the contribution. Sorting of ideas will come later. The longer the list the better, but put a time-limit on the process or it will go on too long and become less effective.

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    This phase is crucial. It is the difference between meaningless creativity for creativity's sake and real business results.

    First, determine what will be involved in executing on a high-value scenario for achieving the purpose; then compare the various ideas generated in the creation session. Compare the ideas for:

    • Efficiency (use of resources vs. potential return – i.e., bang for the buck)
    • Feasibility - timeframe, costs, fit with a larger organizational picture, etc.
    • Value created

    Don’t stop after comparing a few; compare all of them. Then, when you have your choices narrowed down to one or a few, have a conversation to improve the conversation – what have we missed, how does one idea inform and improve others, etc.

    Finally, commit to one plan and consider execution factors such as accountabilities, decision-making protocols, organizational needs, etc.

    For some tips on other project management techniques, including brainstorming, read Kelli's article The Top 7 Project Management Techniques.