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Effective Brainstorming Methods

written by: Rupen Sharma, PMP • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 4/3/2013

In the life of a project manager, creative thinking is required every day to solve problems. As a matter of fact, many project manager job descriptions specify creative thinking as a must-have ability. Through effective brainstorming, you can generate out-of-the-box solutions.

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    A Recommended Tool

    In the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK) version 4, Brainstorming is specified as a recommended Tool and Technique in some knowledge areas, such as Scope Management and Risk Management. Brainstorming is also commonly asked about in the PMP certification exam.

    Generally, Project Managers use brainstorming to solve problems. Hymes and Olson define the problem solving stages as:

    • Problem Identification
    • Idea Generation
    • Idea Selection (decision making)
    • Implementation

    Idea Generation and Idea Selection are part of a brainstorming session, while Problem Identification occurs before the session and Implementation occurs after the session.

    Since brainstorming requires multiple people, the Project Manager functions as a facilitator of the session. As a facilitator, you are the most influential figure in the brainstorming session. Therefore, it is critical for you to follow some research-based brainstorming best practices.

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    Planning the Session

    Before getting into a room and brainstorming, there are some tasks that you need to complete. These tasks are:Brainstorming 

    1. Define the problem and the objective of the session. Try and use SMART objectives.
    2. Identify participants. Usually the majority of the participants will come from the pool of people most impacted by the problem. You may also include outsiders and experts so that there is diversity.
    3. Create groups out of the participants. Limit the brainstorming group size to three members (Heller & Hollabaugh, 1992). Each group should consist of people from diverse and relevant backgrounds. For example, do not put all graphic designers in one group. Mix it up. For example, a group can consist of a graphic designer, a coder, and a tester.
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    Conducting the Session

    Many researchers have delved into the topic of optimizing brainstorming sessions. Some research-based guidelines to follow during brainstorming are:

    1. Ensure there are enough whiteboards in the room. You will document the ideas on whiteboards and categorize them.
    2. Combine the ideas wherever possible.
    3. Divide complex problems into simpler, smaller problems. Then, examine each smaller problem independently.
    4. Disperse the group so that each member can brainstorm independently. Group brainstorming followed by independent brainstorming yields better results (Spreng, 2007).
    5. After ranking the ideas, agree on the solution.
    6. Assign an owner to ensure the solution is performed.

    Golden Rule: In a brainstorming session, there is no such thing as a bad idea.

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    After the Brainstorming Session

    There are several activities that need to be completed after the brainstorming session, such as.

    1. Give a reward or recognize the participants. This will ensure that the next time you hold a brainstorming activity, people will attend it with zeal.
    2. Follow-up and monitor the solution to closure.

    Effective brainstorming leads to enhanced creativity and quality idea generation. It is also great fun for the team! Go ahead and implement these tips in your role as a Project Manager or a ScrumMaster.

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    References

    1. Heller, P., & Hollabaugh, M.,(1992). Teaching Problem Solving through Cooperative Grouping. Part 2: Designing Problems and Structuring Groups. American Journal of Physics, 60, 637-644.
    2. Hymes, C.M. & Olson, G. (1992). Unblocking Brainstorming Through the Use of a Simple Group Editor. CSCW Proceedings, November, 99-106.
    3. Karen Philp Spreng (2007). Enhancing Creativity in Brainstorming for Successful Problem Solving.