Brainstorming Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything


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Brainstorming is the simplest technique for creatively generating new ideas within a team.

Most frequent uses are:

  • Generating ideas on possible causes of problems.
  • Generating ideas on possible solutions to adopt.

The important thing to remember about the method of brainstorming described is that it actually works, hence you should encourage the team to use the technique as described.

Establish Rules

If team members stick to the rules and try this method, they will experience success. If the team wish to discuss why brainstorming works, try to arrange this discussion after it has been used so that people know it does work1.

When running a brainstorming session first post the rules on the wall and run though them, getting agreement that they will be observed during the session. This should be done to reinforce use of the rules, even if the team is familiar with them.

Next a recorder should be appointed to write all the ideas on a flip chart. The recorder can be the team leader. As each flip chart sheet is filled, it should be stuck on the wall to ensure that all ideas remain visible. It will help if the ideas are numbered as they are written.

Brainstorming is most effective when conducted in a relaxed atmosphere in which wild ideas can be encouraged and humour is OK.

If some members of the team are much quieter than others, then it can be an advantage to go around the group in turn asking for one idea from each person. People then say "pass" if they have no more ideas, and the process continues until everyone has passed. Note that people who pass in one round may contribute in the next.

Once all the ideas have been listed, the team must then decide on one or more ideas to follow up. Here the voting process may be used to identify the small group of ideas that the team wants to examine further.

Establish Criteria

If the purpose of the earlier brainstorming session was to determine the root cause of a problem, then the selection criteria is obvious, i.e. which items on the list are most likely to be the root cause?

If, however, the team is choosing a problem on which to work, or a solution to implement, the criteria for selection should be discussed and agreed in advance of the voting process. The criteria are then displayed for everyone to see during the voting.

Typically, criteria will address resource constraints, timing and output requirements.

An example of typical constraints follows:

  • Cost less than £2000.
  • Achievable in three months.
  • Reduce defects levels by 60%.
  • Acceptable to staff.

Normally the criteria will be between two and six items.

The Voting Process

The voting process is used after the brainstorming session to help the team decide on one or more ideas to pursue further.

During the brainstorming sessions, criticism was not allowed, and wild ideas were encouraged with the purpose of discovering new and novel solutions. As a result, the brainstorming list will contain many ideas which do not justify further discussion and should be eliminated without criticising them. This can be done by voting for the ideas that are liked the best, rather than trying to eliminate or cross out the ideas that are disliked.

Because the team is aiming for consensus in choosing items from the list, it should never use a simple majority vote as the reason for choosing a particular item when other team members disagree. Rather, the voting process should be used by the team to identify the few ideas which the team wishes to discuss, with the purpose of achieving a true consensus on which ideas to adopt.

Thus wthere should be a number of rounds of voting, with group discussion between each round. In this way, the list of ideas the team is considering is successively reduced until agreement is finally reached on the one or more ideas which will be followed up.

The number of rounds of voting, and the number of votes each team member has, may be varied, with a longer list of brainstormed ideas possibly benefiting from more rounds of voting.

However, for most purposes the recommended is to use three rounds of voting, with each team member having three votes in the first round, two votes in the second round and one vote in the final round.

  • Round 1
    • 1.1 The team leader asks each member to vote for three items on the brainstormed list and marks up the list accordingly.

    • 1.2 The team reviews the items which have received votes, and agrees that only those items with the most votes go though to the second round.

    • 1.3 Any team member may champion an idea, even if it only has one vote. (S)he will explain why he believes the idea to be important and have it brought though to the next round to be voted on again.

  • Round 2
    • 2.1 The team leader confirms the short list of ideas now being considered, and asks each team member to cast two votes.

    • 2.2 Round 2 is now continued in an identical manner to round 1, with the team finally agreeing a reduced list to consider.

  • Round 3
    • 3.1 The team leader now asks each member of the team to cast just one vote, and then leads a team discussion to agree on the one idea (or few ideas) the team wishes to adopt.

Note: As a result of discussion between rounds, two or more ideas may be combined or modified before being voted on in the next round.

1Often after seeing it used this question does not require an answer.

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