Although brainstorming can be approached in many different ways, the simple process we describe has proved effective in a variety of settings. First, all the significant stakeholders gather in one room, and supplies are distributed. The supplies given to each participant can be as simple as a stack of large sticky notes and a thick black marker for writing on the notes. The sheets should be at least 3" x 5" (7 cm x 12 cm) and no larger than 5" x 7" (12 cm x 17 cm). Each participant should have at least 25 sheets for each brainstorming session. Post-its work well. You may also need index cards, pushpins, and a soft wall, such as a large corkboard.
Then the facilitator explains the rules for brainstorming (see Figure 12-1) and states clearly and concisely the objective of the session.
Figure 12-1. Rules for brainstorming
The facilitator also explains the objective of the process. Although it may seem as though the objective is obvious, often it is not. In addition, the way the objective is stated will affect the outcome of the session. For example, the following questions are a few ways to state the objective.
(Note that the objective also helps you decide when the session is done. When the objectives are met and no one else has anything to add, quit! )
After stating the objective of the process, the facilitator asks participants to share their ideas aloud and to write them down, one per sheet. Ideas are spoken out loud to enable others in the room to piggyback on the ideas, that is, to think of related ideas and to mutate and combine ideas. In this process, however, the first rule ”no criticism or debate ”must be foremost in people's minds. If this rule is not enforced, the process will be squelched, and many bright folks who are sensitive to criticism will not feel comfortable putting forth more ideas, a tragic loss.
In our experience, the most creative and innovative ideas (those that truly revolutionized the product concept) did not result from any one person's ideas but instead from the combination of multiple, and seemingly unrelated, ideas from various stakeholders. Any process that fosters this is a worthy process indeed.
When a person comes up with an idea, he or she writes it down on the supplied materials. This is important for the following reasons:
As ideas are generated, the facilitator collects them and posts them on a wall in the meeting room. Again, no criticism of ideas can be tolerated. It is inappropriate to say, "That's a stupid idea," or even, "We already have that idea on the wall." The sole purpose is to generate ideas. Even a mildly negative remark can have the deleterious effect of suppressing further participation by the "victim." However, remarks such as "Great idea!" are appropriate and will often provide the award of a "That's a Great Idea!" ticket, which can encourage further participation by all stakeholders. Idea generation should proceed until all parties feel it has reached a natural end.
It is common for lulls to occur during idea generation. These are not times to stop the process. Lulls tend to correct themselves as soon as the next idea is generated. Longer lulls might be cause for the facilitator to state the objective again or to ask stimulating questions. Most idea-generation sessions last around an hour , but some last two to three hours. Under no condition should the facilitator end a session that is going strong with a remark like, "I know we're all doing great with this process, but we need to move on." To the participants, this remark says, "Your ideas are not as important as my schedule." The number of ideas generated will be a function of how fertile the subject being discussed is, but it is common to generate 50 “100 ideas.
The process tends to have a natural end; at some point, the stakeholders will simply run out of ideas. This is typified by longer and longer gaps between idea submissions. At this point, the facilitator ends the session, and it may well be a great time for a break.