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Reinventing Brainstorming at Work

Posted at 4:06 PM on Thursday, May 25, 2006

I've thought about this for a long time, but after helping a wonderful group of leaders at TriHealth become more effective facilitators yesterday, I decided I had to write about it.

Brainstorming - the creation of new or possible ideas - is a critical part of any problem solving or creative progress. We all know it. We know that we must have ideas in order find solutions to problems. We even know that the more ideas we find, the better chance we'll have of creating the best possible solution.

Yet our brainstorming processes fall woefully short.

Not because we don't know the "rules" of brainstorming - every group will tell me those:

- no evaluation of the ideas now (we'll do that afterward)
- the more ideas the better
- it is ok to build on other people's ideas
- there are no dumb ideas

That isn't the problem (though even these rules sometimes aren't followed and that can be a problem as well).

The problem is that we try to brainstorm without a clear problem statement, in the middle of a long meeting, when people are already tired, and they are sitting in a relatively (or totally) sterile, uncreative space. Then, as if by magic, people who for the most part, don't consider themselves to be highly creative are expected to create the ideas that will make a difference with the product, process or problem.

It may not be impossible, but the deck is certainly stacked against us in these situations.

I believe we need to re-invent the brainstorming process at work. Here are my tenets for this re-invented process.

1. We brainstorm only after we have a collective understanding of the process or problem.
2. We provide the needed clarity with a clear statement of the problem. (Most often this may be phrased as a question.)
3. Just as we warm up before going for a run or swinging a golf club, we warm up our brains before we start brainstorming. While there are many ways to do this, we pick at least one from the following list:
- We stand up and stretch.
- We laugh.
- We do some sort of brain teaser or otherwise exercise our minds.
- We brainstorm on something fun or funny briefly, knowing that this warm up help us create more ideas when we are working on the "real" problem.
4. We recognize that "warming" up our bodies and our brains may take a couple of minutes, but that this is an investment in much greater results.
5. We honor the pause or break in the brainstorming process. We know that after the pause, more ideas will come to our minds. We trust ourselves and the creative process enough to overlook the momentary silence.
6. We treat each idea with reverence, knowing that even if the idea as stated might seem odd we know that within it may be the seed of our solution.
7. We also recognize that some of the biggest ideas for progress in our world were once scoffed at and ridiculed as impossible. We think of the airplane, the internet, the telephone and the television as ideas that were thought of in this way and we realize an idea like those could show up on our list of ideas.
8. We claim our own creativity. While we may not always feel creative, or haven't seemed to be creative in the past, we believe we are capable of amazing creativity. We therefore expect ourselves to be successful.

When we as individual, teams and organizations adopt these tenets, our creative capacity will begin to soar.

Read them again, share them with your team, and adopt them!
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