Seven Secrets to Better Brainstorms

I’ve just finished reading The Art of Innovation, and although it focuses on the product design work of IDEO, it has many lessons that can be applied to community organizing.

My favorite chapter of the book was the one on brainstorming, which is a key part of the IDEO innovation method.

Here are the Seven Secrets for Better Brainstorming:

  1. Sharpen the Focus: “Good brainstormers start with a well-honed statement of the problem.” Without a clear understanding of the problem your brainstorming solutions for, you’ll wander around without focus and without clarity.
  2. Playful Rule: “Don’t start to critique or debate ideas. It can sap the energy of the session pretty quickly.”
  3. Number your ideas: This helps do 2 things. First, it can motivate people, “Let’s try to get 100 ideas before we leave the room,” which helps you go for quantity. Second, it makes it easier to refer to previous ideas without losing track of where you were.
  4. Build and Jump: When you build, you take one idea and build on other ideas that relate to it. For example, “Shock absorbers are a great idea; now, what are some other ways to reduce spillage when the bicycle hits a bump?” When you jump you move back to an earlier path you skipped to quickly or forward to an entirely new path. Whether it’s building or jumping, the idea is to keep the energy high throughout the session.
  5. The Space Remembers: Writing the ideas up with a sharpie on big paper not only keeps the focus of the group, but when you go back to previous ideas, being in the physical space of the previous idea helps re-capture the mindset the group was in then. That’s why IDEO encourages covering every surface with paper before the brainstorm.
  6. Stretch your mental muscles. It can help a brainstorm to warm up before hand, especially if they are now to working with each other, don’t brainstorm regularly, or is distracted by pressing or unrelated issues.  How can you warm up? One approach that works for IDEO is to play a fast-paced word game to get people into the moment and into an outgoing frame of mind.
  7. Get Physical: Include sketches, drawing, mind-maps, diagrams, etc. Go even farther, bring in props that relate to the subject of the brainstorm, or things to model 3-D images of what you’re working on

The book also offers six ways to kill a brainstorm

  1. The boss gets to speak first: The boss can limit ideas and set boundaries that turn off the creative spigot.
  2. Everybody gets a turn: Follow the energy of the discussion, not some imposed order that kills energy.
  3. Experts only please: Some of the best ideas come from people who approach the question with fresh eyes.
  4. Do it off-site: You can brainstorm wherever and whenever. If you make it seem like it has to be off site, then you limit the power of this tool.
  5. No Silly stuff: Silly stuff opens up the door for creative ideas and helps overcome self-censorship.
  6. write down everything: if the participants are taking notes, they are focused on the notes rather than generating ideas.

There’s plenty of other great stuff in the book, such as the chapter “Innovation starts with an eye,” which reminds us that that good design is user-centered (just like good organizing is community-centered) and the discussion of really working to understand your audience. They talk about going beyond just surveys and focus groups to really watching how your audience behaves, and drawing lessons from that.

(A big thank-you to Andy Goodman  for recommending this book in his excellent Free Range Thinking newsletter.)

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