Basic Guidelines for Brainstorming

Brainstorming is useful for attacking specific (rather than general) problems and where a collection of good, fresh, new ideas (rather than judgment or decision analysis) are needed.

For example, a specific problem like how to mark the content of pipes (water, steam, etc.) would lend itself to brainstorming much better than a general problem like how the educational system can be improved. Note, though, that even general problems can be submitted to brainstorming with success.

Brainstorming can take place either individually or in a group of two to ten, with four to seven being ideal. (Alex Osborn, brainstorming's inventor, recommends an ideal group size of twelve, though this has proven to be a bit unwieldy.) The best results are obtained when the following guidelines are observed:

1. Suspend judgment. This is the most important rule. When ideas are brought forth, no critical comments are allowed. All ideas are written down. Evaluation is to be reserved for later. We have been trained to be so instantly analytic, practical, convergent in our thinking that this step is very difficult to observe, but it is crucial. To create and criticize at the same time is like watering and pouring weed killer onto seedlings at the same time.

2. Think freely. Freewheeling, wild thoughts are fine. Impossible and unthinkable ideas are fine. In fact, in every session, there should be several ideas so bizarre that they make the group laugh. Remember that practical ideas very often come from silly, impractical, impossible ones. By permitting yourself to think outside the boundaries of ordinary, normal thought, brilliant new solutions can arise. Some "wild" ideas turn out to be practical, too.

For example, when the subway was being dug under Victoria station in London, water began seeping in. What are the ways to remedy this? Pumps, steel or concrete liners? The solution: freeze it. Horizontal holes were drilled into the wet soil and liquid nitrogen was pumped in, freezing the water until the tunnel could be dug and cemented. We've already talked about gold plating electrical contacts. In another example, it's a fact that electric generators can produce more power if the windings can be kept cool. How would you cool them? Fans, air conditioned rooms? How about a wild idea? Make the electric windings out of copper pipe instead of wire and pump helium through them. That is what's actually done in some plants, doubling the output of the generators.

3. Tag on. Improve, modify, build on the ideas of others. What's good about the idea just suggested? How can it be made to work? What changes would make it better or even wilder? This is sometimes called piggybacking, hitchhiking, or ping ponging. Use another's idea as stimulation for your own improvement or variation. As we noted earlier, changing just one aspect of an unworkable solution can sometimes make it a great solution.

Example problem: How can we get more students at our school? Brainstorm idea: Pay them to come here. That sounds unworkable, but what about modifying it? Pay them with something other than money--like an emotional, spiritual, or intellectual reward or even a practical value-added reward like better networking or job contacts?

4. Quantity of ideas is important. Concentrate on generating a large stock of ideas so that later on they can be sifted through. There are two reasons for desiring a large quantity. First, the obvious, usual, stale, unworkable ideas seem to come to mind first, so that the first, say, 20 or 25 ideas are probably not going to be fresh and creative. Second, the larger your list of possibilities, the more you will have to choose from, adapt, or combine. Some brainstormers aim for a fixed number, like 50 or 100 ideas before quitting the session.

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