What’s happened since “brainstorming” was coined some 70 years ago is a little like the process of brainstorming itself. Because it was such an interesting concept, brainstorming has spawned variations that seek to improve upon the original idea. That’s a little like the process of brainstorming itself: One good idea begets another and so on.
While there are some ground rules that may be useful (like the father of brainstorming Alex Osborn’s four tenets, which you can find in the Oct. 2014 issue on newsstands Sept. 9), there is no single right way for a group to collaboratively generate ideas. Consider these techniques, and feel free to adapt them for use with your team. (And, as always, share your good ideas with us!)
1. Brainwriting, like brainstorming, has a goal of generating lots of ideas in a short time. But unlike brainstorming, it's done via writing, not speaking. Some groups have participants anonymously write one idea to a card in a short span of time. Everybody's ideas are taped to a wall, and the group votes on the ones that look most promising for further exploration.
A variation of brainwriting is called the 6-3-5 method. Six participants sit in a group, and there is a facilitator. Each participant produces three ideas every five minutes, writes them on a worksheet and passes them to the participant to their right, and so on. Each person who receives the worksheet is to read what others have written, which provides the impetus for that person generating additional ideas. Six rounds in 30 minutes are supposed to generate 108 new ideas.
2. Mind mapping entails making a diagram with a central concept drawn as an image on the center of a blank page or whiteboard. Participants use images, symbols and words in varying colors branching out from the central image, but connected to it. Tangential ideas may be denoted as “twigs” radiating from these branches.
In a group setting, mind mapping can improve collaboration sessions by helping people visualize concepts and connections, which enables them to follow conversations and contribute more effectively.
3. Brainswarming aims to get input from a variety of participants, regardless of the way they think or their personality types. Unlike brainstorming, in which talkative people may drown out shy individuals, brainswarming, which was developed by psychologist Tony McCaffrey, is conducted with written notes, and designed to get even better ideas, and more of them, than brainstorming.
McCaffrey has explained the brainswarming process this way: Write the goal at the top of the diagram and a few known resources at the bottom. Instruct participants not to talk, but to communicate with Post-it notes and lines connecting them on the diagram. Some people will start by refining the goal, while others will analyze how the designated resources could be used or will add more resources. At some point, the notes and lines will connect, indicating that the two groups are finding ways to use the resources to solve the problem.