Brainstorming: How to generate great ideas

Brainstorming is an incredibly powerful and creative method for generating ideas and solving problems. Unfortunately it is often poorly managed.

The common misconception of brainstorming is that it is the quality of ideas not the quantity. To quote Edward De Bono, “It is better to have enough ideas for some of them to be wrong, than to be always right by having no ideas at all.

Other reasons why brainstorming sessions fail include:

  • They are poorly facilitated, and participants do not contribute equally.
  • Participants compete to have their ideas heard.
  • Participants force their thoughts and opinions on others.
  • Participants don't think in the same structured manner.

Six Thinking Hats

Six Thinking Hats is a powerful technique that was created by Edward de Bono, and involves looking at decisions from a number of different perspectives. It’s incredibly powerful because it forces you to move outside your habitual thinking style, and helps you to get a more rounded view of a situation.

  • White Hat: Focuses on data, facts, information known or needed.
  • Red Hat: Focuses on feelings, hunches, gut instinct, and intuition.
  • Black Hat: Focuses on difficulties, potential problems. Why something may not work.
  • Yellow Hat: Focuses on positive values and benefits. Why something may work.
  • Green Hat: Focuses on creativity: possibilities, alternatives, solutions, new ideas.
  • Blue Hat: Focuses on manage the thinking process, focus, next steps, action plans.

There is no right or wrong way to use Six Thinking Hats as the order you use will vary from issue to issue. That said, you should always start and end with the Blue Hat as it allows you to define and evaluate the thinking process.

The Brainstorming Session

Preparing for the brainstorming session
  • Define Purpose: A clear and concise purpose must be defined for the session.
  • Participant Selection: Select the participants, which should include core members of the project team, guests from outside the project and an idea collector who records suggestions. The panel should be no more than 10 people.
  • Invitation Letter: A letter sent to participants informing them of the purpose, date, time and location of the brainstorming session. It is designed to get participants thinking about the purpose beforehand.
  • Question List: The facilitator should generate a list of open-ended questions which will be used to kick-start the session.
Conducting the brainstorming session
  1. Introduction & Purpose: The facilitator to welcome participants, explain the purpose of the session and outline ground rules. - The Blue Hat
  2. Lead Questions: The facilitator to ask open-ended questions to kickstart the session. - The White Hat
  3. Idea Submission: The facilitator to get everyone to contribute their ideas by going round the room. - The Green Hat
  4. Feasibility Discussion: The facilitator to ask participants what are the most feasible suggestions. In other words, what will and won't work. - The Yellow & Black Hat
  5. Shortlisting: The facilitator to get participants to shortlist the most appropriate suggestions for further research. - The Black Hat
  6. Action Planning: The facilitator to assign follow up actions to different participants. - The Blue Hat
  7. Conclusion: The facilitator to thank participants for their time and effort and distribute findings from session. - The Blue Hat

During the brainstorming session someone should be taking notes and writing all comments on the white board. The use of mind mapping here may help to generate more enthusiasm and interest from participants.

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