Getting the spring of ideas flowing

We are all eager for fresh and creative ideas to make our courses innovative, effective and engaging for the end user. But we can’t simply rely on random activities, chance or some creative ‘greater providence’ though. It is actually a solid and well structured approach that we need in order to generate and flourish brilliant ideas.

The well known name given to this approach is ‘brainstorming’ (although some governmental organisations have recently concluded that the term is offensive to people with epilepsy, suggesting the alternative ‘mind shower’). Actually, none of the above sound particularly inviting for people like us immersed in the pouring London weather, but that’s another kettle of fish…

Behind the creative output there are several techniques and methods to explore, including brand new trends like ‘nominal group technique’, ‘group passing technique’ and ‘electronic brainstorming’, all of them with the aim of using a fun and energetic process to create a list of ideas to kick off a project. The preferred method will vary of course depending on the objective, the available time and the participants. Below is a run through of what I have found to be the most useful and effective for our specific aims: a process of illumination (you might describe it as ‘sunbathing’), dumping the old soggy ideas for the fresher brighter ones that will enlighten our projects. Hopefully my suggestions might add a little spice and improved effectiveness to your brainstorming process.

The objective

Define and agree the topic for which you will be generating ideas. It’s good practice to create a background memo and send it out with the invitation to the participants. This should contain the session name, objective, time, date, and place. Describe the objective in the form of a question, and give some example ideas and references you might have found. Send the note well in advance, so the participants can think about the subject matter beforehand and come to the discussion prepared. It’s important to gather all the possible information around the project in advance of the session, as gaps in knowledge and information appearing during the idea generation might interrupt the flow of fruitful creative juices.

The group

Brainstorming works best in small groups. If a group gets too large, more than 10 people, it can be difficult to control and some attendees may not feel as comfortable participating. A facilitator or meeting lead should take responsibility for getting everyone involved in the process. It doesn’t need to be a creative mind but someone with strong meeting leadership skills. They will then be the point person to ensure ideas flow and to drive the process, while the others bring the wildest ideas to the surface. The lead might decide to set a time limit as having a ticking clock can help keep the ideas coming. It’s also sometimes recommended that managers and superiors don’t attend, as they may inhibit and reduce the generation of unusual ideas. But make sure the group does include one good representative for each branch of expertise the project involves. For instance, for our e-learning projects it is advisable to include at least an instructional designer, a developer and a designer. You never know who will put forward the final juicy idea, so don’t underestimate the benefit of having extra points of view, as an ‘outsider’ mind might provide the unique perspective you need.

Putting pen to paper

All we need to brainstorm is a pad and pencil. Assign a person to write down all the ideas, thoughts and everything that comes to mind in order to produce a ‘mind map’ that can be easily seen by all of the attendees. Create the mind map starting with your core central concept and branching off the new ideas in different circles that connect to the central theme and to each others. All ideas and thoughts should be recorded; worry about trimming them down later. It’s important to reduce ‘dead air’ and to keep the ideas to freeflowing; do not self-censor or hesitate before offering an idea and keep writing – as the pen must be touching the page the entire time, wandering, doodling and sketching without fear.

Achieving quality through quantity

So the goal is to express very quickly as many ideas as possible. A free flux of consciousness is what can help bring up your most brilliant ideas. The point is that the more ideas you generate, the greater the chance of producing an outstanding solution: throw out any and all ideas related to a project, leading eventually to one or a few that are worth taking further. At the end you should even push yourself the extra mile – once you think you’ve exhausted all of the possibilities, take a big breath, re-examine the ideas you have got and push the group to add a few more to the box.

The ‘all ideas are good ideas’ rule

Another important rule that follows the previous one is that all ideas should be encouraged and no one should issue any criticism toward any idea presented, no matter how off base it may seem at the time. No negative comments are allowed; instead build on, extend or add to the ideas when the opportunity is given. This will help create a supportive environment and encourage every participant to take part in the process. By suspending judgment, and reserving criticism for a later stage, participants will feel free and comfortable to generate unusual and unique ideas.

An ‘ideas book’ might be a great tool to keep outside the actual sessions. You can decide to place it somewhere in your shared network and make it accessible to everyone as a place to log all the extra ideas might come to mind. This can be a powerful source for refining concepts and providing inspiration for new ones. It also gives participants some ‘soak time’ to think deeply and evolve ideas. The individuals aren’t that comfortable with the face to face sessions might find in it a great way to contribute.

Walking on the wild side

To get that long succulent list of ideas, unusual perspectives and the suspension of assumptions are needed. This is certainly not the time to hold back and the purpose is to invite everyone to participate, to dismiss nothing. You might indeed find that the ideas that seemed initially to be risky, unrealistic and nonsensical turn out to be the best one at the end. For this reason, brainstorming can be a great way to boost morale among participants and help them to feel part of the process. Just using sticky notes, markers and flip charts in a creative way to gather suggestions might add new engaging platforms. Also changing the setting could be beneficial, so don’t hesitate to move your location to the park, for instance, or anywhere might seem more inspiring. Yes, even in London there are a bunch of friendly days, fresh air and green spaces for spreading the wings of your ideas.

Fortune telling

Now that you have all the tea leaves in your cup of tea it is time for the divination and refinement of your objective. This is when you sort through your list of generated ideas, start finding connections between the ideas that are related and prioritise the most promising ones into a more finished list. If you have done a good session the shiny solution should magically appear at the top of your list and the future of your project will appear blooming and full of promise. If you feel you have got the right solution to move forward then agree a timescale and who’s responsible. After the session it is important to circulate notes and give feedback in order to spread a transparent and positive result. In doing that people feel their participation and efforts were worthwhile and have resulted in action; they will be then motivated and keen to contribute again.

Good luck – and let us know if these tips work for you, or your ideas for getting the creative juices flowing!

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mrotoli - Designer

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  • Hanif Sazen

    Many people see brainstorming as a random activity and it’s got a bad name because random activities create random results. A number of structured approaches to brainstorming exist and although the structure is not highly visible to the participant, it drives the workshop towards a tangible goal. I’ve successfully used these techniques for everything from small requirement sessions to strategy session involving over 200 people. If you are in the market for rapid development then structured brainstorming techniques are a must.