Brainstorming is one of the most popular tools for coming up with new ideas. You get together a small group of people and you set a topic or question, like “How do we reduce congestion in our town?” Everyone is invited to share their thoughts.
You’re probably familiar with the rules of brainstorming: there are no bad ideas, no possibility is ruled out, no critiques or put-downs allowed, and so forth. Everyone should feel safe to share whatever’s in their head, one idea after another.
Although brainstorming is normally done in groups, you can do it alone, applying just the same rules.
Many people find brainstorming fun, and there’s no doubt it can raise the energy in a group, which helps creativity. Also, brainstorming switches on a very useful mental function: association. One idea triggers another. You may have experienced brainstorming sessions that were truly productive, and you’re still benefiting from the ideas that came up.
But there can be problems.
The Wisdom (or Otherwise!) of Crowds
One problem in any group is the tendency of a few dominant voices to drive the flow of ideas. A couple of people often end up doing most of the talking. This can produce what’s called convergent thinking, where everything heads in the same direction, rather than divergent thinking, which leads to a multiplicity of ideas.
For example, in a brainstorming session about traffic congestion, a couple of enthusiasts might persuade everyone to focus on bicycle lanes, and not much else. That might be a great idea, but the group loses if other quite different possibilities aren’t heard.
You can certainly benefit from the ideas of many people — if you do it right. In his book, The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowieki showed that the combined ideas of a group will often produce more valuable insights than any one individual. But there’s an important caveat that Surowieki emphasized: each participant must give their input independent of all the others. They can’t be seeing or hearing what the others are thinking. This is why brainstorming as it’s normally done doesn’t activate the wisdom of crowds.
These are problems at what you might call the input end of brainstorming. But there’s a different challenge, one that’s less talked about, at the output end of brainstorming.
The “What Next” Problem
Let’s say you successfully accumulate a heap of ideas, good, bad and indifferent. What do you do with them?
A while back, I was asked to help a company in the trade show business. Their top executives had sat for hours of brainstorming in a large meeting room, trying to find some new directions for their company. I was sent photos of several whiteboards covered in sticky notes. They asked me to make sense of them. My client didn’t have a way to deal with all this stuff they’d produced, and that’s why they brought me in. Fortunately, I knew what to do, and I could guide them to a result.
Few people have a methodology for managing the output of brainstorming — a jumbled assortment of ideas. They just scan through them, picking out the likely winners. But that approach is almost as random as the original input, and you’ll miss a lot of the buried gold that your brainstorming has produced. Of course, you can try to conduct an analysis of every single idea. If you’ve got two or three hundred sticky notes, that’s going to be a miserable chore.
Fortunately, there’s an alternative solution: the Braincat process. As a tool for thinking, Braincat is unusual because it lets you pour everything in just as it comes — without any structure — just like in brainstorming. But Braincat doesn’t leave you there! It gives you a rapid way to simplify and organize your ideas. Now you can see what you’ve got and make choices moving forward.
Better still, the decluttering effect of the Braincat process frees your mind to come up with new, and even better, ideas.
How to Use Braincat for Brainstorming
When using Braincat for brainstorming, make sure that each individual’s input is provided without reference to the others. An easy way is to collect lists of ideas and load them into COPY & PASTE, selecting “Lines”. (Soon we’ll be launching a project-sharing function, but this will work just fine for now.)
Next, give one person, or a small team, the task of categorizing and sequencing the input. Their categorizing doesn’t have to be perfect! It just has to simplify the material so everyone can easily see what came out of the session. Exploring the structured output from Braincat will be much easier than discussing a wall covered in sticky notes.
The message is: with Braincat, you can have freedom AND organization in your thinking, and benefit from both.