Business Ideas / Brainstorming
If you want to get your #business idea off the ground, you need an intelligent #strategy; that is where brainstorming comes in.
As quoted by John Maynard Keynes, “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.”
The most important skill in business isn’t a technical, marketing or sales skill. It’s not even strictly related to business. This most essential skill is your ability to brainstorm.
Everything in the world of business is driven by ideas. The ability to brainstorm allows you to efficiently generate ideas and evaluate those ideas to find the right one for the situation at hand.
Without brainstorming, you have to rely strictly on inspiration to give you the ideas you need. You may sometimes be struck with ideas or inspiration in the shower, in your car, walking down the street, and so on. But as painter Chuck Close is quoted as saying:
“Inspiration is for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work.”
The “getting to work” of generating ideas is brainstorming. If you know how to brainstorm and evaluate the ideas you’ve generated well, you’ll always come up with new ideas and the well will never run dry.
Brainstorming is a special skill, and like any other skill, it can be learned and practiced. In this report, you’ll learn different methods for brainstorming and tips on how to make your sessions as effective as possible in generating ideas.
You can use brainstorming for absolutely anything, including:
> Problem solving
> Ideas for new products
> Topics for pieces of content such as blog posts
> Ideas for marketing tactics or strategies
> Improvements to business operations
> Work hacks and productivity improvements
> New directions for your business
You can use brainstorming for not only every aspect of your business, but in your personal life as well. This is an invaluable skill that will help your business and enrich your life. We will be posting more on this subject and will be including focus on the following:
> Gaining an understanding of how brainstorming works
> Learning valuable tips to help you get the most out of your brainstorming
> Learning how to take the massive list of ideas you’ve generated through brainstorming and evaluate each, whittling your list down to just the single idea or few ideas you need
> Learn 7 brainstorming methods that are the most effectively used in business, along with their variations and different options
> Have a chance to try out each of these brainstorming methods so that you can decide which to add to your arsenal
> Learn the most common pitfalls and mistakes used in brainstorming and how you can avoid them
The Basics of Brainstorming
Brainstorming is the process of generating ideas through intensive idea sessions. It can be done either individually or in groups. For individuals, it’s basically the process of sitting down and trying to think up ideas. For groups, it’s a more complicated and structured affair. In the realm of business, brainstorming is most often done in groups. Multiple brains are better than one. There’s more chance someone will suggest the best solution and you get many different perspectives.
When you brainstorm, you focus on a problem or topic and generate a huge list of ideas. You then go through the list and remove those that are unsuitable and what you have left is the one idea or few ideas you’re looking for.
An important part of brainstorming is that participants are allowed to think outside the box. All ideas should be taken down and not judged. The process of judging the ideas is the next phase—the evaluation process. The brainstorming session should welcome the ridiculous, the crazy, the impossible, and the incredible. There is no bad idea in brainstorming, as long as it’s focused on the topic, question or problem at hand.
In fact, the wildest ideas are often the best ideas. What may seem ridiculous or incredible might be just the edgy, original or innovative solution you’re looking for. It’s easier to make a crazy idea more practical than to make a dull but practical idea more interesting.
Keep It Focused. There is no bad idea while brainstorming, but every idea needs to be on target. Keep the session focused on the specific goal at hand. It should be at the top of your mind. Define clearly the outcome you expect from the ideas you generate.
Choose a Good Venue. The environment for a brainstorm has a huge impact on the creativity of its members. Choose a comfortable location with few distractions for the session. This will help you keep it focused and stimulate creativity.
Lay Down Ground Rules. Make sure the structure of the session is clear to everyone involved. State the issue at hand clearly at the beginning of the session. Everyone involved will probably know this beforehand, but stating it at the top of the meeting again is a good refresher and ensures that everyone is on the same page.
Set Time Limits. Set time limits to your brainstorming sessions or parts of your sessions. This helps you maintain focus and also applies a bit of pressure. When you know you only have a limited time, it prevents you from over-thinking as you generate ideas. You can just get them down.
Take Breaks. A good way to keep focus and not burn out is to take many breaks. Take short breaks to change your environment, move around, get your mind off the issue momentarily, and so on. Come back to it refreshed and ready to let the ideas flow.
Make It Fun. If you’re brainstorming in a group, create a fun environment where everyone feels safe and there is no judgment. You might introduce some game elements to make it easier for everyone. Assign a moderator who can help direct the session. The moderator can encourage quieter people to talk, enforce the session’s time limit and make sure it stays on track.
Think about brainstorming sessions you’ve had in the past or those you’ve participated in recently. What were the successes and failures of the session? Did it give you the idea you were looking for? Why or why not?
The Evaluation Phase – What to Do with Your Brainstorming Ideas
A brainstorming session will generate ideas. In the following chapters, you’ll learn some brainstorming methods you can use. But you’ll also need to know what to do with the ideas your brainstorm generates. The purpose of brainstorming isn’t just to list ideas, but to bounce these ideas off each other. There needs to be feedback and a selection process to narrow your list down and select only the right ones.
The first step is to decide how many ideas you need to generate. If you’re trying to find one specific solution to one specific business problem, obviously you need to choose only the best idea. If, however, you’re brainstorming a list of topics for blog posts, the selection process may not be so involved. You can hold on to the ideas you come up with for later if you don’t use them right away.
Evaluating Your Ideas
Before beginning your brainstorm, decide how many ideas you need. You may need only one, but decide to select a handful for a post-brainstorm feedback and evaluation session. This session will give the members (or you if it’s an individual undertaking) a chance to discuss the top 5 or however many you choose. You might also keep a few of the runners-up as backups or “Plan B” if the idea you choose runs into trouble.
You should evaluate your ideas based on a few criteria. The most important is how appropriate the idea is to your goal; in other words, how suitably does it solve the problem.
Another important factor is feasibility. In brainstorming, thinking outside the box is always stressed. But if you think too far outside the box, the ideas you come up with will be impossible to carry out.
You may want to carry out some research as part of the evaluation process. If you’re trying to come up with something unique and original, you may take each idea and Google search it to see if someone has beaten you to it. If it’s a problem many businesses face, you may want to research your competitors or other businesses to see how they handle it.
Building on Existing Ideas
You should look for ways to build on existing ideas. A few ways to do this might include:
> Having members of the group take other members’ ideas and add something new to them or suggest changes.
> Taking old ideas and adding a new twist to them.
> Combining two ideas into one.
> Separating an idea into its parts.
When brainstorming, your ideas don’t need to be set in stone. Keep in mind that in addition to generating new ideas, you can also alter the ideas you already have.
Keep this chapter and the last chapter in mind as you try out the brainstorming techniques on the following pages. There will be 7 brainstorming techniques explained. You may not find all of them useful, but it’s a good idea to try each and see if it works for you. You can add those that produce results to your business operations.
1. Try to remember the evaluation process of the last brainstorming session you had. Do you feel like it was efficient? What worked about it and what didn’t?
2. Are there any specific brainstorming methods you used in the past (other than just throwing ideas together)? If so, what methods did you use and how did they work for you?
Method 1 – Mind Mapping
Mind mapping is a visual brainstorming technique where you start with a central idea and “map” your ideas out of it. The center of your map is the topic, question or problem that’s the objective of the brainstorming session. You then add ideas around the center. These ideas branch out. You end up with what looks like a map.
Branches that come out of the original center can become their own centers. For example, let’s say you’re brainstorming blog topic ideas for an online security company’s website. The first topic that springs to mind might be “encryption.” You may have a more specific idea that falls under the category of “encryption,” like “how encryption works.” You would draw this as a branch coming from the “encryption” node.
For the purpose of your brainstorming, you may choose to decide on the overall shape of the map at the beginning. If you’re brainstorming ways to improve your customer service, for example, you might start with “customer service” in the center and then decide beforehand that you’ll have the nodes “point of sale,” “call center,” “quality assurance,” “internal company policies,” and so on, coming out of the center.
Mind mapping thrives on creative visuals, so in addition to words and phrases, you could use images, color coding, and symbols to represent ideas. When you use words and phrases, they should be single words or short phrases. You don’t need to write complete sentences.
You can draw a mind map by hand on a whiteboard or on paper, or there are many software programs that allow you to do it electronically, making the process easier. These programs allow you to collaborate on mind maps remotely, so you can have a brainstorming session with people all over the world.
Here are just a few examples of mind mapping tools that will make your life easier and help you collaborate with others:
When brainstorming with mind mapping as a group, make sure that everyone is allowed to add their ideas. Each person should be given the chance to contribute and branch out new ideas from the ideas of others.
What you’ll end up with is a visual representation of the problem with its possible solutions. Rather than a list of ideas, mind mapping gives you a diagram where the ideas are already organized for you. The visual element also makes it fun for brainstorming sessions.
1. Try a mind mapping brainstorming session.
2. Explore the mind mapping tools listed that you can use for better efficiency.
Method 2 – The Challenger Method
The challenger method involves questioning assumptions or common ideas in order to generate ideas that are “outside the box.” It gives you a new way of thinking about an old idea.
Take your topic and create a list of things you hold to be true about the topic. These are your basic assumptions. Once you have a good list, take each item and ask yourself, “Is this really true? What if it weren’t?”
As an example, let’s consider marketing methods. Here are some of the assumptions you might come up with:
> We need high traffic keywords
> We need backlinks from relevant, high traffic websites
> We need to put a blog on your website for fresh content
> We should be active on all major social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Google+)
These are reasonable assumptions that are commonly espoused by websites on internet marketing. But what if you really questioned each one as it relates to your specific marketing plan? They may stand up to your challenge, or you may discover that:
> You don’t need high traffic keywords, but keywords that are targeted well to your audience (not to mention that high traffic keywords also have higher competition, which may make them inieffective for you).
> Maybe for your particular niche and goals, backlinks aren’t as important as other things like content, social media, and other means of getting people to your site.
> Instead of a blog, a video might work better for your particular audience.
> Some social media sites may not be worth the time because your target market don’t spend time there, and you may instead choose to focus on just one or two.
So, how do you decide which side to take, the original assumptions or their opposites? This questioning doesn’t necessarily result in an easy answer. The point is to question assumptions so that new ideas emerge. It forces you to get out of your thinking rut.
You can challenge assumptions about specific aspects of your business, or you can question general assumptions about your industry, society, the world, and so on. For example, you might take an assumption like “People love low prices” and challenge it. Do people really love low prices, or are they simply driven by economic conditions to find deals? Maybe people would happily pay more if they were getting more value out of the deal.
This is a great critical thinking exercise as well as brainstorming method. If you get into the habit of thinking like this, you’ll boost your creativity.
1. Try the challenger method either by yourself or in a group session. Take a topic and list the common assumptions that spring to mind, and then challenge each.
Method 3 – Random Input
The random input method is a very creative way to brainstorm that triggers the imagination. It involves taking some random input from somewhere that’s not related to the topic of your brainstorming, and using this random thing to inspire ideas.
The random input could be a word, a picture, a sound, or anything else that opens new lines of thinking. You make associations with your topic and the new input, or make associations between different random inputs, and come up with new ideas.
The random input isn’t some kind of oracle that magically gives you the answer. Rather, it’s a form of outside stimulus that gets you to think differently and thus come up with new ideas.
There’s an oft-told legend that Campbell’s Soup used the random input method to come up with its Chunky Soup. Supposedly, they were brainstorming using a random word tool. The tool gave them the word “apartment,” which they then free associated, coming up with a stream of words that went something like this: “apartment,” “build,” “tools,” “hammer,” “saw,” “drill” and so on. It eventually led to the word “fork,” which led someone to say, “What if you could eat soup with a fork?” Another participant responded that it would have to be chunky.
There are many ways to find random input you can use for your brainstorming. A few ideas include:
> Flipping open a dictionary to a random word
> Putting a random word or phrase into Google or Google’s image search
> Turning on the TV or radio and using what’s on
> Pulling a random book, CD or DVD off the shelf
> Picking a random object from somewhere in the room
> Looking outside your window and using the first thing you see or the first thing that passes by
Be creative with what you find and freely associate, as the brainstormers at Campbell’s Soup did.
A great group variation is to assign each person a random input and have each person brainstorm individually first. Then, bring everyone together to combine their random ideas or free associate together.
1. Choose one of the ideas above for a random input and try the random input method with a group or with a friend.
Method 4 – New Perspective
With the new perspective method, you take the problem and consider it from another perspective. There are a variety of different ways you can do this. You could take another person’s point of view. For example, try considering the issue from the point of view of your customers, or someone in another country.
You can choose a famous person, public figure or person from history and try to consider the problem from their point of view. How would Steve Jobs deal with your human resources problem, or what kind of branding concept would Socrates come up with?
Instead of a different person, try seeing the problem from a different era in time. Take your modern business problem back to Ancient Rome or Medieval Japan.
Your new perspective could be another part of the world or another industry. For example, how would an airplane mechanic or a circus performer handle the problem?
If you’re brainstorming in a group setting, you could assign a different perspective to each member. Assign your sales team the roles of Mark Twain, Confucius, Joan of Arc and Charlemagne. You can do the same with eras in history, parts of the world, industries, etc.
One particular technique that uses the new perspective approach is what’s called the Six Thinking Hats. It involves putting on six different hats to consider the problem using different perspectives. The hats are:
White – This is the factual hat that just considers the information available, or what facts are known about the problem.
Black – The black hat is the risk-averse hat which considers the problem from the point of view of all that could go wrong. It places security as the top priority.
Yellow – This is the hat of optimism which explores the positives to the black hat’s negatives. It looks at benefits and seeks harmony.
Green – The green hat is the creativity hat, which considers alternatives and other possibilities (you can use the challenger method here).
Red – The red hat is the intuitive hat. It bases decisions on emotions and gut instincts.
Blue – The blue hat is the management hat, which makes sure that each hat acts in accordance with its role and makes sure the brainstorming session stays on track.
You can use the Six Thinking Hats or come up with your own variations. Assign a hat to each member of the group or each part of the group. This is also a good technique to use during the evaluation stage when you have a list of ideas to narrow down.
1. Try the new perspective method in a brainstorming session for a specific problem you need to address.
2. Try the Six Thinking Hats in a brainstorming session or to evaluate the ideas generated in a brainstorming session.
Method 5 – Speed Thinking
Speed thinking is basically brainstorming ratcheted up a notch. Whenever brainstorming, it’s always good to time your sessions and get as many ideas down as possible. Speed thinking does the same thing but takes it a step further by imposing tight time limits and putting on a bit more pressure.
There is a variety of speed thinking techniques but all involve setting a time limit and giving participants a goal. An example might be something like 20 ideas in 2 minutes. It puts the pressure on the participants to come up with as many ideas as they can. You can create other rules and parameters to gamify it and increase your efficiency.
Speed thinking works best in short bursts of thinking with short breaks in between. You can combine speed thinking with other methods. For example, you can assume roles for a speed brainstorming session, and then take a break and switch roles. You can set a time limit and idea goal for free associations from random input.
One speed thinking variation is what’s called 6-3-5 Brainwriting (also called Method 635 or the 635 Method), developed by marketer Bernd Rohrbach. The method involves six participants who each have to write down three ideas on their sheets individually within five minutes. The ideas can be expressed as words or as images or symbols. At five minutes, the sheets are passed to the participant on the right. At the end of 30 minutes, you have a total of 108 ideas.
You can actually perform 6-3-5 Brainwriting with any number of participants. More participants would produce more ideas, but with more than about seven it starts to get unwieldy. This also makes the overall session longer.
1. Try a few quick speed thinking sessions, preferably with a group.
2. Try 6-3-5 Brainwriting or a variation of it.
Method 6 – Freewriting
Freewriting is an exercise used by writers to stimulate creativity, generate ideas or warm up. It involves setting a time limit and writing from start to end with as little thinking, self-correcting, judging or editing as possible.
You can use either a computer keyboard or a pen. Set a timer for an allotted time such as five or ten minutes. Write down a word or phrase that describes your topic at the top. Once the timer starts, start writing.
Write as quickly as possible and try not to think too much about what you’re writing. Let yourself free associate. It doesn’t matter if the writing is “good” or not, just that you keep writing. It’s okay to go off topic and it’s perfectly fine to make spelling and grammar mistakes. Just try to get down whatever pops into your head.
Keep the pen or your fingers moving until the timer stops. Then, go back and read over what you wrote to see if any ideas emerge. Often, you’ll find that there’s some part of the text that stands out as being useful amid a great deal of meaningless scribble.
Sometimes the actual writing itself won’t yield anything useful, but it will get the ideas flowing and your creativity will be flying high after you’ve finished writing. This is why writers use it to warm up.
The time limit is vital in freewriting. If there is no time limit, you’ll run out of ideas or burn out. With freewriting, you can stop when the timer stops, or take a break and set the timer again for another session. Another option is to set a page limit or word count limit rather than a timer.
There are many ways to do freewriting in a group context. Like 6-3-5 Brainwriting, you can pass your papers each time the timer stops. Each participant can pick up where the last left off.
Another group freewriting idea is for each person’s writing to be read by another participant. The other participant may bring a fresh perspective to it or find an idea valuable that the writer might not have.
1. Set a timer and try a freewriting session.
2. Try a group freewriting session similar to 6-3-5 Brainwriting
Method 7 – The Stepladder Technique
The final method is the stepladder technique and it can only be used in a group setting. However, it harnesses the power of both individual and group brainstorming.
First, a topic or problem is presented to all of the members within the group. Every member except for two leaves the room. The two that remain in the room brainstorm together on the problem. Each other member brainstorms by themselves individually.
The two remaining in the room hold their brainstorming session for a set period of time. At the end of this time, the first of the other members is called back into the room. This member shares the ideas they came up with in isolation with the two who have already been brainstorming.
All three continue their discussion together for a set period of time and then the next member is called into the room. Each member is called back into the room one by one to add their ideas to the discussion.
You can combine the stepladder technique with other techniques. For example, each individual member could be given a speed thinking time limit and idea goal, or their own new perspective (person, place, industry, era, etc.).
The reason that the stepladder technique works so well is that each member gets to express their own individual ideas. It gets everyone involved equally. It also prevents group think, where people go along with the ideas of others instead of coming up with their own, and other common problems that can occur in group brainstorming sessions.
1. Try the stepladder technique at your next group brainstorming session.
Barriers to Effective Brainstorming
Before you’re ready to get started brainstorming, it’s good to understand the common barriers that you may face and how you can avoid them.
Lack of Preparation
If participants don’t understand the goals of the brainstorming session, it will waste precious time during the session clarifying or explaining those goals. It’s important that the groundwork is lain down so that everyone is on the same page. The same goes for the rules or methods used in the session. This should all be well prepared by the moderator leading the session beforehand.
As mentioned in the last chapter, a common problem is group think. Group think most often occurs when the first really good idea of a brainstorming session emerges. Instead of continuing to explore and search for ideas, everyone agrees that this dominant idea is suitable. Group think can also occur because individual participants think, “I won’t come up with anything as good as that idea,” and give up trying.
Several of the methods outlined previously are good for preventing this. The moderator can also continue to keep the brainstorming session moving and encourage each member to put forth ideas.
Bad Group Dynamics
It often occurs that a group’s dynamics prevent certain members from contributing. This is because some members have more dominant or gregarious personalities while others are shy or passive.
If the moderator doesn’t intervene, the group will end up deferring to the handful of dominant members. Part of the moderator’s job is to make sure that everyone participates as equally as possible. If you have a large number of staff involved, try breaking the sessions up into more outgoing and passive groups.
Fear of Being Judged
A common problem is that a participant will hold back and not share their idea, thinking that it’s a bad idea and they’ll be judged for it. It’s important to create a safe and comfortable environment where everyone feels that they can share their ideas easily.
The moderator should stress to the group that no idea is out of line and, in fact, the more outside the box the better. You can also start the session off with a rundown of some of the “crazy ideas” that developed into famous products or businesses we all know.
It’s harder for some groups of people to get into brainstorming mode than others. This can waste time and stand in the way of idea generation. Instead of brainstorming “cold,” you might start off with a fun, creative warm-up activity to get everyone into a playful, less inhibited state.
These warm-ups could be mini-brainstorming activities that aren’t related to the problem at hand, riddles, ice breakers, games, or role plays. Choose a good warm-up based on the tastes and the interests of the group. The key is to get everyone having fun. The enthusiasm of a brainstorming session’s participants is essential.
The environment where your brainstorming session is taking place may also be a factor. It needs to be a place where people feel relaxed. You may want to see if you can make any changes to the office environment, or hold the session somewhere else.
Lack of Focus
If the target of the brainstorming session is too general or if there are actually multiple targets, it will be hard to get anything out of the session. In general, the more specific the problem, the easier it is for people to come up with good ideas for it. If, for example, you have a brainstorming session to come up with a new product’s name, how it should be advertised and how it should be packaged, this should be broken up into three individual sessions.
Lack of Control
When a brainstorming session really gets going and participants are enthusiastically offering one idea after another, it’s easy for the session to spin out of control. The moderator needs to keep control over the structure of the session while also allowing its members the freedom to generate ideas.
For example, it’s often the case that participants start evaluating ideas during the generation phase. If this happens, the moderator should remind the participants that evaluation of ideas will come later and steer the session back on course.
No Criteria for Evaluation
Finally, how do you know whether an idea is good or not? If you haven’t set down clear criteria on judging the ideas produced in the session, you won’t know which idea best suits your purpose. Make sure all participants know the criteria and get everyone involved in the evaluation as well as the idea generation process.
1. Create a clear plan for dealing with each of the problems listed above if you run into them.
You’ve learned a great deal about brainstorming over the preceding pages. One more takeaway that’s very important is that enthusiasm drives brainstorming. Participants need to be excited about the task at hand, and they need a fun, safe, relaxed and playful environment to let their ideas fly.
If brainstorming feels like a drag or participants start to get discouraged, it’s better to stop the session and try again at another time than to try to force it. Forced brainstorming generally doesn’t work.
In this post, you’ve learned:
> The importance of brainstorming and all of its many uses
> Tips and best practices for having effective brainstorming sessions
> How to evaluate the ideas your brainstorming generates
> Seven methods of brainstorming and their variations
> The common problems you might face during your brainstorming sessions
You’ve tried each method and seen how it works. You can now begin to judge which methods you will use and in which situations. Brainstorming is an important business skill and you’ll improve your skill at organizing and managing sessions as you do more of them.
If this article has helped you start your own brainstorming approach to generating new business ideas, helped you focus on your first (or new) business venture, we hope you’ll return to our MikeConkey.com for a continuation of this important topic, and to read more on business ideas and business tips.
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