Brainstorming is a broad and diverse discipline where individuals come together to discuss ways that a business can grow, improve, innovate, problem-solve and make better decisions.
Brainstorming tends to be less common in companies with a hierarchical structure where top-down decisions are the norm.
In more collaborative companies where employees have more autonomy, however, various brainstorming methods are utilized to deliver better outcomes.
In this article, we’ll discuss one hypothetical and one real-world example of brainstorming at work.
The marketing team for a meditation app
In the first example, consider a hypothetical remote marketing team that wants to find ways to encourage consumers to purchase the paid version of a meditation app.
The session facilitator starts by selecting an online remote brainstorming tool such as Miro, which allows the team to generate ideas in real-time using diagrams and sticky notes.
Before the meeting, the facilitator also asks each team member to review the problem in their own time so that they come prepared.
The initial brainstorming session contains six people including the leader: a product marketing manager, a product manager, a UX designer, a content producer, and a demand generation manager.
This assortment of roles is an ideal cross-functional mix and ensures that ideas come from a range of backgrounds and expertise.
The session then progresses as follows:
Present the problem
In other words, how can the business encourage consumers to use the paid version of the meditation app?
Then, the facilitator allows the team to record their thoughts on the problem for 5 minutes.
Word association game
A further 10 minutes is spent on a word association game to help the creative juices start to flow.
Words can either be spoken or written down and in this scenario may include “streamlined”, “ad-free”, “relaxation”, “undistracted”, “functionality”, and “rewards”.
Vote on ideas
After the time has elapsed, the facilitator asks the five participants to vote on their favorite words.
For 20 additional minutes, the most popular words from step four form the basis of creative solutions to the problem from step one.
No idea must be considered impractical or unrealistic.
List creative ideas
Using mind maps, sketches, sticky notes, or a combination thereof, the team generates a list of potential solutions.
For the sake of brevity, some of the ideas may include offering freemium features for a limited time, utilizing referral or reward programs, and charging consumers to remove the intrusive advertising from the free version.
In the final step, the facilitator ends the brainstorming session and schedules a meeting where the team will vote on the idea(s) with the most potential.
Case Study: National Gallery of Art
Museum staff at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., wanted to formulate strategies that delivered a better experience for visitors.
Staff realized that many visitors did not feel comfortable or confident interacting with the art on display because, in their own words, they “were not art people.”
To solve this problem, the museum held a brainstorming session where participants drew possible solutions on a piece of paper for 8 minutes.
After the time had elapsed, each presented their solutions to the group.
Another session of equal duration followed as solutions were further refined based on input from other participants.
One solution that had merit involved requiring users to attend a lecture on the museum and its collection beforehand.
However, the team wondered if the idea was too prescriptive. In other words, what would happen if a visitor did not want to attend the lecture?
It was also noted that this idea would be expensive to maintain since staff would need to be employed to deliver the lectures each day.
From this failed attempt came another solution to show shorter, on-demand videos that museum visitors did not have to watch if they weren’t interested.
The videos, which would be shown in the museum’s atrium, would allow visitors to develop the skills to interact confidently with art.
After the team agreed it was the correct solution, it was implemented in the gallery to great success.
Case Study: Google
In 2016, Google employee and head of global content strategy Veronique Lafargue wrote an article titled How To Brainstorm Like A Googler.
In her introduction, Lafargue noted that the company had no secret innovation formula. Instead, it had developed a way to systematically coax ideas into existence and then steadily improve them.
Google’s brainstorming approach can easily be distilled into three core principles. These principles, which Lafargue noted any company could adopt, comprise a linear process for turning an idea into an actual product.
Principle 1 – Get to know the user
To solve a major problem or address a customer need, Google maintains a focus on the user. Employees collect stories, emotions, and ideas from users in the field.
They are also comfortable with silence and have a preference to observe and empathize to better relate to user needs.
Lafargue used the example of a trip where she visited Google’s customers in India, Brazil, and Canada.
Via observation and active listening, she learned that the apparently generic term “mobility” was interpreted in different ways based on one’s location.
In India where connectivity was a concern, an important aspect of mobility was the ability to work offline. In Canada, the term was more literal and described collaboration from one’s desk, kitchen table, or favorite coffee shop.
In Brazil, where traffic lengthens commute times, mobility was most associated with voice control and an effective interface.
The key takeaway from the first principle is that Google made the effort to find out what it needed to know about users.
Principle 2 – Think 10x
Think 10x is rather common in business today but no less effective. In essence, it involves aiming to improve something by a factor of 10 as opposed to 10%.
Lafargue uses another example to illustrate the point. In Project Loon, Google wondered whether a balloon network could provide abundant, affordable internet to not only the next billion people but also the last, most impoverished billion people.
The incremental 10% idea would have been to build additional fiber infrastructure.
The 10x idea, on the other hand, involved launching balloons into the stratosphere where, for months on end, they would need to endure 100 km/hr winds and temperatures as low as -90 degrees Celsius.
Not only would these balloons need to survive, but they would also have to provide reliable and affordable internet to those in the most remote and underserved areas of the world.
The 10x ideation process
In a brainstorming session, users jot down ideas in private before assembling as a group and deciding which should be pursued. Google then follows this process:
- Build on ideas – employees resist the urge to kill ideas early on. Instead, ideas should be followed with “Yes, and” rather than ”No, but”.
- Ideate, ideate, ideate – Lafargue noted that “the best way to have a great idea is to have many ideas.” Quantity is more important than quality in step two.
- Write headlines – to clarify ideas, they must be described in less than six words. Employees imagine the headline an idea would receive in a magazine or newspaper.
- Illustrate – pictures speak a thousand words.
- Think big – the core component of the 10x approach that invites bold, intrepid ideas.
- Defer judgment – Google teams also respect point number one at all times. Ideas should be built upon to ideate and never judged while brainstorming is in progress.
Principle 3 – Prototype
Many brainstorming sessions end with the team committing to meet later and follow up ideas with promise. At Google, however, teams like to strike while the proverbial iron is hot when the idea is still fresh in everyone’s mind.
The company does this by building a quick prototype almost immediately. The prototypes are not perfect, but they do enable Google teams to answer the most pressing questions and test first assumptions.
When employees can hold the idea in their hands, much more can be learned about their viability.
In the late 1990s, LEGO was in crisis as the popularity of digital toys and games threatened to push it out of the market. To save the company from the brink of disaster, LEGO’s management team initiated a series of brainstorming sessions to find a way to stay relevant.
During one session, a group of employees started building models with the company’s iconic bricks while discussing business ideas. They found that the physical act of building and playing with LEGO bricks helped fuel their creativity and generate new ideas.
This led to the development of the LEGO Serious Play (LSP) methodology – a framework that utilizes LEGO bricks as a tool for problem-solving and ideation in business contexts. To foster collaboration and unlock creative ideation, the framework invites participants to build models of their ideas and share them with others.
While LEGO Serious Play was the result of a company trying to save itself from bankruptcy, the method has now been used by hundreds of other companies for various purposes. In the context of brainstorming, LSP is best suited to situations with no obvious solutions and no correct or incorrect answers. It is also useful as a way to break the ice in new teams or enable older teams to be creative if faced with obstacles.
Below is a case study of how the technique was used in practice.
Joomla is the second most popular content management system (CMS) in the world and is installed on an estimated 2.5 million websites. To celebrate its tenth anniversary in 2015, Joomla held a conference where 260 participants brainstormed various roles that the CMS would play in the future.
The participant cohort – which consisted of testers, developers, and activists – were each handed one of LEGO’s Window Exploration Bags (a small bag of bricks and other accessories for short brainstorming sessions) plus a pen and A4 sheet of paper. Teams of 5 or 6 were assembled with individuals in each team unfamiliar to each other.
As an ice breaker, individuals were told to construct a dog with just four bricks and share their creations with others. Another icebreaker involved people constructing a mini-figure of themselves before making a formal introduction to the group.
Focus of the brainstorming sessions
To start the ideation process itself, each individual assembled 5 bricks at random and then had to explain in 30 seconds what their construction meant. Various metaphors were picked from the descriptions which were later used to encourage discussion about future scenarios that could impact Joomla.
Individuals were then asked the more direct question: “Where will the Joomla community be in 10 years from now?” To answer this question, each had 30 minutes to build something and write down 1 to 3 important keywords that best described their understanding of the future.
Before a final reflection of 10 minutes, users were asked to clarify three actions that would make their vision a reality. Each person was encouraged to generate actions that were both concrete and realistic.
Ideation focused on three core challenges that Joomla had identified:
- Disruptive innovation – how could Joomla remain competitive in the future and prepare itself for different scenarios? Some of the most productive ideas centered around how the Joomla CMS could build new interfaces with other solutions.
- Work/life balance – Joomla is an open-source project that relies on the contributions of volunteers who must also balance other life and business priorities. Teams identified various ideas that could keep contributors committed to the cause.
- New opportunities – while Joomla is relatively popular in the United States and Western Europe, it was acknowledged that new expansion opportunities existed in emerging markets. In response, Joomla developer Open Source Matters decided to hold one annual conference in India and another in Mexico.
- Brainstorming is a broad and diverse discipline where individuals come together to discuss ways that a business can grow, improve, innovate, problem-solve or make better decisions.
- In the first example, a marketing team wants to brainstorm ideas to encourage users to use a paid version of a meditation app. The team consisted of six people in six different roles to create an ideal cross-functional mix.
- In the second real-world example, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., used brainstorming to solve the problem of museum visitors feeling out of their depth when viewing art. Short, on-demand videos that allowed visitors to increase their understanding proved to be the most viable solution.
Connected Brainstorming Frameworks
The Fishbone Diagram
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