5 Rules of Brainstorming

Idea LeadershipWhenever I ask if anyone knows how to brainstorm, they always say, “Yes.” Not long into the activity they demonstrate that they don’t know how or are unable to follow the rules. I always keep a reminder sheet of brainstorming rules on me to quickly review with teams. Here is the list—

1. There are No Dumb Ideas. This is the hardest rule to keep for people who don’t practice brainstorming often, especially when someone shares an idea from out of left field. Any negative feedback immediately closes down part of the person’s mind in the name of protection. It also shuts down anyone else who heard the comment and hinders the team’s progress.

The best way to approach all ideas is from a position of acceptance. Everyone knows when a better idea is shared, so no one ever needs to be told their idea wasn’t any good, especially when the weird ideas tend to spark more creativity that leads to great ideas. The not-so-great ideas are like kindling that starts a bonfire. If kindling is squelched, the bonfire never gets lit.

2. Don’t Criticize Other People’s Ideas. The moment judgment, a left-brain activity, enters the discussion it shuts down the right brain where great ideas are formed. The only reason for a person to shoot down an idea is to show superiority, which stifles creativity. No creative team has room for a superior being on it. After all, a dominant person in a brainstorming session tries to leverage their ideas instead of finding what’s best for the story.

When someone criticizes an idea, the greatest tool of correction is for the team to immediately use the “bad idea” as a launching point for a diversion into play. Dave Crawford, a Disney Imagineering Principal Mechanical Show/Ride Engineer says, “The most unrealistic options inspire tangent ideas that take you to new places you would have never considered.” By exploring all the possible tangents, not only does the criticizer learn his or her place, but also the team gets to overcome the negative comments with numerous newly inspired ideas.

3. Build on Other People’s Ideas. Some ideas are like taking a thumb out of a dam with a flurry of side or bigger ideas pouring forth. Teams can get on a roll of ideas that build one on top of the other. This sends the team into diverse directions and can shift the focus to address sustainable details. The goal is to capture the best of all the ideas and find an angle on it that will out last the test of time.

In the improv community, who brainstorms live on stage, the process is called, “yes, and.” The yes acknowledges the first person’s comment in a positive light and then adds to it a bigger, tangential or more detailed idea. The add-on is never viewed as being “better,” but instead as being the next step in the developmental process for creating great show or story.

4. Reverse Quality for Quantity. During production or performance everyone focuses on quality. However, in the developmental brainstorming process its mandatory to chase after quantity. It’s impossible to come up with a new invention, show or story without pouring through a gazillion ideas until you find that one new angle, perspective or idea. Whether the goal is to educate or entertain, some form of the idea must be new.

Most pros board their brainstorming activities and later gather the large quantity of ideas based on observable groupings, topic, viewpoint or uniqueness. Screenplay writers group their ideas by set pieces, turning points and entertainment value. Businessmen group their ideas based on presentation, features and benefits. Preachers group their ideas based on scripture, story and application.

5. Play Wildly. This is the most important element and the one few people want to see on the list. The more childlike the approach during the brainstorming process, the more creative the final solution. The play factor instills energy into the developmental process and infuses it with fun-based passion. This activity drives the kind of creativity required for a successful brainstorming session.

Many people define play differently. Some watch a movie in between sessions. Some quip off jokes. The more energetic get into character and role-play various perspectives. Others pull out board games, while still others get into pretend or make-believe worlds. Some even get more elaborate in their play within the worlds of cosplay or steampunk. Any activity works that is immersed in right-brained activity—even scribbling games on a blank sheet of paper.

When the rules of brainstorming are adhered to, all participants gain energy from the experience. When the rules are abused, people feel drained afterwards. This thermometer that tests the flow of creative juices is important to monitor for the sake of future sessions and productivity. Without play, all brainstorming sessions fall a part.

A Creative Approach to Productivity

Andrew CarnegieAndrew Carnegie never intended to use right-brain thinking to increase production volume between the night shift and the day shift, but he stumbled upon it the day he wrote the number of items produced by the night shift on the cement entryway floor with chalk. That morning the day crew surmised what the number represented and by the end of the shift, erased the old number and replaced it with a larger one.

The night shift didn’t want to be beaten, so they got creative in reducing the process steps and placed a larger number on the floor at the end of the shift. The day shift wasn’t about to be undone, so they came up with creative ways to increase volume and capacity. This continued for several weeks until the factory was consistently producing more items than before the chalk incident.

The funny thing was “when” Carnegie wrote the number on the floor that started it all. He had come from a meeting were he asked leaders to increase productivity by 10% and they fought him with a myriad of comments about how it was impossible to create double-digit growth. But thanks to right-brain thinking on the part of the workers, Carnegie saw triple-digit growth within several weeks.

While some might suggest that friendly competition was to be praised for the growth, it was actually the creative juices of brainstorming that looked at the processes differently. The idea of reworking what had always worked is a right-brain event. Dropping unnecessary steps is also a right-brain activity.

The left-brain was represented in the meeting that said no to a double-digit increase based on the way it had always been done. The left-brain also suggested that there is a ceiling for everything and therefore no reason to conclude that a ceiling can be broken.

When I managed the receiving department at a warehouse retail store, I timed my team’s ability to breakdown pallets and move the merchandise to the sales floor. When the store manager required us to do it his way, the team broke down 4-6 pallets during the four-hour window. This was due mostly to his required set up that was easily interrupted by unscheduled truck deliveries and the top-priority customer service team accessing stored items for customers.

When I asked the team to come up with a creative solution that avoided the customer service pathway, they were able to breakdown 12-14 pallets. Then I asked how we could better facilitate the process to avoid truck deliveries and customer service people. One person came up with a circular approach requiring less physical steps that allowed the team to breakdown 18-20 pallets.

Then it happened. I stumbled upon a guy over one weekend that lined everything up the length of receiving using half of the pathway, so anyone could get in and out without any interruptions. I also noticed that every time he broke down a pallet, he immediately packed it out in the store, dramatically reducing the workload of the night crew.

This creative approach solved the problem of having congested aisles during sales hours. It also reduced the number of non-packed out items returning to the back room at the end of a shift, again reducing the workload of the night shift.

Unfortunately, no one in upper management noticed the increase in productivity, so everything eventually went back to business as usual. The reason was simple, it takes right-brain creativity to find a new way of increasing productivity, but it takes left-brain logic to manage and sustain it as the new process going forward.

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers