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Brainstorming is a group method that can be used in many contexts, including to improve the quality of a product, service or process.

Alex Osborn … its inventor: Osborn was president of the New York advertising agency BBDO. He had found that in the idea-gathering meetings common in this business, most energy was wasted in destructive criticism of other people’s ideas. First used in 1938, brainstorming is therefore, according to its name, “the use of the brain to attack a problem”.

In brainstorming, synergy is the result of the power of association of each member’s ideas. If, individually, one idea can lead to another, in a group the same phenomenon is reproduced, and the combination of these powers multiplies the group’s creativity according to an exponential curve.

The role of the leader (Facilitator):

  • He plans the meeting
  • Oversees the physical layout of the room: U-shaped table, flipcharts or large sheets of paper, and easel
  • It’s to his advantage to have good interpersonal skills, to demonstrate communicative enthusiasm, and to be familiar with the Brainstorming technique.
  • Appoint an “assistant” to act as “secretary” and write down the group’s ideas on the board or flipchart.

Group composition:

  • The ideal group would be around 12 people
  • As far as possible, participants should be of “homogeneous status” i.e. equivalent education, similar income, etc., to avoid embarrassment inhibiting spontaneity.
  • It would be preferable to form mixed groups (male/female) whose knowledge of the “problem” or “situation” varies from familiar to unfamiliar.

Brainstorming steps

Step 1:

– Presentation of the problem :

  • The facilitator summarizes the situation/problem and passes on to the group the “data” and information he or she has on the problem. The problem must be important enough to justify a group’s intervention, and likely to give rise to many solutions!
  • He asks participants if they have any questions. Often, simply changing the wording of a problem makes it less off-putting. He tries to ensure that the situation – the problem – is as clearly defined and understood by all as possible.
  • The assistant writes the problem reformulated by the group in large type on a sheet of paper.

Step 2:

Warm-up period :

  • The facilitator asks the group to think creatively about an object or situation. Example : How many ways can we find to use this eraser? What can we do with this paper clip?
  • The facilitator invites the group to relax, momentarily forgetting the problem at hand, and to put their imaginations to work.

Step 3:

  • The facilitator explains to the group the 4 basic rules of the brainstorming technique, which he has written on a large sheet of paper.
  1. don’t criticize
  2. let your imagination run wild
  3. come up with as many ideas as possible
  4. develop other people’s ideas
  • The facilitator tells the group that the elimination of all criticism is very important, since a large part of inhibition is linked to the judgment of peers.
  • He states that all ideas, no matter how extravagant, must be expressed.
  • The facilitator informs the group that he will scrupulously observe the ground rules during the brainstorming session.
  • The facilitator also recalls the problem as reformulated by the group, and directs (animates) the exchanges, letting the participants express themselves spontaneously in contained disorder.
  • The assistant notes down each of the ideas expressed on large sheets of paper or on the board. The facilitator checks with the group to see if any ideas need clarifying… without, however, tolerating any criticism.
  • If the exchange seems to be stagnating: the facilitator encourages the participants by giving them a target to aim for “we need x number of ideas”, or revives the discussion by contributing a few ideas that he or she has prepared in advance.
  • He can also ask participants to reread the ideas they have already put forward, or isolate one of them and ask them to develop it if possible. This allows the “weaker” ideas to be recuperated.

Step 4:

  • Classifying/grouping ideas: The various stages of Brainstorming can take around an hour to an hour and a half, but the idea generation period (stage 3) itself usually lasts around 15 minutes.
  • After this, the facilitator invites participants to identify the different categories or themes arising from the ideas generated and helps them group the ideas within these categories. Examples of categories:  economic/cultural / sports/entertainment / political, etc. …
  • The brainstorming process: Once the ideas have been grouped into categories, the group (or the client(s)) sift through the ideas in each category, using pre-defined criteria.
  • Idea selection criteria: 
  • the RELEVANCE of each idea in terms of the initial problem
  • the REALISTICITY of each idea in terms of financial ($), material and human resources
  • the ACCEPTABILITY of each idea in terms of the values of the group and the people affected by the problem.

Mistakes not to be made :

  • Take any person to form the group
  • Propose a vague problem
  • Not ensuring that the problem is fully understood by participants
  • Forgetting to write/display the problem title
  • Not defining the working method
  • Failing to remind the group of operating rules
  • Mixing the production and evaluation of ideas
  • Interpreting or censoring participants’ proposals
  • Don’t write down all the ideas
  • Let the “experts” crush the “naifs
  • Don’t display idea sheets in full view of participants
  • Let participants censor themselves
  • Cast doubt on the quality of the group’s output