Brainstorming is one of the most known and diffused creativity boosting techniques used for getting fresh ideas. While brainstorming can also be done by individuals, it is most effective when done in a group of 10-12 people.
The technique is in principle very simple.

A topic of discussion should be clarified and well defined at the beginning of a brainstorming session, possibly in terms of a question to answer. The definition of the task is important and one of the key of a successful brainstorming session. It should contain the least of possible information, and definitely no indication about possible solutions. For instance a topic posed as “how can we improve internal collaboration between different groups in order to find common interest of research?” is not a good formulation because it is not clear what the problem is (improving internal collaboration or finding common interests?). In some sense improving internal collaboration is already proposed as the solution to the problem of finding common interests. A better formulation would be : “how can we improve internal collaboration?” or how can we find common interests of research? which leave rooms for a larger set of solutions to solve each of these problems, possibly in two different brainstorming sessions.
When formulating your topic for the brainstorming, remember the basic rule: less is more.

Once the session starts every participant should speak up his/her solutions. No ideas are too crazy, and there is no wrong or right. The moderator in charge to lead the brainstorming should write all ideas down and stop any criticism. Laughing is allowed, criticism is not. Indeed a good laugh is often what you need to get the relaxed feeling that helps to think a bit crazy. Very often happens that ideas that seemed very off in the beginning, will offer a good solution to the problem, or at least inspire and lead the discussion in the right direction.

Give yourself a limitation in time or even better in number of ideas (aim to a high number, like 50 or 100 ideas on the whiteboard). Then give votes to each ideas, according to some criteria, like feasibility or degree of innovation, and select your best 5 ideas to discuss within the group.
Keep a list of the best ideas that came out, as you might discover that the 5 you selected are not really optimal and you might want to go back to the list to pick up another choice.

Following these advices does not guarantee a good outcome from a brainstorming. There are indeed some well studied situations that undermine the success. One the problems often encountered is the pre-existent group dynamic. If one of the person of the group is perceived as more influential, it is likely that his or her ideas will be driving the brainstorming, which will prevent others from thinking freely. Another problem is if someone comes up right from the beginning with a very good idea and everybody get fixated with that one and cannot thing of anything different.
It is important to keep this in mind and try to avoid possible pitfall.
Knowing the dynamics within your group, can help you imagine some helpful variations, for example, asking individuals or couples to write at least 3 solutions on a piece of paper before opening the discussion to the group. Or by introducing manual tasks, like drawing, building, or even acting. Want to know more? I will talk about this in a forthcoming post.

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