Utter the word “brainstorming” to your department, and it could send a person or two scurrying out of the huddle.  For many, the process of brainstorming is just as pleasant as nuking their brains in the microwave.  It’s a mix of desperately trying to get everyone’s “good ideas”, carefully treading the waters so as not to offend anyone, and yet ending up with a ridiculously bizarre result (when it sounded picture-perfect on the drawing board).

It’s a tiring process, mentally, emotionally, physically, and might we say spiritually.  Yet brainstorming persists for many reasons.   Our daily office routine doesn’t exactly afford us the time nor the creativity to think “out of the box”.  But when we put a group of people together, we harness contrasting skills, beliefs, and experiences.  The expected resolution to a posed issue is a filtered, procured, and efficient idea. Flawless and smooth. No problem.

Why then is brainstorming painful?

The problem I find is that it isn’t so much the issue at hand.  What causes agony is the desire to strike a balance between competing requirements.  It’s finding that delicate equilibrium between viability and creativity.  Ideally, a brainstorming session is supposed to feel liberating.  It’s a chance to ask those odd questions without judgment (Wouldn’t it be great if your toothbrush could moonlight as a comb?).  But it is also meant to elicit hardnosed thinking (Why would you be asking that, we manufacture acrylic paints!).

Here’s what I think.

The painful part of brainstorming is part of the process.  And dare I say, that it shouldn’t be avoided.

Here’s why.  We all know that different types of ideas materialize at different stages of brainstorming.  In the first part of a brainstorming session, most of the ideas generated are practical ones. It’s obvious, after all.  However, the more original ones, the ones that pack a punch come later.

Another pressure point is between the manager and the subordinate or non-managers.  Brainstorming can be hierarchical.  In sessions composed of managers and team members, even the most beneficial ideas can shrivel with a scowl from the boss.  On the flip side, bad ideas can fly with a smirk.

What I do notice, however, (and this is what the TIGERS 6 Principles™ can bring), is the benefit of an outsider.  Naturally, we gravitate towards familiarity and comfort.  It’s tempting to keep on eliciting from our own elders.   But what they’re missing out on here by sticking to our own is the fresh perspective that an outsider may bring.

This process is being used now in a rural collaboration among government, nonprofit, business, and resident collaboration that totally neutralized the political influence of the main partner. This is so actionable community development decisions that lead to planning occur. It is an economic development process that is developing community infrastructure so that young people return to the community after their college or trade school education so communities grow rather than frizzle.

Another significant point is the desire to balance out conflicting personalities in the workplace.   We had to make do with video calls during the pandemic.  But we knew that this didn’t work as well as in-person meetings.  Some are ill at ease with a physical nudge from a coworker or colleague.  Others rely on body language.  Whatever the medium, facilitators must note that some people require kind persuasion face to face.

Brainstorming techniques

While we are on the topic of brainstorming, let me share with you some techniques we use to provoke dynamic brainstorming.

Brainstorming Tool #1:  Ask the Hard Questions

When a question is asked and someone offers an answer, we often think that the answer alone solves it.  As a result, we stop exploring and creative thinking comes to a complete halt.   But with this brainstorming tool, we encourage participants to explore every nook and cranny EVEN BEFORE ATTEMPTING TO FIND A SOLUTION.   The benefits are many.  For one, it allows the non-managers to ask their own questions even if the bosses have given their say.  Second, this technique allows everyone to put questions that haven’t been considered before, out in the open.  I’ve seen how this “changes” the problem because the team now sees the issue “differently”.

When to do this:

  • When solving a challenging issue
  • When planning change (or during the early stages of change planning as a step before achieving consensus)

Materials Needed:

  • Two chairs
  • Paper

How to Use:

  1. The 1st person writes down a question that does not have a clear or acceptable answer.  He reads the answer, places the paper on the floor, and sits on the chair.
  2. If any of the participants have a new question (although I highly suggest that a second person is already assigned to get things going), they may sit on the other vacant chair and ask their question out loud.

Note that the objective of the exercise is NOT to answer any of the questions raised.   The task is to simply ask more questions.  Neither is anyone allowed to substantiate their question nor explain why they asked it.

  1. The next person taps the shoulder of any of the seated participants and takes their seat. They then ask their question out loud. Continue until nobody has any more questions.
  2. When no questions are left to ask, the first person or the creator must read the original and the final question. (For good measure, I assign someone to take down all the questions asked.)

It can be empowering to see how the original question transforms into the final one.  Often the last one holds more impact and is more in-depth compared to the ones that preceded it.   And sometimes, the problem has changed only because it is viewed differently.

This works for breakout groups.  Should the smaller groups convene back into a larger group, the leaders may just read the first and final question.

What ensures success

  • Make sure that nobody answers or critiques a question.  Relevance isn’t a priority at this time. What may seem immaterial to one may be relevant to another.
  • Upfront, a good facilitator gets agreement on ground rules for the facilitation. One of the non-negotiable ones is laying the ground rule for psychological safety. The negotiable ones are what the group decides.

Any time you have someone paying for the facilitation, expect a power imbalance between and among managers and informal leaders. This must be leveled out so everyone has the same right and purpose to comment from their level of position power without threat of retaliation. Without this, those with lesser position power won’t share their insights or what you hear is crickets. Then the brainstorming goes off target because silence is interpreted as agreement. It is also important to know if one of the parties is sending someone to the brainstorm without the power to create the decision without approval from someone else. This is important to know upfront because otherwise if the decision is nixed, everyone’s time is lost.

Brainstorming Tool #2:  Brain-Friendly Brainstorming

If you’ve ever participated in a brainstorming session and thought nothing new was to come out of it, you aren’t alone.  It’s frustrating to feel that you could’ve come up with the same answers yourself and dealt with an overassertive boss who has nothing on his agenda but push his own.  Here’s something that works 100% of the time.

When to do this:

  • When you need ideas to solve a problem or make a decision

Materials Needed:

  • A whiteboard or flipchart
  • Timer or someone assigned to keep track of time
  • Someone to take notes

How to Use:

  1. Have someone read out the problem or a statement of the decision to be made.
  2. Start the timer for 2 minutes and have the group brainstorm ideas. Someone then takes note of every idea or suggestion made on the whiteboard or chart. No discussions are allowed at this point.
  3. When 2 minutes are up, the group is then allowed to discuss issues UNRELATED to the problem for another two minutes. (The facilitator may give the topic to be discussed, examples: Should pineapples on pizza be allowed? If dying your hair a bizarre color is a requirement at work, what would yours be and why.)
  4. When the 2 minutes are up, the original problem or decision must be read out loud and each idea on the whiteboard or chart is discussed.

What ensures success

The discussion on the unrelated topic, bizarre as it may seem is crucial.  This is because the unconscious mind continues to work on the issue while combing through past experiences.   As a result, the most creative and practical ideas emerge after the short break.  This tool also addresses the dominance issue because it allows the group to arrive at a list without the need for further discussion.

Each idea is then put to a vote. Ideas worth exploring are marked with a check. Again, no critique or defense is allowed.

What to look out for

The process of writing the ideas down must be quick and energetic.  Assign two to three people and feel free to use keywords.  Slowing down can cause the group to lose energy.

These techniques and more are at your disposal when you engage a trained TIGERS™ facilitator to lead  your brainstorming sessions. Or, have a chat with us and see how the TIGERS 6 Principles™ can empower your organization.

Copyright TIGERS Success Series, Inc. by Dianne Crampton

About TIGERS Success Series, Inc.

TIGERS Success Series is a robust collaborative workforce and high performance team development system. Founded on four years of research and subsequent validation, TIGERS offers group behavior assessment based on six collaborative principles – trust, interdependence, genuineness, empathy, risk and success for groups of eight or more people. Follow up training, coaching, consulting and licensing is available to independent consultants and qualified coaches, project managers. managers and internal HR professionals. A Bend, Oregon based company, contact us here to discover how to become a TIGERS Licensed Manager as Facilitator.