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Brainstorming, the 7 rules and when the magic happens

Those who have already practiced brainstorming may remember the 7 rules that are generally displayed on a paperboard, in a corner of the room and always visible to all participants. Do they always guarantee the success of the meeting ? Did poor brainstorming sessions fail because they were not perfectly followed ? Brainstorming sessions sometimes not really fail but provide disappointing results, the group may finish with deception on the faces of their participants. We have to accept it, and wait for the next iteration. However, in most cases, brainstorming sessions are brilliant and powerful without being solely dependent on those 7 rules. Many other factors have an influence that facilitators learn from experience or can rediscover in this article. Something magical is always there and this is probably the reason why they become “addicted” to this kind of animation.

1. The seven rules

Brainstorming involves generating a large number of ideas by building on the ideas of others. Associations of ideas multiply in proportion to the members of the group and by separating creativity from judgement for a moment. Diversity (multidisciplinary) and equality between the members (no leader, no hierarchy) are other important characteristics of a productive group. These principles are summarized in the 7 well-known rules that are easily found on the internet [1].

  • Defer judgement.
  • Build on the ideas of others
  • Encourage wild ideas
  • Go for quantity
  • Be visual
  • Stay focused on the topic
  • One conversation at a time

The participants generally accept to play the game and the facilitator has no difficulties stimulating the group. Everybody’s goodwill is often sufficient. In addition to this, Ice breakers exercices before the brainstorming starts, in a nicely arranged place with food and drinks will make the most reticent people feel confortable and in confidence, and ensure the success of the meeting. In Design Thinking workshops another new rule should be considered called Creative Confidence [2] because our habits of thought and our methods of work are badly shaken all along this kind of journey.

Among these rules there is one, however, which goes beyond simple goodwill and escapes our control. This is rule N°5 Be Visual. Despite the use of sticky notes and the thickest sharpies there is still a strong tendency to write instead of drawing on these little pieces of paper. Writing leads our brain to process information in a linear way and restricts our thinking to logic reasoning and amplifies criticism [3]. The exact opposite of what we are looking for. The facilitator can orient ice breakers in order to quickly convince the group of the effectiveness of visual expression.

2. Social factors

Brainstorming is based on the principle that the group is stronger than the sum of the individuals composing it. It is, however, interesting to learn that the first researches on brainstorming, invented by the publicist Osborn in the 1940s, demonstrated the contrary. In large part because a number of social factors that limit its perfomance were not taken into account [4]. They are summarized here. Keeping them in mind allows the facilitator to remain vigilant in order intervene when necessary.

Also called social loafing or diffusion of responsibility, this occurs when one participant hides behind the group. Some people rely on the group to produce ideas, maybe less inspired in the beginning, not feeling at ease with group exercices like role plays. They finally loose motivation an provide minimal effort. It’s good to encourage them, at the same time as you would unnecessarily encourage the big contributor next to him so that he doesn’t feel he has been recognized.

Even though participant’s are asked to come up with crazy ideas, some are still afraid that they will not be well perceived. They may reveal a hidden part of themselves that may lead to inquisitive questions later at the social dinner (so you said you were writing novels ?). Who really dares to unveil a secret part of themselves in front of their manager or client ? They may be waiting for someone to propose something they will personally judge far more disruptive (ignoring the rule of deferring judgement for a little while) and wait for the very last second (see next section) after they estimated the balance between discretion and cooperation.

Until the participant’s idea hasn’t been expressed it’s stays blocked in the brain’s working memory and prevents other ideas to come up. Distributing sticky notes to everyone should easily overcome this problem. I often invite the participants to stick them on themselves while waiting for their turn to express them in front of others.

We always compare to each other and evaluate each other’s performance inside a group. For some reason groups sometimes don’t work well, something darkens the atmosphere that nobody can control. Social comparison may restrict the group to generate similar ideas and unfortunately reinforce the situation. It’s time for a break. Something has to be done to stop the movement to be able to restart a few minutes later. I personally do not hesitate to say “we don’t feel great today, some days are better than others, why not breaking for a while, I need a break and a refreshing drink right now”. I measure the accuracy of my diagnosis by unanimous reactions.

The risk of these social factors appearing increases with the size of the group. In the majority of cases, however, things unfold perfectly and ideas spring up. They regulate themselves within the group and under the satisfied glance of the animator.

3. The magic

How can it be that the poorest sessions with shy facilitators in an awfull place and a business group not really prepared for an exotic meeting still produces satisfactory results ? Is there an invisible hand like in the economy world that makes self-interested individuals operate through a system of mutual interdependence to promote the general benefit of the group ? What is invisible is probably magic and we all seek a little magic. I have often experienced these magical moments that I have tried to capture, to understand how they happen. Here are some ingredients that are the result of this experience.

What sparked the big bang ? The starting point of a successful brainstorming depends on the question to be answered, how it is defined. You can’t just ask a question and let the group reflect. The question should carry a tension that stimulates people’s brain, motivated by the challenge that they even take personally. It is the facilitator’s responsibility to take the group to this level of tension by taking them to the big question that triggers a storm in their brains. I view this as freeing the pressure from the steam cooker after you have spent enough time cooking the ingredients. Pressure cannot be released before every ingredient has been well prepared and well cooked. I sometimes defer the brainstorming session to a later moment if I consider the group is not ready to overflow.

Many things can be found in the Design Thinking literature about how to prepare the brainstorming (Ideation) phase, it can be called the Empathy phase, Understand, Discovery or What-Is phase [5]. It’s good preparation is essential. In Design Thinking, the Stanford Design Institue call this big question the “Point of view” (POV) [6]. It is the purpose of the Define phase, after all information has been discovered and collected about the user, during the Empathy phase, his or her needs or motivations and some specific insights that allow the original problem statement to become actionable, i.e. to be refined and concentrated into a POV. The POV gives the necessary impulse for the brainstorming of the following Ideation phase. According to [3] defining your design challenge, your Point of View, is probably one of the most important steps in the design thinking process as this will generate a greater quantity and higher quality solutions when the group starts generating ideas during later brainstorming. Simply, how to come up with a “Big question” can be found in [7]. Tom and David Kelly call it the “question zero” [2].

  • Encourage wild ideas but do not applause

The facilitator invited the group to free up and go crazy but he or she should not overreact to the wild ideas. Just pretend this is another idea like the others otherwise the newly promoted most creative member of the group will now rest on their laurels, exhausted by such a fulgurance, and for the others to consider that someone has done it for the group and stop there (social loafing).

The wildest ideas end up being the most popular at the end. Ruled out for a moment (judgement is now back, pushed by the unconcious NIH — not inveted here effect) and elevated to the rank of the most exotic ones, they end up being digested (accepted) by all and find a second life to become the starting point of a very concrete solution. A moment of magic to savor without moderation.

A simple way to avoid making judgments about one’s own ideas is not give enough time. The countdown prevents the participant from using his analytical mind, to develop any strategy to beat around the bush, to avoid losing control. Avoid lying to himself when it comes to talking about oneself. Summoned with confidence to come out with the first things that come to his mind, he will be surprised to discover what was sleeping on the borders of his unconscious or the intelligible. The time constraint is well known for putting pressure on the group, it instills a rather stimulating competition.

Time constraints are key to keep a level of pressure without which social laziness may develop. A classical parameter that boosts creativity that I always experience. The participants gently complain but the rythm keep them focused and they accept the rule of the game. Some more diamond dust.

  • Let the discussion start but

stop it as soon as what had to be said has been said. Otherwise the participant will block on his argument until he or she can express it. He won’t think of any idea until then. Brainstorming meetings are not a daily practice and the discomfort makes people think and analyse the situation. The challenge itself makes people think as this is what we are doing all the time. Expressing ourselves with little drawings on sticky notes is unusual. So the facilitator should carefully let the pressure relief valve to open but also close it firmly before it may impact the whole group. Also, responding too quickly to questions and expectations of participants contravenes the small amount of frustration that triggers learning, stimulates creativity, and also indicates that they can rely on the facilitator when needed.

tend to hide themselves in a way or another. They seem very busy not producing anything. I confess to having fun a little of them by arranging to give them post-it of different color to make visible subliminally the extent of their non-production. This may be the only time I have moved away from my role to keep distance from the group by trying to suggest a direction, suggesting to use the “top 10” rule (what if you had 10 times more time or 10 times less, 10 times more money, means, or 10 times less), or any idea coming from the various methods and practices that the facilitator knows to put them back into the race.

  • Creative ideas have been exhausted

but there’s not enough on the wall. A first creativity period has just closed and we need to do more. With what has been generated I fear that we won’t have enough material for the next phase, synthesize. It looks like the brain has to make a break before we can relaunch it and this is precisely what we are doing, take a little break. Not more than the time to have a refreshing drink or jump on the salted soda crakers otherwise the whole moment will be lost.

  • Acknowledge those who criticize

and move on. Rebound on the critics to refocus on the topic. Extinguish this little fire before it spreads a bad mood among the group members. But frankly, this is rarely the case. Humour is a good tool here.

This one is my favorite ! This is the magic instant I always expect now. When time is over and you ask the team to stop, the very last crazy idea of one participant emerges. The secret could not be kept any longer. It occurred to me that it is actually the best one, but the one that has been lost in space because nobody’s listening anymore, so much relieved after their brain has suffered a storm.

Once, after a disapointing Business Model session, I decided to go for the 5-whys exercise to bring more meaning to the business value we were looking for. Time had gone out while nothing really convincing had emerged. I remember the group member summarizing the meeting in one perfect synthetic sentence that nobody heard, not even herself, not even myself. Another time, it was the very last post-it sticked on the wall while nobody was paying attention anymore. The miracle came back to my mind while I was driving back home. I decided to share it with the member the day after. It became the slogan of his new business.

At the occasion of co-development sessions, one candidate expresses a problem (problem statement) and the team asks questions (empathy, understand) to learn more about the subject. Then the candidate rephrases the problem by asking about what he or she expects from the group (big question). The group is then asked to make suggestions (ideate) and is invited to try crazy ideas at the end. Finally the candidate expresses what he or she selected (feedback, needs statement) from all those very good suggestions made by the group and decides what he or she will test and experiment the next day (prototype). The candidate will then come back to the next session to give feedback to the group (iterate). However, just before making a conclusion, 100% of the candidates reveal a new thing, in the form of “by the way I should have told you that…” that completely changes the perspective and which makes some of the contribution from the group irrelevant. This is almost unconscious, but we do not self-disclose easily and therefore wait for the very last moment to make the biggest revelations, before it’s too late, just in case this very last confession triggers a providential suggestion.

Whatever the process the brainstorming session is used for, we always find similar phases in each process that have proved their worth for thirty years [8]. When the ring bells, I always open my ears at the last second to capture this magical moment.

4. The facilitator’s know how

Should the facilitator know about the domain that is being studied ? The answer is no in [9] but what was the question ? The question is whether the facilitator should participate to the creation process. The answer is no obviously, the facilitator does not work on the content. However shouldn’t he or she be knowledgeable about the domain anyway ? Like project managers that better manage their projects when they know about the subject (without helping in any task) I believe that the facilitator will be able to better stimulate and guide the team. He should be able to better detect when to refocus and relaunch, he must know the vocabulary.

I recently attended a brainstorming session where the facilitator could not refocus the group and was not able to challenge the people that stayed on their first ideas. To my perception the final result was quite poor because a number of interesting tracks were not very much adressed. From my point of view, the facilitator should know about the domain at the same time as being careful not to intervene. This is the posture of the facilitator, staying on the edge, between withdrawal and awarness. To guide without intervening, to question without suggesting, to suggest without imposing, in short to not project oneself. It is a difficult balance which makes the facilitators know how particularly relevant.

The facilitator of a Businness Model Canvas workshop does not need to be an MBA graduate, he should master however the notion of business models to be able to help the group sticking notes in the right block.

Facilitation is a surgical science that influences people behaviours in a very specific professional context.

The facilitator is here to stimulate the group, make the members respect the rules like a shepherd keeps every sheep. But honestly, things go well and by themselves most of the time and I often content myself contemplating a masterpiece just being created right before my eyes. Finally, whether this is a Design Thinking, a Strategyzer’s Business Model, a 5-whys or an Issues bull’s eye meeting, the brainstorming mechanics operate pretty much the same way from the very first to the very last second. When the magic happens, you can just let the group look back at what they accomplished and break before the next phase.


[1] Some links about the brainstorming rules

[2] Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All — Tom Kelley et David Kelley — Crown Publishing Group

[3] Le modèle californien. Comment l’esprit collaboratif change le monde — Monique Dagnaud — Editions Odile Jacob

[4] Le groupe est-il plus créatif que l’individu isolé ? — Eva Delacroix et Valentine Galtier — http://www.cairn.info/revue-management-et-avenir-2005-2-page-71.htm

[5] Different terms for the first Design Thinking phase

[6] Define and Frame Your Design Challenge by Creating Your Point Of View and Ask “How Might We” — Rikke Friis Dam, Teo Yu Siang — http://bit.ly/2naZPVv

[7] Asking big questions — Juanita Brown, David Isaacs and Nancy Margulies — http://www.theworldcafe.com/key-concepts-resources/publications/

[8] Design Thinking You (EN) — Emmanuel Lançon — http://bit.ly/2nXpSjN

[9] 8 écueils à éviter pour tirer profit du design thinking — Arnaud Pelletier — in http://bit.ly/2mFstub

[10] 9 tips on how to run a brainstorm — Laura McClure — http://bit.ly/2mEQjI6

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