Brainstorming: have we been doing it all wrong?

At school we would draw a little bubble around a word in the middle of the page and it was supposed to get us thinking. Professional brainstorms often involve sharing ideas with a small group of colleagues and waiting, tentatively, for a response. Some involve flip charts. Or Post-it notes. But is there a right way or a wrong way to come up with new ideas? And have we got brainstorming all wrong?

Expert thinker and business advisor Sheena Iyengar questions the effectiveness of traditional group brainstorming. Instead, she advocates “out-of-the-box” thinking, achieved by heading outside of the room, or the office, away from colleagues even, and into the big wide world.

Others recommend structure and the answering of specific questions to help you come up with something that is truly creative. And for some it’s about time spent alone to ponder. Of course, there are many methods and opinions but here are a few ideas to help stir the creative juices.

Structure and form

Creativity is often synonymous with free-thinking, but in an article for the World Economic Forum, Mark Cruth sets out a very formal approach to brainstorming. Firstly, he suggests starting with a warm up prompt, such as asking people to come up with 100 ways to use a paperclip. “It’s a sneaky (and fun!) way to shift everyone into a growth mindset before heading into the brainstorm at hand”, he writes. Once everyone’s brains are limbered up it’s onto a very structured few rounds of group brainstorming. This involves break out groups, timed discussions, rearranging the groups, the refining of ideas, and the eventual final cut. “Structured intervention can help boost your team’s brainstorm […] and distil the best ideas to move forward”, he adds.

Take a walk

Steve Jobs was a known walker and thinker. Apparently he used to pad around the Apple office barefoot whilst tackling some of the more serious issues at hand. And his approach made sense, because according to a paper by Stanford University, walking can increase creative output by an average of 60 per cent. Researchers asked more than 170 students to complete certain tasks while sitting, and then while walking and the results found that being on the move “opens up the free flow of ideas”.

Mix up the environment

We all work in different ways, so if you want a group brainstorm to work then you have to offer some flexibility when it comes to the setting. Some people will want to get their heads together around a table in an office with no interruptions, a door that closes – just pure unadulterated focus. Others might need things to be kept a little more casual, say in a café style area over a cup of tea and a gentle background hubbub. There are also the people who think best alone and need the private space to do that. Our offices are designed with different zones for exactly that reason. They enable employers to keep all bases covered, and allow staff to create their perfect work environment.

Take a trip

If you really want to mix up the environment you could also take a trip to not just another zone in the office, but to a whole different landscape. By becoming a member of Spaces, you can have access to a host of rural, seaside, city centre or suburban offices that can enable your team to look outside of the box, as Iyengar suggests. Otherwise, away days are great at changing the tone and the conversation, which can also lead to more creative thinking.

Take your time

Finally, Art Markman, the Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas, suggests slowing down the process. By making it asynchronous you can avoid groupthink, where the same minds work in the same way, so few new ideas are ever reached. This approach also works particularly well in the age of hybrid, where people might be spread out across time zones, or just have clashing schedules. He writes: “Make sure everyone has had a chance to engage and work on the problem first. […] Have group members send their initial thoughts to you and compile them before anyone starts to discuss them.”

Cutting out the early-stage discussions means you can collate a more considered list of ideas and have time to bring in the relevant people from the company to add their thoughts.

So perhaps there is no one right way to brainstorm, but there is a wrong one – and that’s to do it quickly and without due care. New ideas need coaxing and nurturing, and the best ones tend to come when people have been given the time and space they need to think.

If you are looking for new ways to drive your business’s creativity, check out how Spaces can inspire, stimulate and connect.

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