Leave rank at the door and focus on “a democracy of ideas.” Thoughts from experts, senior officers, and supervisors are of course, valuable and welcome, but such experts are not permitted to cut off debate by citing their seniority. In fact, it pays to invite junior officers as well as senior ones who are not involved directly in working the issue under discussion. Some of the most creative ideas at brainstorming sessions frequently come from relatively junior people who can look at a problem with fresh perspective, or from senior ones who are not experts on the issue.
Make sure there is no official analytic line. One of the most significant blocks to new thinking is the presence of a long held analytic line that analysts—and even more so managers—are reluctant to change. Rather than trying to fit ideas into the framework of “what we’ve said before,” analysts need to feel free to go wherever bits of the evidence and informed supposition take them. They must feel free to throw out seemingly strange but plausible ideas that might be based on historical precedent and instinct rather than on concrete information. Facilitators can stimulate this process by deliberately posing an alternative outcome to a problem that differs starkly from the accepted analysis or by proposing a contrary way to think about an issue.
Don’t permit killer phrases like “that would not work” or “that could not happen” to be voiced out loud. Effective brainstorming starts with ideas and possibilities, not with practicalities and self-imposed obstacles to fresh perspectives. Force the group to get as wide a range of ideas out for discussion as possible. At some point, a set of ideas might be winnowed down and subject to tests of workability, but that comes later—not during brainstorming.
Keep the brainstorming session to no more than 90 minutes. There is no hard and fast rule, but somewhere between 60 and 90 minutes, the idea stream starts to dry up, people repeat themselves, and jokes replace creative ideas.
5. Record ideas in a visible way. Lots of people take notes at brainstorming sessions for their own use, and that is good. We have found it valuable to have someone jot down the ideas presented on large paste-a-note sheets that we put on the walls. This allows participants in brainstorming sessions to react to ideas generated earlier. Moreover, analysts are encouraged to participate in such exercises if they see their own ideas put down in writing. Having a notional record of brainstorming also helps the analyst who ends up writing a report based on the discussion. Ideas that may not be used in one report are invariably put to use later, so it is good to have a record of them . . .
A two-phase, twelve-step, structured process is often used to get the most out of the brainstorming sessions:
Divergent Thinking Phase:
• Distribute “Post-It” notes and pens or markers to all participants. Typically, 10-12 people works best.
• Pose the problem in terms of a “focal question.” Display it in one sentence on a large easel or whiteboard.
• Ask the group to write down responses to the question, using key words that will fit on the small “Post-It” note.
• Stick all the notes on a wall for all to see—treat all ideas the same.
• When a pause follows the initial flow of ideas, the group is reaching the end of their conventional thinking and the new divergent ideas are then likely to emerge.
• End the “collection stage” of the brainstorming after two or three pauses. Convergent Thinking Phase:
• Ask the participants as a group to rearrange the notes on the wall according to their commonalities or similar concepts. No talking is permitted. Some notes may be moved several times as notes begin to cluster. Copying some notes is permitted to allow ideas to be included in more than one group.
• Select a word or phrase that characterizes each grouping or cluster once all the notes have been arranged.
• Identify any notes that do not easily fit with others and consider them either useless noise or the beginning of an idea that deserves further attention.
• Assess what the group has accomplished in terms of new ideas or concepts identified or new areas that need more work or further brainstorming.
• Instruct each participant to select one or two areas that deserve the most attention. Tabulate the votes.
• Set the brainstorming group’s priorities based on the voting and decide on the next steps for analysis