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How to Run a Brainstorming Session

by Steve Scott | Join Him On Facebook

During my travels this past six months I’ve spent quite a few hours on trains getting from place to place and I’ve had some downtime hanging out at hostels after an entire day of sightseeing. That means I’ve had plenty of time to think about things.

Things being my life in general, my online affiliate marketing business as well as this blog, my relationships with others, my belongings that are back in the United States in a storage unit, the fact that I gave my car away before coming over here … you name it, chances are I’ve thought about it. I’ve done a lot of brainstorming, and do you want to know the good part? I’ve figured out some potential solutions to a few different problems I’ve been concerned about.

Brainstorming is a technique used to generate as many potential solutions to a problem possible in hopes of figuring out what will solve the problem best. The word brainstorming usually brings up mental images of a bunch of people sitting around a table in an office (à la House MD as they’re all discussing a new patient with mysterious symptoms) but I feel that it should be applied to every aspect of your life: your career and professional skills; as well as your personal life, relationships, your health, and more.

A Brief History of Brainstorming

The importance of brainstorming was first recognized back in the 1940s and 50s when Alex Osborn, an advertising executive and writer, included the term in a book titled Your Creative Power. Osborn was pretty much a genius in the advertising field, working for companies such as General Electric, Chrysler, BF Goodrich and Dupont among others. Brainstorming was a procedure used for several years at BBDO, a major advertising agency where he served as executive vice president, before the release of his book.

What Can You Brainstorm About?

If you’ve only dealt with brainstorming at work you might disagree with me, but I think brainstorming can actually be pretty fun. It’s a great way to get creative and let your mind wander. Besides, you never know what sort of cool things you’ll come up with. It’s particularly useful when you want to come up with new patterns of thinking and new ways to make improvements in your life.

If you understand the importance of brainstorming, you can use the method to produce different possible solutions to just about anything. If you have something going on in your life that’s bothering you or something that you want to improve, a short brainstorming session can help you out.

  • Your Professional Life. Is someone or something bothering you at work? Are you considering going back to college to increase your earning potential but not sure how you’d swing it? Maybe you have concerns about being your own boss and running your own business.

  • Your Personal Life. Most of us have a lot of “personal” stuff we’d like to resolve. Are you always so busy it seems like you never have any free time left for yourself? Maybe you’re thinking about buying your first home and need to figure out how to save up a down payment. Would you like to take up a hobby but you’re scared to give it a shot?

  • Relationships with Others. Relationships can be really tricky. Some people take advantage of one another, some couples always mange to make each other angry … toxic relationships can do more harm than good, but they’re often difficult to end. What should you do?

  • Your Health. Weight loss, starting a workout routine and making wiser eating choices can be really hard, but sometimes “baby steps” are the best way to get started. What can you do to start improving your health?

  • Your Skills. There are certain skills that can improve upon your personal and professional life.  This can include public speaking, learning a foreign language, learning to touch type, improving your writing.  To get started, think about the things that you think are holding you back and what you can do to fix them. 

Basic Brainstorming Rules

#1- Define the problem: that you’d like to solve. In order for brainstorming to be beneficial, you need to define the problem at hand in order to have a clear understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish. I suggest sticking to one topic at a time, such as “How can I make my work day run smoother?” but if in the midst of it all you have some fantastic vision of an amazing household product that could make you rich, feel free to scribble that down, too.

#2- Give yourself a time limit: It might just be a personal thing, but I’ve found that brainstorming works best when I give myself a time limit. Besides, if something has been bugging you long enough that you’ve decided to brainstorm about it and come up with a solution, you’ve probably thought about it quite a bit already. If you’re brainstorming at the office, it’s most likely happening during a scheduled meeting which is only set to last for a certain amount of time. Twenty or thirty minutes is probably sufficient time to come up with a bunch of ideas.

#3- Focus on quantity over quality right now: Record every single idea that comes to you. Try to come up with as many ideas or solutions to your problem as possible. In some situations, “less is more,” but when you’re brainstorming, “the more the better.” Quantity is your friend. The primary goal of brainstorming is to come up with a creative solution that will actually work for you, so the odds of finding something great increase if you have more ideas to choose from. Write all of the ideas down so you remember every single thing that came up.

#4- Withhold criticism: If you only have twenty minutes to come up with ideas and solutions, you’d better spend your time thinking of ideas instead of criticizing them. This is especially important in a group setting where people with big egos can easily scare others from speaking up. If an idea wasn’t yours and you don’t agree with it, keep quiet for now. You can go over everything once you have a list. If group members aren’t judging each other’s ideas at this phase, everyone will be more likely to speak up and keep offering suggestions—no matter how “crazy” they might sound.

#5- Welcome unusual ideas: Speaking of crazy ideas, unusual ideas are completely welcome during a brainstorming session. Be imaginative. If you think of something (anything!) related to the task at hand, write it down. Unusual ideas can become million dollar ideas. (I’m willing to bet that somewhere out there is a guy who used to eat plain M&Ms and pretzels at the same time for years, and he’s really ticked off when he tells people “I thought of that first!” now that Pretzel M&Ms are on the shelves.)

#6- Select the best ideas: When time is up, go through your list of thoughts and ideas and evaluate them. If you weren’t too sure about something after you thought about it and wrote it down, now is the time to criticize and pick things apart. Select the best ideas to narrow down your options, asking yourself which actually seem feasible. Do you honestly see yourself following through with any of them?

How to Come Up with Ideas

There’s really no right way or wrong way to come up with ideas, but if something that’s going on in your life has been bothering you enough that you want to make a change, it’s probably worthy of a brainstorming session.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’ve been doing a lot of brainstorming on this trip. I have some personal issues that I plan on dealing with once I get back home (and back to reality) so I’ve been writing a lot of things down in my idea notebook.  I’ve been carrying a small notebook with me for a couple of years now so I can jot things down when I think of them. My friends back home can vouch for me (and they probably laugh behind at me behind my back) because I really do write things down all the time. I’d rather get a few strange looks whipping out a pen in public than forget something beneficial.

Brainstorming Software

In addition to brainstorming the old fashioned way with a pad of paper or a whiteboard, there are several different brainstorming computer programs on the market. I’m not completely familiar with all the details, but a lot of large organizations use electronic meeting systems so employees can share ideas over the internet without even being in the same room—similar to a conference call.

Brainstorming software offers the ability to categorize ideas and eliminate duplicates rather easily, and then eventually allows you to rank ideas in order of priority. This could obviously be done with a pen or a highlighter, but an advantage of brainstorming software is that it gives you the ability to save everything in one place and come back to it later. When it’s used by national or global businesses, the participants don’t even have to “meet” on the same day—they can submit their ideas over an extended period of time.

In my opinion, I don’t think you need a fancy piece of software to do brainstorming.  I feel this gets in the way of creativity.  One of the things my dad has taught me that the only “technology” you need is a good pad of paper and some pencils.  Which brings us to….

…Mind Mapping as an Alternative to Brainstorming

As we conclude this post, I want to cover an alternative to brainstorming – Mind Mapping.  A lot of people prefer this method to traditional brainstorming.  According to the Wikipedia definition:

A mind map is a diagram used to represent words, ideas, tasks, or other items linked to and arranged around a central key word or idea. Mind maps are used to generate, visualize, structure, and classify ideas, and as an aid to studying and organizing information, solving problems, making decisions, and writing.

I’ve only used mind maps when it comes to my online business.  It’s the best way to clarify what’s going to be included in a product or site.  Usually you can do this once (or twice) and you’ll internalize all the steps that are needed to complete a project.

As an example, way back in January I drew a mind-map of the Steve Scott Site.  While there wasn’t anything earth-shattering document, it got me thinking about what type of content will be included on this site and how I’ll make money.  I haven’t look at this document in eight months, yet I’m still following it’s basic blueprint.

I feel mind-mapping is best used when you have a complex topic that has many moving parts.  Specifically it works great for online businesses and info product creation.  You better believe that I’ll be using a mind-map when I create the first product for this site!

Final Thoughts on Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a simple and effective way to produce ideas to help solve problems, and it’s a good way to come up with new concepts. Anyone can do it, whether you’re in a group or by yourself. Don’t be afraid to think freely, writing things down along the way. Draw yourself pictures, make charts, whatever works. There’s no wrong way to brainstorm; I’ve only offered my suggestions.

My final bit of advice? Remember that there’s no such thing as a dumb idea while you’re brainstorming, Go to town and see what you can come up with! 

Take Action. Get Results.



{ 15 comments }

Ryan Biddulph

Hi Steve,

A super concise brainstorming breakdown here. Writing down *any* idea which comes to mind and not criticizing are two of my favorite brainstorming practices. When you’re in the flow let go, and let the universe supply you. Record and evaluate later. Stillborn ideas are some of the worst ideas I’ve ever come up with.

Thanks for sharing your insight and have a great one.

Ryan

Steve Scott

Glad you liked it. Yeah the more like an “idea conduit” you can be while brainstorming, the better. Get them out there. Wrtie them down and worry about which ones are silly later.

Fran Aslam

Hi Steve:

My morning did not go as normal, so I started late today. Here I am any ways.
However your post is still same full of life and waking up slow and sleepy Monday
syndromes.

Brainstorming works only when you are single. Sharing life, it becomes important to
live what is expected, to take care of this and that. All this and that makes you so busy besides work and other necessary activities that brain storming to apply always end up breaking in the middle.

But then again, life is always a struggle, always competing to be ahead, always caring for the friends and partners and always loving children and that is where a persons losses the real personality trait. I have one solution for it now. To care for yourself first.

Then we can brainstorm and apply our own logic to our actions. I like the little history lesson here. It was not too long ago when Brainstorming started. I think it is much older than that. You will find it in human psychology.

Very outstanding blog post. So detailed. I liked it.

Brainstorm and create a good day for yourself.

Fran Aslam

Steve Scott

Thanks Fran!

I think brainstorming can help single or married. Obviously you may not be able to effectively carry everything you brainstorm out because of familial commitments. 5 minutes a day set aside to brainstorm and think up ideas could easily produce some creative and interesting results.

Matthew Needham

Two things to add here Steve. One the question you ask is very important as to helping the sub conscious mind focus on the answer.

Secondly, there’s two free mind mapping software tools that I’ve used which are Xmind Pro and Mind Meister. Both excellent tools.

Steve Scott

I haven’t checked out the tools. I am a pen and paper guy myself, but I will check them out. YOu never know if something will help you until you try it

Zarko

really great post Steve, I couldn’t agree more. Brainstorming is a great way of figuring out things and it should be applied to every aspect of out lives like you said. I personally brainstorm everything I find important, from personal issues to my online business ventures, and so far it has given me an edge because I always find something untapped and unique to focus on.

And your brainstorming rules are perfect, I must have said a tons of time to focus on quality rather than quantity, but this is definitely an exception.

Steve Scott

Good brainstorming… and mind mapping can be awesome. I think too often people are worried about quick results and do not want to think about taking a few minutes time out. Which could end up creating far superior results.

Mavis Nong

Wow, awesome post, Steve! I also carry a notebook around and I jot down all the ideas which come to mind at any given time 🙂

Thanks for sharing this great brainstorming guide.

All the best,
Mavis Nong

Steve Scott

Often that simple act is one of the best ways to get those incredble ideas

ShortHairDiva

Hey Steve

I wouldn’t say I sit around and hold brainstorming sessions, but I usually write myself lists of possible things I can do to improve different areas of my work and life in general. I like writing things down too, not sure if I’d use brainstorming software.

Thanks!

marlon @ productivity bits

The last time I preached to a small group in my former church, I used a mind map instead of the usual PowerPoint presentation. I think using mind map in presentation/talk is more effective than the traditional PowerPoint. That was exactly the feedback I got from the group.

I also think that mind map is NOT necessarily an alternative to brainstorming. Mind map is a tool you can use to get the juice out of brainstorming.

Murlu

Maaan, if I could I would totally work for a ThinkTank. Unfortunately, some of my ideas are quite crazy and I’m sure I’d get kicked out in quick fashion.

It’s funny because at this moment I’m sorting through literally 200 pages of notes that I’ve taken over the last 6 months – all brainstorming sessions. The quantity over quality goes a long way because if you can get all those thoughts out there you can just keep running with them until you nail that one great idea.

I do some wacky shiz whenever I’m driving to Tampa (2 hours away) – I turn off the radio and talk to myself. I literally have a conversation for the two hours about some of my projects – crazy? We don’t think so. I’ve actually developed some of my biggest projects while brainstorming on the ride there and back – including my blog and a few other projects underway.

The most important thing out of it all though is taking action. You can write down a million ideas but if you don’t decide upon which one you want to try you’re just a guy (or gal) with a big stack of papers.

By the way, it was lupus.

Steve Scott

I don’t know why, but the word “Think Tank” always makes me laugh. I invariably go strait to “Good Will Hunting” and Ben Affleck (in one of the few roles that show there is some acting talent somewhere in his body).

I love when he goes to the job interview at the “think tank” as Will.

“You’re suspect! Yeah, you! I don’t know what your reputation is in this town, but after the shit you tried to pull today you can bet I’ll be looking into you. Now the business we have, heretofore, you can speak with my aforementioned attorney. Good day, gentlemen; and until that day comes, keep your ear to the grindstone. ”

LOL, always cracks me up…

Anyhow….to digress from my wild tangent and get back on the business we have, heretofore…. lol

anyhoo… YOU are right, you need to push out a lot of quantity. If you do the good ideas will be in there somewhere. Some times the issue is going through the idea and recognizing the pearl.

I do the talking to myself on long drives things too. The embarrassing part will come when you get older and you are in a room full of people and you suddenly realize your internal monologue is suddenly external. Get a hold of that fast…it can be embarrassing.

RAMESH

hi Steve,
During brainstorming sessions we get solutions or ideas to resolve the issue, but how far these solutions are appropriate without knowing root causes for the issue

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