"The best way to have good ideas is to have a lot of ideas."
- Linus Pauling
I ran my first brainstormer this past august in the lab where I am doing
my graduate studies, the biomotion lab. Our supervisor, Niko, was going to
be away for a month, so I thought it was a good opportunity for us to take
charge a bit and think of ways we could be doing things differently around
I was inspired by a neat book, The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelley, about
an incredibly creative design company called IDEO, who were behind eg the
original apple mouse, the Palm V, the TiVo, and many other product
designs. Once they developed a radical new shopping cart prototype in 5
days for a Nightline challenge. Anyway they use brainstormers, as they
call them, as an integral part of their day-to-day process.
Here are the guidelines I used to run our brainstormer, mostly derived
from ideas in that chapter (though they don't lay it out like this):
* Having the boss gone really helps. The book actually recommends sending
him or her out for snacks, I'm not sure for the whole thing or just while
you're getting started. But the point is to try to set up an atmosphere
where people don't feel they are getting judged on the quality of the
ideas they shout out.
* Choose the room. With a table to write on and walls to stick stuff to,
but ideally kind of cramped - I think that helps the creative energy.
* Bring in toys: prototypes, diagrams, anything remotely relevant to
the subject that could spark ideas. All I could think of was a
crude floorplan I drew to help us think about possible alternative
* Figure out a clear statement of the purpose of the brainstormer. Should
be focused, but without presupposing what kind of solutions there will be.
I chose "How can we make the lab work better?"
* Prepare the room. I put big pieces of paper on every wall and spread them out across the desk, with tons of
felt pens around. The idea being people can sketch away to work on and
show their ideas.
* Write up your purpose statement at the top of one of the sheets of
paper, and then put up any rules or slogans you want people to keep in
mind. I wrote up "QUANTITY NOT QUALITY" - somewhat tongue in cheek, but I
thought that's what we as a group needed to hear to get uninhibited.
I acted as the facilitator to the session. My job was to stand up at
the front and write down on a big piece of paper every single idea that
anyone said, and to keep up the energy and focus of the session, by
asking questions, encouraging elaboration, etc. Here's
what I followed:
* Announce a strict time limit, and a goal for the number of items. We
went with 40 minutes (you probably don't want to go over an hour), and a
goal of 50 ideas.
* Number the items as you put them up.
* Have the rule no discussion allowed, and especially no criticism,
thinking of the problems with a suggestion. I had to stifle this a few
* Encourage silly and extreme. As long as the purpose is up there and the
pacing is kept up, I think joking around is really good for creativity
(the book has a couple of examples of creative solutions that started off
as jokes). I made sure to write up all the silly suggestions too ("A
* Don't worry about repetition or overlap. Write them all down as their
* Ask questions and solicit contributions based on the concept of "build
and jump". This is a bit tricky to explain, but felt totally
natural to do. You encourage more and more ideas in a particular
vein ("ok lets hear some more ideas about what we could be doing with the
space layout"), until they start to peter out. Then jump to a different
area, either a totally new one or an area you were exploring earlier. It
works well to physically go back to that area in the list - spacial
So there are a few things to keep in mind as the facilitator, but it was
really easy, I'm pretty sure any member of the group could have done the
job just as well.
It felt like a success, in fact it felt electric. The actual count of
ideas after the 40 minutes: 53. Everyone contributed some, including
people who almost never speak up during lab meetings. We found out about
people's problems or preferences that we would never have known about, and
came up with creative solutions to them. Out of the 53, at least 10 were
great ideas for improving lab workings, or at least the beginnings of them
- and those are 10 great ideas we might never have come up with otherwise.
This is the part where there's more I have to think about: what's the next
step after a brainstormer? Anyway here's what we did. We left the 53 ideas
up in that meeting room for a week or two, and some people added more
ideas to the list, at least 10-15. I moved one of the sheets into where we
have our lunch, and we ended up chatting about it a bit while eating for a
few days. At the next lab meeting we went through and mined it for 5
projects that seemed easy and valuable, and 1 or 2 people volunteered to
lead each of them. Eventually I took down the sheets and consolidated them
into a best-of list with repetitions taken out that I put on our wiki (the
subject of a future blog entry)
The best measure of the success of this session: as of now, three of those
projects have been accomplished. About 3 more are still moving forward
actively. And we've all got a little bit more into the mindset of, "what
could be different? how can we make things work better?"
I hope you will try running a brainstormer yourself someday, in your lab
or office, and that you'll tell me how it goes. As long as you define a
fairly specific objective statement, it could be used for a huge range of
purposes. I predict you'll find your group as a collective is far more
creative and good at solving problems than you ever imagined.