Coming up with ideas is hard. As I sit at my desk trying to write this, I find myself struggling to come up with the right words in the appropriate order to convey my thoughts on this topic of brainstorming. A common misconception is that creativity and coming up with new, exciting ideas are easy. Certainly, they are not. In fact, brainstorming is a technique to get a flow of ideas percolating. There are many brainstorming techniques and strategies to help find and refine your next big idea. In this article I explore four brainstorming strategies.
Stick Three People in a Room and Let Things Happen
One brainstorming technique is pretty simple on paper, but perhaps the more chaotic strategy available. Take three people, and sequester them off until they’ve come up with something.
Let’s break down this brainstorming technique into its components to see why it works. For instance, why only three people? Why can’t you just do it yourself, or have the whole department in a room instead? Well, generally speaking, having multiple people to bounce ideas around is a good thing. Collaboration allows for one person’s potential blind spots to be addressed. While this can work with only two people, three works better because it gives yet another perspective on the subject. Once you go beyond three people, you run the risk of having too many ideas and opinions, which could cause the productivity of a collaborative environment to suffer.
Ideally, these three individuals should be isolated because nothing kills creative thought as quickly as distraction. If you’ve got people constantly popping their heads in the room, or other external pressures causing the individuals to be concerned about other projects while brainstorming, they won’t be able to contribute and collaborate to their fullest potential.
Make Chains of Association
One of the easiest traps to fall into when it comes to brainstorming is to go with the first idea. While sometimes your first instinct is worth following, it is rare that you’ll come up with your best idea right away, and even a great idea can benefit from additional discussion and refinement. A brainstorming technique that turns this aspect of human nature into a useful device for coming up with something new and original is the Chain of Association technique.
The Chain of Association technique is pretty simple and easy, and can help you distance yourself enough from your first instinct. Take a word or an image, and write a word that you associate with it. Then write a word that you associate with that word. You keep doing this until you write something that strikes you. It can work like this:
Brainstorming > Brains > Skull > Bones > Breaking > Ice > Winter > Game of Thrones > Swords > Cutting > Knife > Bread > Butter
This technique can be used for drawing, writing, graphic design, or any other creative medium with some tweaks. This is also a great tool for coming up with slogans or titles. By building upon your first instinct, you open up the chance to see new options and opportunities.
A Change of Scenery
In a previous blog I talked about how certain environments can help spur creative thought. However, it may not be about the place you are working, but how often you are there! The human brain associates locations with moods and thought processes. Often, if you are accustomed to doing monotonous, routine work in one place, coming up with new ideas in that place can be difficult.
Have you ever noticed how if you spend enough time around ambient noise, it becomes unnoticeable after a while? This occurs when your brain becomes used to specific stimuli and subconsciously determines that it is not something that can hurt or help you. This tuning out of stimuli happens when we acclimate to our surroundings over time. This is true of noises, smells, and textures where senses dull to that particular sensation with prolonged exposure. The same thing happens to your work environment.
To spark some creative thought for brainstorming, try getting up and working in a new place. Your mind will create new associations and will be triggered by the new environment to create new ideas. This is exactly what you want to help you brainstorm.
When brainstorming ideas, it’s always good to have some semblance of organization. Lists are probably the simplest and least time consuming way to organize your thoughts into something coherent. It also allows you to worry less about whether an idea is a good idea and simply focus on coming up with ideas.
A common type of list people use is the pro-con list. Pro-con lists are especially useful when you already have an idea, but you need to explore whether or not it is a good idea. With this list technique you list all the positive aspects of the idea under a "pro" column, and then you list all the negative aspects of the idea under a "con" column. Then, you analyze the lists, not necessarily only by the number of pro items vs. con items, but also by the impact or significance of certain items.
Another type of list is the category list. This is a more expansive list, where you assign an idea into one or more categories, each represented by a column on a sheet. Categories themselves can help uncover new thoughts and ideas.
Often for brainstorming, the list is less important than the freedom your mind is allowed when working within it. Having a list is not what you should focus on. Instead, you should be on the lookout for the spark that appears when something great comes to mind and is recorded on the list. Lists are more of a conduit than a product insofar as brainstorming is concerned.
The foregoing are just a few strategies and techniques to help you brainstorm. There are many different techniques, and you should experiment with different types of brainstorming methods to help you come up with that new fresh idea. If you find one that works particularly well for you, great! But, be sure to continue trying new brainstorming techniques, so you don’t end up in another rut and stuck with the same old ideas. Your brain is a complicated organ, and there are plenty of different and interesting ways to unlock the ideas and thoughts within it.
What brainstorming techniques have you found useful in your work?
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