How many brains does it take to make a storm?

When I ask myself that question, I like it.  The picture that comes to mind is a lot less boring than the one that usually pops up for brainstorming.

Traditional brainstorming conjures up the image of a committee, captive at some conference table, with a motley collection of suggestions on the topic at hand, and a facilitator diligently scribbling them all in a list on a whiteboard.

In a brainstorming group, it’s pretty easy to tell who the habitual nay-sayers are.

I remember doing a naming exercise for a new piece of software back in the 70’s. A handful of agency and client-side people sat reeling off ideas at a pretty good pace. The toughest part of the whole exercise was managing the human desire to hurry up and choose the name as soon as possible. We’re talking a roomful of adrenaline-paced marketing types. The habit of editing and judging was so ingrained in everyone that it was all the facilitator could do to keep the conversation from being derailed in the mud of comments like ” No, that sounds old fashioned” or “It’s too hard to spell” or “That doesn’t make sense” or worst of all, “Nah, I don’t like it!” Ugh! We spent most of the session pulling people out of that mud.

Researchers use exotic terms like “production blocking” or “social loafing” to describe group dynamics that torpedo the free exchange of ideas.

A group often silences people who are less socially confident, or low on the totem pole, thus squeezing the life out of the process. The results diminish unless there’s either a skilled facilitator, or a group that has already bonded and has an unusually egalitarian dynamic.

What does it take to make brainstorming work?

A smart group recognizes that editing and judging is not the purpose of brainstorming. It’s sooo tempting. But good brainstorming supports the free flow— and the free association— of ideas.

Success is not automatically achieved by having a bigger group. A brainstorming group can work with just two or three people. What matters is how creative a dynamic is fostered.

• • •

Can one brain… storm… by itself?

Yes! It’s been argued that independent brainstorming may even work better. The fashionable name for it now is Mind Mapping.

Groups have even started drawing upon this approach, to get the value of everyone’s input on a more level playing field. They break the brainstorming exercise into a two-step process.

Step one is individual idea generation. Step two collects and aggregates the results in something much like the keyword clouds you now see in the sidebar on some blogs. (It’s the Categories cloud on mine.)

This helps identify which independently gathered concepts might be stronger, or connect more readily with a wider audience. It takes as much discipline to do a good job of Group Mind Mapping as it does Group Brainstorming, but it does hold open the possibility of gaining the best of both worlds.

• • •

But what if there’s just lil’ ol’ you? 

If you’ve ever seen examples of someone’s ideas diagrammed using Mind Mapping software, if can look a bit strange.

Mind maps tend to look like they were assembled by a “Right Brain” … messy and creative. A slightly different technique, called Concept Mapping, looks more “Left Brain” … logical and hierarchical.

“But my brain has two sides!” you say. Yup, last time I looked, mine did, too.

So how do you brainstorm by yourself??

Here’s what I suggest. I discovered this about ten years ago by accident, when my feet bones got connected to my head bone:

1. Step away from the computer, and take a 10-minute walk around the block. By yourself. 15 minutes max. Take your cell phone with you, the new-fangled one that has a voice memo app built right in. (In the olden days, I used a small voice recorder.)

2. You know what you want to brainstorm about. As you start your walk, just record yourself saying the topic, or asking a single question about it, right into the voice memo. Keep it simple.

Once you start walking, thoughts automatically start popping into your head. Because you are moving, your mind-body connection gets naturally activated. It works like a charm. You are away from the office routine with its insistent details. It’s only for 15 minutes, so no need to feel guilty.

3. As you walk, your mind will wander at first. That’s OK. It’s just warming up. Sooner than you expect, brand new ideas will begin to pop into you head. Record them all. Do not censor yourself! No judging! Keep it simple. 

Since you’re recording each idea that pops into your head, don’t worry about remembering each idea that comes in. Make room for the next one, and keep hitting that record button. You can capture as many ideas as you want. Your brain will thank you!

If you get really get into it, take a brainstorming partner with you for a brief, brisk walk, and try a two-heads-are-better-than one experiment. Why not? The trick with two is, stay loose, but stay on topic. Do it as a game, for fun, and see what happens. Just keep that record button handy.

4. When you get back to the office, sync the voice memo app to your computer, or get it transcribed… so you can read it, as is, with no editing in this first draft. Editing comes later, and is not part of the brainstorming stage.

That’s it, 4 easy steps. With a nice short walk to wake you up, to boot. It won’t chew up your schedule, and it’s very productive. It’s a great little habit to build into your day.

How many brains does it take to stir up a storm of creative ideas? Just one, that’s all you need. 

Practice this a few times, and you will gradually become unstoppable at brainstorming. Unstoppable!

— Diane A. Curran

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