4.2.6 Variations of Brainstorming

There are a number of variations of brainstorming with most of these techniques widely written about in creative technique books and websites, the most popular including:

  • Nominal group technique
  • Group passing technique / brainwriting
  • Team idea mapping
  • Electronic Brainstorming
  • Directed Brainstorming

The website www.wikipedia.com gives a good description of each of these techniques in more details

The nominal group technique is a type of brainstorming that encourages all participants to have an equal say in the process. Instead of each person giving their idea verbally participants are asked to write down their ideas anonymously. They are then given to the facilitator who shares them with the group and the group votes each one. The vote can be as simple as a show of hands in favour of a given idea. This process is called distillation.

After distillation, subgroups can be formed to take responsibility for different aspects of the ideas generated. The top ranked ideas may be sent back to the group or to subgroups for further brainstorming. For example, one group may work on the colour required in a product. Another group may work on the size, and so forth. Each subgroup will then produce a list of ranked ideas. Sometimes ideas that were previously dropped may be brought forward again once the group has re-evaluated the ideas.

With the group passing technique each person in a circular group writes down one idea, and then passes the piece of paper to the next person, who adds some thoughts. This is repeated until everybody gets his or her original piece of paper back. This method can produce an extensive list of ideas each of which will be elaborated upon by all members of the group. This technique is often referred to as brainwriting, Method 635 a form of brainwriting, is explained in more detail in module 4.3.

An ideas book is another popular form of group passing technique. A description of the problem is written on the inside cover of a hardback book. A distribution list is drawn up and the book is passed to each person on the list one-by-one. Each person records their ideas and adds to ideas of previous entrants. A “read out” meeting is held once each person on the list has contributed. This method takes longer than a group meeting; however it combines the advantages of individual and group brainstorming and gives each person time to think about the problem.

Idea mapping is a method of brainstorming similar to that used in the example above. The main difference however is that each of the participants is given the topic and asked to do an individual brainstorm on the problem prior to the session. It is important that the topic is well defined to ensure that each member has a clear idea of what is expected of them. A meeting is held to consolidate all the ideas using a mind map. This mapping process helps to create a common understanding of the issues and the suggested solutions. New ideas can arise as sharing takes place and these can also be added to the mind map. Once all of the ideas are captured they should then be prioritised and actioned.

Electronic brainstorming is a computerised version of the manual brainwriting technique and is a combination of the nominal group technique and the team idea mapping described above with one main difference – the individuals do not meet face-to-face. It is usually done via email where web-based forums or special software can also be used. The facilitator sends the question out to group members and they contribute independently by sending their ideas directly back to the facilitator. The facilitator then compiles a list or mind map of the ideas and sends it back to each individual for further feedback. Electronic brainstorming overcomes many of the problems of standard brainstorming, such as production blocking and evaluation apprehension. In addition it is much easier to log and archive the ideas generated and the results can be used during later creative idea generating sessions. Electronic brainstorming also enables much larger groups to brainstorm on a topic, as you do not need to worry about the logistics and co-ordination of a large group of people.

One of the drawbacks of electronic brainstorming is that you might not get the flow of ideas that come from face-to-face brainstorming. An idea generated by one can often spark a new idea in another – much like when someone tells a joke, it can remind you of another joke you have heard before, which you would otherwise never have thought of. You also loose the social aspect and team building effects of group brainstorming.

Directed brainstorming is a variation on brainwriting and it can be done manually or electronically. The main difference is when the criteria for evaluating the idea is know prior to the session and the idea generation process is more focused. Each participant is asked to contribute one idea either on a sheet of paper or on an electronic form; all the papers/forms are then randomly swapped among the participants. Each participant is then asked to produce a better idea based on the evaluation criteria than the one that is on the paper/form in front of him or her. Forms are swapped again and participants are asked to improve upon these ideas again with one of the evaluation criteria in mind.

Let’s look at the example in 4.2.5 above again. During the brainstorming session one participant suggested selling sports products in the shop. If they were using directed brainstorming, another participant would expand upon this idea with the criteria “biggest potential impact” in mind and might suggest a particular range of sports products that are not available in other stores. Someone else could take the idea further with the “cost” criteria in mind and suggest cost effective ways of promoting this new product range.

Please have a look at Figure 4: Expansion of ideas generated using Directed Brainstorming method

Directed Brainstorming directs and focuses the brainstorming session and can be more productive and efficient that the classic brainstorming method. However, it may produce less creative or crazy ideas as participants are focusing on the evaluation criteria instead of thinking “outside the box”. Many more forms and variations of brainstorming developed since Osborn first introduced the concept in the late 1930’s, one such variation Method 635 is examined in more detail in Module 4.3. Many other creative techniques such as Attribute Listing, examined in Module 4.5, can use brainstorming as part of the creative process.

Why not introduce a brainstorming session into staff meetings? Start with a simple problem/statement to warm the group to the concept and elaborate as they become more comfortable with the method. Use different variations and perhaps introduce a reward system for new/innovate ideas generated which helps to solve a particular problem or which increases turnover!