How to brainstorm better at work

Tom Tapper

1st August 2017

You are standing on the precipice of a ball pit. You're dressed in work attire. A piece of you wants to dive headlong into it. Wriggle around and toss balls it's the air. You know it'll bring joy. But you'll never do it. You'll never let your playful child mind run wild. Why? Because you're in business attire. You're sat in an impromptu brainstorm. And you're an introvert, while everyone around you is an extrovert or your superior. Corporate life has taught you one thing: don't put a foot wrong. The result? An intensely awkward hour of sticky notes, tension, and painfully predictable ideas.

Brainstorming is broken

The way we approach brainstorms is fundamentally flawed. To develop truly great creative ideas, we first need to learn how to develop more bad ones. We need to trick our mind into entering a childlike state. A state which allows for an unrestricted flow of thought.

Here's the process we use at Nice and Serious. Follow it and you will develop more bad ideas, along with some truly great ones.

1. Define the problem

Creative thinking is just another form of problem-solving. So you need to start by properly defining a solvable problem. You then need to bring together a diverse team of 5-7 people. Diverse, because you want to bring a wider knowledge pool into the circle to increase your chance of an unexpected solution (an original idea)

2. Feed your mind

Each member of the team then needs to feed their mind. They need to feed it with good content about the subject area. They should read about the problem from different perspectives, not just from their favourite Guardian columnist.

3. Incubate

Your mind needs time to process the problem. We recommend a week, but no less than two days if you are pushed for time. During incubation, you need to enter periods of ‘soft fascination’ - where the analytical part of your mind is gently distracted allowing your subconscious mind to make those unexpected connections. Simple things like washing the dishes, doing the ironing or taking a shower are great. But it's widely reported that taking a walk in nature and sleep are the most effective for creative problem-solving. Don't forget when you do stumble across an idea, jot it down.

4. Brainstorm

There are many different techniques. We use one called ‘rapid ideation’. Set aside an hour or two, preferably in the morning. Gather your group of 5-7 people. To start with each person alone writes down as many ideas as possible in 10 minutes. They key here is volume. After this each person takes it in turn to share every idea they've had with the group, while one person writes the ideas onto a flipchart. They key here is the share everything; the good, the bad, the ugly. And that requires courage. In fact, in our meeting room, we have the 10 commandments of brainstorming printed big on the wall (see diagram below - inspired by Josh Linkner). Once all ideas have been shared, everyone then takes another 10 minutes to write down as many ideas as possible. This second phase is key, as it allows everyone to build on each other's initial ideas. Finally, the group shares all of their ideas while one person scribes. Then leave the room immediately (before you get the urge to review the ideas).

5. Analyse

Return to the room the following morning with a coffee and one or two key decision makers. Review the ideas based on which ones provide the best solution to the original problem. It's important that you remove personal attachment to the idea: they are owned by the team, not the individual.

We've used this technique for over 5 years and it's never failed. With a focused group of 5-7 people, you'll generate at least 100 ideas. The majority of which will be rubbish, but amongst the rubble, there will be rubies.