LET'S CALL BRAINSTORMS WHAT THEY REALLY ARE... BRAIN DUMPS
Brainstorms aren’t just for creative people. They are a just a better way to get your thoughts out of you head so you can evaluate them and make creative connections. So why don’t we stop calling them brainstorms and call them what they are: brain dumps.
Since its popularization by the 1953 book, Applied Imagination by Alex Osborn, brainstorms have taken on a life of its own in definition and execution.
The word brainstorm, for most non-creatives, brings up images of artsy-typed people, shrouded in hipster apparel or black turtlenecks, cloistered away in rooms, doing their creative magic and emerging with the latest innovation. This misconception is with good reason.
The hijacking of the word and all of the misinterpretations that go with it are due in large part to the creative industry (designers, marketers, advertisers, etc.,) who, unable to keep pace with the demand for their services, rely heavily on this creative planning shortcut.
When I began as a designer 25 years ago, a small project would have at least 2 to 3 weeks to produce it. In recent interviews I’ve done with designers, I often hear high demand and impossibly short timelines, as one of their biggest frustrations. So the monopolization of brainstorming by creatives was a natural adaptation. But the need to produce more with less isn’t just a problem designers face.
WHO ARE BRAINSTORMS FOR?
Brainstorms are for anyone with a problem to solve—which is pretty much everyone. David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, refers to this working class of problem solvers as “knowledge workers.” I will go one step further and call them “creative workers.”
It doesn’t matter if you are an accountant, manager, a C-level executive, or some other producer, your job is—to one extent or another—solving any number of problems. And certainly, if you are reading this, you are a creative worker. In other words, we’re all infected.
Which brings me to the crux of this article, the rebranding of brainstorms.
BRAINSTORMS SOUND SCARY
In my meetings with executives and managers, I’m usually met with blank stares or fear whenever I suggest that they get comfortable with the idea that they must lead brainstorms with their team to plan projects, develop new product features, or conceptualize new marketing strategies.
But brainstorming is something that everyone should be comfortable with and flexible enough to do at a moment’s notice. The point of brainstorms is to encourage lateral thinking which can provide insights into or new angles of looking at an old problem.
Imagine trying to piece together a five-hundred-piece puzzle in your mind, while all of the pieces remain in the box. Of course, you would never do this and expect any success. Your best strategy is to dump out the pieces onto the table and turn them over. From there, you begin to define the boundaries, (perhaps starting with the corners and edges,) and make connections.
And that’s all there are to brainstorms. You are taking the contents of your head and dumping them out onto the table. If you are working in a team, the pieces that are face down can represent those of your teammates. If you are working solo then the face-down pieces can be thoughts that you may have thought were unrelated when you first wrote them, but within the broader context of the other ideas are fertile ground for creative connections.
So turn that brain upside down and start dumping out ideas. It will improve your mind’s ability to make connections and increase the likelihood of creative insights.
START AT THE FINISH LINE
Now that we agree brainstorms are just brain dumps remember that you are not just randomly writing any thought that comes into your head. Before you start your brain dump, have an ideal outcome or a general goal in mind. David Allen says to imagine what wild success would look like and start dumping out everything you think it will take you get there.
You can also start with an emotional response you want to elicit and work back from that. A recent study suggests that there may only be four basic emotions: happy, sad, afraid/surprised, and angry/disgusted. So you could pick an emotion you want people to feel and use that as a guideline for brain dumps. Writing down, “things that make people happy,” is a lot easier than trying to brainstorm an innovation.
Another great starting point for a brainstorm is to focus on your personas as your audience. Personas are real people with real desires and so are easier to predict what makes them happy or frustrated.
QUICKSTART TOOLS FOR BRAIN DUMPING
1. PEN AND PAPER
Don’t overthink it. Just pull out a pen and paper and start writing everything that comes to mind. Don’t worry if it seems disconnected.
Here’s one trick I use:
Write down every thought that comes to your mind into one column. When the flow begins to slow, don’t force it. In the second column write down the opposite of the word in the first column. You don’t need to be scientific about it. Just work fast and write the first thing that enters your head.
In a third column, you can write what color the word in the original column would be. This column could also be a flavor, animal or anything else that will encourage your brain to think laterally. You could even make a fourth or fifth column with opposites of opposites. I usually just go until I’m bored with the process.
Now that you have a page of semi-random words sit back and see if any connections jump out at you. Circle what you like and try to create links between the concepts. You could take those words and start new columns with them and repeat the process if you wanted.
Mind maps are great for planning projects. Again, you can get by with only using a pen and paper, or if you’re working in a group, you could use a whiteboard. Start with a central theme and write down any thought associations circling outward. Don’t worry about working in any order or completely fleshing out one idea. Just write whatever comes to mind and worry about making the connections later.
3. POST-IT NOTES
Post-it Notes are superb for working solo or in groups. Just write one idea per Post-it Note. When the flow slows down, stick them on a whiteboard or wall. See if any natural categories arise and group those similar Post-its together. (Don’t buy the cheap Post-its. They don’t stick very well when you begin to clump the notes together.)
Creative lightning happens when you can make connections between seemingly disconnected ideas. Post-it Notes give you the freedom from the constructs of context and increase the chance of idea romance.