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“TEN STEPS to Successful Brainstorming,” Circa 1957

Got A Problem? Brainstorm It!

I found these great brainstorming tips in the June 1957 issue of The Rotarian Magazine via Google Books. The original article was entitled: “Got A Problem? Brainstorm It!” by Lyman Judson.

It is no surprise that what we read about in 1957 is what practice today. As Judson’s article points out – even though brainstorming dates back to Plato, much of what they did in 1957 and what we do today is based on work by Alex Osborn.

Brainstorming is a good descriptive word. “Having a brainstorm” means having a brilliant idea. Although the basic technique of brainstorming by groups has been in use at least since the days of Plato, it is generally conceded that Alex F. Osborn, who contributed his name as well as his creative genius to the famous advertising firm of Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn, has been chiefly instrumental in advocating the use of brainstorming and bringing it to its present status and public recognition. Today, in scores of corporations, the modern technique of brainstorming is consciously applied to the solution of all kinds of problems.

Other than being slightly dated – making reference only to men and a mention of stenotypists, it is an evergreen article.
1. Assemble Panel of Participants. Bring together those most capable of solving the problem. Ordinarily, a group of salesmen might be assembled to solve a sales problem. It might help, however, to have an advertising man, a distribution man, an engineer, merchandising expert, a customer, or others sitting in.

Size of group? Less than five or six produces little cross-fertilization of ideas. More than ten to 15 increases the difficulty of recording contributions.

2. Limit the Problem. Limit the scope of it. Be certain the problem is not multiple or, if it is, brainstorm only part at a time. State the problem so all will understand it. Define and secure agreement on all words. Ask if the proposition is understood. If not, clear up any question. Before brainstorming the problem the group may hold a brainstorming session to determine the wording of the problem. A problem well stated is a problem half solved.

3. Create a Noncritical Atmosphere. At the heart of successful brainstorming are the creation and maintenance of an informal, noncritical, nonjudicial atmosphere. To achieve this free-wheeling, productive, think-shop atmosphere, the discussion leader must make clear at the outset that no one is to do or say anything negative. No one, by look or action, may indicate that he thinks another’s idea is harebrained or useless. No one is to say anything to cast doubt on the value of any contribution. It is explained that any criticism of an idea must he held until a later time. Everyone must cooperate in a positive, productive, creative spirit from beginning to end. It must be brought home to every person in the group that the sky is the limit, that preposterous, screwball, and even impossible solutions are welcome – even expected as a matter of course – along with the more numerous sensible and practical suggestions. Brainstormers learn to expect that in almost any session an idea that seems “screwy” enough to end all ideas will, in turn, spark subsequent contributions of excellent, practical ideas that will pay off when put into operation.

4. Record Every Contribution. Tape recorders, stenotypists, or shorthand experts may be used. That latter should learn to catch the gist, not necessarily every word, of the contributor. Sometimes one or two persons may be designed to write the essence of each contribution on a blackboard, easel pad, or flip sheet. This method slows up the contributors, but has the advantage of providing a visible stimulus.

5. Obtain a Quantity of Ideas Rapidly. A major objective is quantity of ideas. While this is not a guaranty of an increase in quality of ideas, it is almost always true that with increased numbers comes increased quality. The leader uses various devices to hurry along the group responses. One is a clock in view of all. The leader may say, “Let’s see if we can get 50 good ideas in ten minutes.” After asking the recorder how many ideas have been contributed, he may say, “Good! Let’s make it an even 100 before stopping.” Or he may say, “We’ll stop in exactly seven minutes. How many ideas can we contribute before our time is up?” The chairman uses the word “we” correctly, because he, too, may quite properly contribute any ideas he may have. He must not, of course. monopolize the session.

6. Urge Participants to Improve Ideas. Participants are urged to contribute — noncritically — ways in which other ideas may be improved. Participants learn that there is great value in trying to turn Smith’s good idea into a better idea. There is value, too, in combining Jones’ suggestion and Smith’s into an even better solution to the problem under discussion. Psychologists call this “association”; brainstormers refer to it as “idea-hitchhiking” or cross-fertilization. It is instructive to note how often out of 65 to 75 contributions made by a group, the last half or third will tend to be the best.

7. Maintain Control of Participants. The chairman must remain in control of the group. Because it is important that the recorder get down every contribution, the leader must see that a high degree of order is maintained while retaining an atmosphere of informality. The leader may ask anyone who wishes to contribute to raise his hand. This prevents several from speaking at once and simplifies the task of the recorder. The leader may ask contributors to snap their fingers if they wish to contribute a hitchhiking idea. The group will be further stimulated by hearing the hook-on ideas.

8. Use Questions to Stimulate Thinking. The leader uses questions to increase the flow of contributions. If the flow slows down or stops, the chairman may simply restate the problem. More likely, he will ask questions to stimulate a new flow. For example, at a sales conference he might ask such questions as these: “What about changing the size? Price? Color? Material? Shape? Packaging? Method of distribution?” “Are there any other uses that could be made…?”

9. Decide on Merits of Ideas. At a subsequent conference the ideas gathered in the brainstorming session are subjected to judicial decision. This follow.up is essential; it should be done as promptly as possible. Sometimes the same persons may he reconvened to go over the ideas. Or, only the key members of the group may be assembled. Sometimes an entirely different group will go over the ideas. Duplicate ideas will be eliminated. Some ideas may be combined. The solutions may he arranged in order of importance. Some ideas will be of immediate practical application. Some ideas may be useless. Others may become the subjects of future brainstorming sessions.

10. Acknowledge Work of Participants. Participants must be thanked for the time and energy spent during the session and must be apprised of the action taken on the ideas. Human beings want recognition. The wise group-discussion leader will give a verbal or written “thank you” to each participant and will supply him with a copy of the list of ideas contributed during the session. These are psychic rewards. If the solutions suggested in the brainstorming session produce commercially or socially valuable answers to the problem, it may follow that participants will receive more tangible awards for their contributions.

(It is unwise to send up to a higher authority—if he is unacquainted with brainstorming—an unexpurgated list of ideas coming out of a session. In fact, even if he understands brainstorming, it is usually wise to edit any list before passing it along to any other person who was not at the
session.)

Contributors should be given the assurance that something concrete resulted from their session. Thus they will be enthusiastic. They will look forward to future sessions of brainstorming.

Article is &copy The Rotarian. Top image by Bernard Glochowsky.

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