Brainstorming as a Game to Generate Ideas

In this article, I introduce some basic principles to effective brainstorming from the perspective that a brainstorming session can be run as a "game."

When brainstorming sessions go wrong
It is not difficult at all to brainstorm. Ask around, and you will find people who consider the word "brainstorming" as an alias for "you are going to waste time." When you ask about what went wrong with the session, you usually hear something like these statements:

  • It came to nothing.
  • We had no clue about what we were dealing with.
  • It went to chaos.
  • I could not figure out what they wanted from me.
  • Everyone talked about his or her own business.
  • X allowed no room for others to speak.
  • I had no time to properly show my ideas/views.
  • I haven't heard any more about what came out of it.
  • As we gave our ideas, Y or Z criticized them.

It's no surprise that people with such experiences have become professionals at keeping away from brainstorming, or that they're reluctant participants. The predictable result is something between frustration and annoyance. If you are one of those who's disillusioned, suspend your disbelief and follow me with this suggestion. Well, not just "follow me" but "play with me," because brainstorming is a game, and we are going to learn the rules for playing the game.

Play it fair

Gathering people, sharing a scenario, having an objective, and specifying the actions allowed or forbidden to achieve the objective make up a structured activity we usually call a game. Playing a game starts with learning its rules. Rules establish the common ground for players, defining:

A context or scenario
The objectives
The moves allowed to accomplish the objectives
Look back at the typical complaints previously listed from disillusioned brainstorming survivors. We can trace the source of each complaint as follows:

Missed clear scenario

We had no clue about what we were dealing with.
Missed clear objective

  • It came to nothing.
  • I could not figure what they wanted from me.
  • I haven't heard any more about what came out of it.

Missed (observance of) allowed moves

  • It went to chaos.
  • Everyone talked about his or her own business.
  • X allowed no room for others to speak.
  • I had no time to properly show my ideas/views.
  • As we gave our ideas, Y or Z criticized them.

The elements of rules can be grouped as:

  • Prerequisite: Scenario or an objective
  • Mode: Allowed moves

The first point is that if the scenario and objective are not defined and shared, the game will end in tears. Clear scenarios provide the starting point and possible boundaries; objectives allow focus.

The mode is the set of moves and turns allowed. It is what gives the game its identity (but this is definitely a different topic, and it requires specific treatment). There are plenty of modes, each one addressing specific scopes. However, there is a core of practices and principles shared by all of them that you must be aware of and learn to manage.

Play it safe: The brainstorming mindset

The most important principle that a brainstorming session must uphold is safety, which means that no proposal and no individual will be either judged or criticized. Brainstorming is about creation and collaboration, not about competition or problem solving. (Remember that solving problems is about filling undesired holes in the wall; ideas are about pointing to new doors in the wall). You must guarantee everyone and every proposal the proper space and time while communication flows smoothly so that it can feed further ideas. Brainstorming is about sharing ideas so that everyone is able to catch the ideas of others.

No silver bullet exists. However, there is a minimum set of practices that support a positive/generative mindset and mood in a brainstorming meeting.

  • One voice at time: Let people show and tell their ideas with no interruption or background chatting.
  • One minute per idea: Allow enough time for everyone to speak.
  • Sketch the idea: Draw to share your idea (don’t be afraid to draw!).
  • No judgment: Judgments inhibit people because they feel measured or challenged.
  • No criticism: When people criticize, they focus on problem solving and stop generating ideas.
  • Build on others’ ideas: Listen to others, write down any idea from their presentation (and connect your idea to the trigger idea when showing it).
  • Have fun: Do not be afraid to propose ideas. There is no such thing as a silly idea.

Play it together: A basic brainstorming session

We can draft a plan for a basic Post-it® brainstorming session according to the listed practices:

Call the meeting
Send a clearly stated invitation.

  • Scenario
  • Objective(s)
  • Follow-up

(An advance call of several days leaves time for any needed clarifications.)
Set the environment

  • Post-its
  • Pens/pencils/marker
  • Board

Recap the challenge
3 minutes

  • Recap the invitation
  • Explain how the session works

3 minutes

  • Each team member writes down as many ideas as she can on Post-its
  • A short sentence per idea
  • One idea per Post-it

1 minute each

  • Each team member show his or her ideas
  • One idea at time
  • Put each Post-it on a board

On the board: Put together "similar" ideas, with "similar" depending on the scenario.

Collect "useful" ideas, with "useful" depending on the scenario.
Archive ideas that are not "useful" (don't throw them away, though, since they could be "useful" in other occasions).

Finally, keep people updated on the progress and advance of the work they were involved.


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