Fw: TP Msg. #1197 Brainstorming Guidelines
From: Wayne Tyson (landrestcox.net)
Date: Tue, 25 Sep 2012 07:41:38 -0700 (PDT)

How coincidental that this came in the same batch with the "harvesting" piece . 
. .


----- Original Message ----- 
From: Rick Reis 
To: tomorrows-professor 
Sent: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 6:30 AM
Subject: TP Msg. #1197 Brainstorming Guidelines

Choosing brainstorming participants is critically important. It is not good 
enough to randomly scoop up a few people and bring them in to brainstorm. You 
need to be very thoughtful about who is in the room. The people invited to a 
brainstorming session should have different points of view and expertise on the 
topic. Keep in mind that this is not the same group of people who will make the 
final decisions at the end of the brainstorming session. That is so important 
that I will restate it: those who are in the brainstorming session are not the 
same people who will make the decision about what will happen with the fruits 
of the discussion. 


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The posting below gives some great tips on conducting effective brainstorming 
sessions. It is from Chapter Three, Build, Build, Build, Jump! in the book, 
inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity by Dr. Tina Seelig, executive director 
of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program and the director of the National 
Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation. Harper Collins publisher 
[http://www.harpercollins.com]. Copyright © 2012 by Tina L. Seelig. All rights 
reserved. Reprinted with permission. 


Rick Reis 
reis [at] stanford.edu 
UP NEXT: Learning Student Names 

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning 

--------------------------------------------------------- 3,022 words 

Brainstorming Guidelines 

* What does the room look like in advance? 

Brainstorming is much like a dance, and similar to dancing you need the proper 
space to encourage a fluid brainstorming process. First, there has to be room 
for people to move around. In addition, just like dancing, brainstorming needs 
to be done standing up. This point is not trivial. By standing up instead of 
sitting, the group is much more energetic and engaged. Standing also allows for 
quick changes in the flow of people and ideas. 

You also need space to capture all the ideas along the way. The most common 
approach is to use whiteboards or flip charts. Keep in mind that the larger the 
space for ideas, the more ideas you will get. In fact, when you run out of 
space, you often run out of ideas. So think about covering all the walls in the 
room with newsprint, so that the entire space can be used to capture your 
group’s ideas. Or you can use a bank of windows as a surface for sticky notes. 
By the time you are done, all the walls and windows should be covered with 
colorful pieces of paper. 

* Who should participate? 

Choosing brainstorming participants is critically important. It is not good 
enough to randomly scoop up a few people and bring them in to brainstorm. You 
need to be very thoughtful about who is in the room. The people invited to a 
brainstorming session should have different points of view and expertise on the 
topic. Keep in mind that this is not the same group of people who will make the 
final decisions at the end of the brainstorming session. That is so important 
that I will restate it: those who are in the brainstorming session are not the 
same people who will make the decision about what will happen with the fruits 
of the discussion. 

If you are going to design a new car, for example, you need to include people 
with different perspectives and knowledge about cars. These might include the 
engineers who will build it, the customers who will buy it, the salespeople who 
will sell it, the mechanics who will repair it, the valets who will park it, 
and so on. These folks don’t get to make the final decision about the car 
design, but their points of view and ideas are incredibly valuable. Dennis 
Boyle, at the design firm IDEO, says that being invited to a brainstorming 
session is a huge honor. It is a sign that your particular perspective is 
important. Make sure that you communicate that to those who are invited to a 
brainstorming session. 

The size of the group is also an issue. There is always a tension between 
having many points of view and being able to have one conversation where 
everyone contributes. Several years ago I heard that Facebook had a policy of 
“two-pizza teams.” No team was bigger than could be fed with two pizzas, which 
allowed for optimum communication and collaboration. Once a team got larger 
than that, it was broken in two. This is a great guideline for brainstorming, 
too. With six to eight people (and a couple of pizzas) you have a group who can 
bring a range of perspectives and can also easily interact. 

* What is the brainstorming topic? 

The framing of the topic is a critical decision. If you make the question too 
broad—“how can we solve world hunger?” — then it’s hard to know where to start. 
If you make the topic too narrow—“what should we have for breakfast?” — then it 
is too limited. Finding the right balance is important. Recall the earlier 
discussion in chapter 1 about framing problems. The question you ask if the 
frame into which the solutions will fall. So make sure that the frame is 
appropriate, leaving lots of room for the group’s imagination to roam. A 
provocative or surprising question is usually the most generative. For example, 
instead of asking, “What should we do for Mike’s birthday?” you can ask, “What 
is the most fanciful birthday experience we could create for mike?” A small 
change in the way you ask the question dramatically changes the tone and scope 
of the answers. 

* What else should be in the room? 

It is helpful to fill the room with things that will stimulate the discussion. 
For example, if you are brainstorming about the design for a new pen, then you 
should have lots of different writing instruments, as well as interesting 
gadgets and toys to spark your imagination. You need to have paper and markers 
for everyone. It is also incredibly helpful to have other simple prototyping 
materials, because you will want to mock up a quick example. These include 
tape, scissors, cardboard, rubber bands, and so forth. Many people “build to 
think.” The act of creating a quick example with simple materials actually 
helps the thinking process. And a three-dimensional prototype often 
communicates much more than words or a two-dimensional drawing. 

* How do you start a brainstorming session? 

Starting a brainstorming session isn’t always easy. People have to switch gears 
from their everyday work mode, where their focus is on execution, to a 
brainstorming mind-set, where there isn’t a clear destination. Doing a short 
warm-up exercise can lubricate the transition. There are zillions of ways to do 
this, from writing a progressive poem together to doing Mad Libs. One of my 
favorites involves giving everyone a set of paper letters that spell a long 
word, such as “entrepreneurship,” and asking them to take five minutes to 
create as many words as possible using those letters. Another involves starting 
with a seemingly silly prompt, such as “How would you design eyeglasses if we 
didn’t have ears?” Again, this exercise stretches the imagination and prepares 
everyone for the real work ahead. Although it might feel a bit awkward at 
first, it is important to mark the transition into a brainstorming session in 
some way and to give the participants a chance to warm up their imagination, 
just as an athlete warms up before a race. 

* What are the rules of brainstorming? 

Real rules exist for effective brainstorming — the most important of which is 
that there are no bad ideas. This means that the participants aren’t allowed to 
criticize ideas. In fact, no matter how strange the idea, your job is to build 
on it. The key is to embrace all ideas that are generated and to work with them 
for a while. Brainstorming is a way to explore all the possibilities, whether 
they are inspiring or insipid. This is the “exploration” phase of a project, 
which needs to be distinguished from the “exploitation” phase, where decisions 
are made and resources are committed. There should be a clear wall between 
these two phases, so that your group doesn’t fall into the trap of eliminating 
ideas too early. This is the biggest challenge for most people—they feel a need 
to evaluate ideas as they are generated. This alone will kill a brainstorming 

It is also important to encourage wild and crazy ideas. Even though they may 
seem strange, there may be a gem hidden inside. The key is to generate as many 
ideas as possible. Give yourself a goal, such as coming up with five hundred 
new flavors of ice cream. Once you have come up with three hundred, you know 
that you only have two hundred to go. You have moved beyond the first waves of 
ideas and are posed to generate the most interesting and surprising recipes. It 
is important to remember that each idea is a seed that has the potential to 
grow into something remarkable. If you don’t generate those ideas, then like 
seeds that have never been planted, no amount of time and tending will yield 
fruitful results. And the more ideas you have, the better. Just like seeds, you 
need a large number in order to find the ones that have the greatest promise. 

One way to break free from expected ideas is to encourage silly or stupid 
ideas. In my last book, What I wish I Knew When I Was 20, I describe an 
exercise in which I ask students to come up with the worst ideas they can 
during a brainstorming session. This unleashes ideas that would never have 
surfaced if they only focused on their best ideas. When people are asked to 
generate bad ideas, they defer judgment and push beyond obvious solutions. In 
fact, the craziest ideas very often turn out to be the most interesting ones 
when looked at through the frame of possibility. 

* What is the brainstorming process? 

Once you have the right space, people, and question, and have reminded everyone 
of the rules, your goal is to make the process as fluid as possible. Only one 
conversation should be happening at a time, so that everyone is in sync. Along 
the way, you are going to want to challenge participants to look at the problem 
from different points of view. One approach is to remove the most obvious 
solutions from the pool of possibilities, so that you have to come up with 
something else. This forces you to tackle the challenge without the expected 
tool in your toolbox. For example, if you are brainstorming about ways to make 
it easier to park your car in a busy city, the expected answer is to add more 
parking spaces. If you eliminate that possibility, then other, less obvious 
answers will emerge. 

During a brainstorming session, you should also throw out surprising and 
provocative prompts along the way that will help the group push past their 
assumptions. For example, if you are coming up with ideas for a new playground, 
you could ask how someone might design a playground on the moon or underwater. 
You could ask how you might design it one hundred years in the future or in the 
past. You could ask how a child would design it or someone with a disability. 
You could ask how you would design it with one dollar or with a million 
dollars. Or, you can solicit ideas for the most dangerous playground in the 
world. In fact, studies have shown that the farther away you get from your 
current place and time, both physically and mentally, the more imaginative your 
ideas. These prompts provide a convenient way to do this. 

In addition, it is important to build on other people’s ideas. In a perfect 
brainstorm, there is a rhythm to the discussion, and it feels like a dance. 
Someone comes up with an idea, and several people build on it for a short time. 
Then you jump to a new approach. The dance could be called “Build, Build, 
Build, Jump!” To make this work smoothly, all the ideas should be written as 
short statements, such as “build a house on the moon” or “Give everyone a key 
to the building,” rather than long descriptions that look like business plans. 
The short statements are like newspaper headlines for each of the ideas. 

* How are ideas captured? 

Make sure that everyone has a pen and paper or sticky notes. This might sound 
remedial, but it isn’t. If only one person is at the board writing down ideas, 
then they control which ideas are captured. When everyone writes, you avoid the 
“tyranny of the pen,” where the person with the pen controls the flow of ideas 
and what is captured. In addition, if everyone has a pen and paper, they can 
write or draw their ideas in real time, without having to wait for a hole in 
the conversation. When they do speak up, they will have already captured their 
idea, so it will be faster to add it to the board. 

Using sticky notes enables each person to write down ideas as they arise and 
then put them on the board when the time is right. They also force participants 
to write short “headlines” to summarize each idea rather than spending too much 
time writing lots of details. Sticky notes also allow you to reorganize and 
cluster similar ideas together as patterns emerge. All this adds to the 
creative spirit of the brainstorming session. 

Another valuable way to capture all your ideas is using mind mapping. This is 
essentially a nonlinear way to collect ideas. Starting with a central topic on 
the board, you draw lines to words or drawings with related information, and 
then add details to those on smaller branches. For example, if you were using a 
mind map to brainstorm about the plot for a new mystery novel, you might put 
the title in the middle of a mind map. You would then draw lines to text or 
images around the center, which might include characters, settings, story line, 
and historical context. You can add ideas to each of these on smaller branches 
around them. A quick online image search for mind maps reveals an endless array 
that you can use for inspiration. Here is a sample mind map created by Paul 
Foreman with main branches that deal with who, what, when, where, and why to 

* How much time does a brainstorming session take? 

It is generally impossible to keep the energy needed for productive 
brainstorming going for more than about an hour. This means that there should 
be a clear limit to the amount of time you brainstorm. A flash brainstorming 
session of ten to fifteen minutes will work if all the participants know each 
other well and can quickly dive into idea generation. A longer session of 
forty-five to sixty minutes yields the best results. A key is to make the 
session long enough to get beyond the early waves of ideas. However, these 
longer sessions should be broken up into smaller segments by injecting various 
prompts along the way in order to keep the discussion fresh and everyone 

It is best to end a brainstorming session on a high note, leaving everyone 
wanting more. In fact, few things feel better than a robust brainstorming 
session. Everyone feels invigorated and validated, as others build on their 
ideas. At the end of the session, the room should be saturated with ideas. 
There should be words and drawings covering the walls and prototypes on the 
tables. It should look and feel as though the subject has been fully explored, 
providing a rich collection of material that can be mined. 

* What do you do when you are done? 

Sometimes the end of a brainstorming session is the most challenging part of 
the process. As discussed earlier, those who are part of the brainstorming 
session represent a wide range of perspectives, but are not the ones who will 
decide which ideas to implement. Even so, the participants are usually eager to 
pick their favorite ideas, and it is helpful to know their preferences. To 
address this, you can give all the participants a chance to vote for their top 
choices in several different categories. For example, ask each person to put a 
red star next to the ideas that will have the biggest impact, a blue star next 
to those that can be implanted quickly, and a green star next to the ideas that 
are most cost-effective. This process gives the decision makers useful input on 
what to do next, and it provides everyone involved with a chance to express an 

The final step is to capture all that happened. Take photos of all of the 
ideas, make notes about the best ones, and save all the materials that can be 
saved. They are the valuable products of the brainstorming session. The person 
or team who is in charge of making the decisions about the project can mine 
this massive collection of diverse ideas and decide which ones to pursue. These 
materials can be revisited at any time in the future. As time goes by, some of 
the ideas that seem impractical might look promising. 

Here is an example of how this all works. Just recently, we launched a new 
national center at Stanford called the Epicenter, for the National Center for 
Engineering Pathways to Innovation. The center is charged with transforming 
undergraduate engineering education across the United States. To kick off our 
planning, we had a brainstorming session. I spent several hours in advance 
planning for the session, coming up with an appropriate warm-up exercise, 
crafting a series of questions to frame the brainstorming, gathering materials 
to stimulate the discussion, setting up the room, and identifying the right 
people to include in the session. 

I picked a series of topics that would allow us to come at the challenge from 
different angles. For example, we started with the broad question “What can the 
Epicenter do that will have the biggest impact?” I threw out different prompts 
along the way, including “What if we were doing this for five-year-olds instead 
of twenty-five-year-olds?” “What if we had $100 million instead of $10 
million?” and “What if we had no money at all?” We then switched to related 
topics every ten minutes. For example, we brainstormed about how to reward 
people for participating, how we will know if we are successful, how to design 
our physical space to reflect what we are doing, and how we should share the 
resources on our website. 

Each short session reinforced the previous one, providing a new way of seeing 
the challenge and sparking new ideas. Many of the ideas were extreme, such as 
owning our own private jet. But many others were incredibly interesting, such 
as lining the walls of our new space with computer monitors with live 
connections to universities around the country, having movie clips on our 
website showing how innovators are portrayed in the media, having a gift shop 
so that we can offer visitors tangible tools to take home, and launching an 
“Entrepreneur Ship” that stops at different ports where passengers are given 
projects that reflect the local challenges at each location. When we were done, 
the entire wall of windows in our office was covered with hundreds of colorful 
sticky notes. 

Done well, brainstorming allows you to tap into your imagination to challenge 
assumptions and to push beyond obvious answers to generate truly interesting 
and unique ideas. It is a fabulous way to find nonobvious solutions to problems 
big and small, and it is a critical technique for all innovators. The more you 
practice, the more fluid your brainstorming becomes, and the more diverse the 
ideas you and your team generate. As such, brainstorming is a key to enhancing 
and expressing your imagination. 

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