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The following article was written by Coleman Patterson and appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.

It’s more technical than you think, December 22, 2006, 2D.

“Brainstorming” is a term that people often use to describe finding a solution to a problem.  What many people do not realize is that brainstorming is a technique with specific rules and procedures.  It is really more of an idea-generation technique than a “solution” technique.  Brainstorming is designed to tap into the power of groups to develop a list of possible solutions to a problem.

Groups can outperform individuals on both physical and mental tasks.  With physical tasks, multiple individuals can carry more weight, move more things, cover more territory, and make more contacts than a single person.  Workloads can be shared among group members on physical tasks.  On mental tasks, groups can also outperform individuals because of the different experiences, knowledge, and perspectives that members possess and use to solve mental problems.  When individual members collectively use their past experiences to solve a common group problem, richer and better solutions arise than when only a single perspective is tapped—this is a key principle of brainstorming.

The problem-solving process involves several distinct steps.  The first step is problem definition, followed by the generation of alternative solutions, selection of an alternative, implementation of the alternative, and evaluation and feedback.  The chosen solutions should be legal and ethical.  Brainstorming is a technique that is used to develop a list of alternative solutions to a problem—some end up being routine and some creative.  As described by Alex F. Osborn, the father of brainstorming, the rules for brainstorming are:

  1. Groups should consist of five to seven people.
  2. Everybody should be given the chance to contribute.
  3. No criticism is allowed during the idea generation phase.
  4. Freewheeling and outlandish ideas should be encouraged.
  5. “Piggybacking” off others’ ideas should be encouraged.
  6. The greater the quantity and variety of ideas, the better.
  7. Ideas should be recorded.
  8. After all of the ideas have been generated, each idea should be evaluated in terms of the pros and cons, costs and benefits, feasibility, and so on.

Requiring groups to have five to seven people and having them all contribute ideas allows the power of groups to come into play.  When groups are too small, there are not enough different past experiences to draw upon.  When groups become too large, the forces that inhibit individual participation become more prominent.  With brainstorming, the alternatives suggested by group members should be spoken without thought of fear or evaluation.  People should feel free to suggest any ideas that come to their minds.  Silly-seeming or outlandish ideas should be encouraged because they might spark creative ideas in others that could lead to exceptional solutions.  All ideas should be recorded.  Idea feasibility should only be assessed after time has been called to cease generating ideas.

Brainstorming techniques allow groups to generate many possible solutions to problems.  Through the processes of generating and evaluating a large number of possible solutions, an unobvious, outstanding, and one-in-a-million solution might be discovered.

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© 2006, 2007, 2008  Coleman Patterson, All Rights Reserved