by Elizabeth Zielinski, CMM | September 4, 2014

Brainstorming is such a popular technique for idea-generation and problem-solving that most of us have participated in or led such sessions over the course of our careers. The basics are this: A leader identifies the subject to the audience of participants, and ideas are quickly generated out loud by the group and written for all to see. The norms are that as many ideas as possible should be considered, no idea is too outrageous or impractical, and no criticism is allowed. The goal is to increase creativity in problem-solving by accessing gut feelings and using rapid-fire thought. This traditional method of brainstorming is also known as the popcorn method, or free-form brainstorming.
But as meeting professionals, our focus is on how to get the best possible engagement from everyone in the group. That means considering those who are introverts, uncomfortable with public speaking, milder personalities that can be overpowered in groups, or individuals with language or cultural barriers. For these participants, the traditional process of brainstorming doesn't access the best they have to offer. Brainstorming out loud also can inadvertently lead to groupthink, where thoughts tend to shift in alignment with the energy of the room rather than the substance of the idea itself.
Some variations on brainstorming are gaining popularity, such as Q-storming (identifying the key questions that led to a problem), but they don't solve the issues presented by having diverse levels of participation. Consider using one of the following strategies the next time you have a group that wants to come up with fresh ideas:
Brainwriting. Ask participants to write down one of their ideas on a sheet of paper or index card. Then, each participant passes their idea to someone else, who reads the idea and uses it as inspiration to add their own idea to it. In a few minutes, the papers are passed again and the process repeats. After a few cycles the sheets are collected and the ideas posted for immediate discussion.
Mind mapping. This is a graphic approach that works well in groups with a lot of visual thinkers. The process uses one or two scribes who begin by writing the topic inside a circle, at the center of a large writing space. The responses are gathered by the scribes and written as lines branching from the center circle. Participants can offer new ideas or sub-branches of existing ideas when expanding on something already offered. The completed map has the additional benefit of showing key links between ideas, thanks to the graphical representation.
Round-robin. Participants contribute their ideas in turn, one by one. Each is allotted an equal amount of time to speak, allowing participant to voice their thoughts without being overpowered by more vocal members of the group. If a participant doesn't have an idea, he is allowed to pass. The process stops when the conversation leader can go around the entire group with everyone passing. This method works best when you want to generate a volume of ideas, rather than expanding on a shorter list.
Whatever methods you put in place, use an effective facilitator who understands the methodology, and always consider the unique composition of both the group and the problem or task at hand. We often make quick assumptions about what works, and for a long time the assumption was that traditional brainstorming works best for everyone. Meeting professionals know that there isn't a "one size fits all" in any aspect of our profession.
What are some other methods of idea generation that have worked in your groups? I'd like to know. You can comment below, or via email to I'm also on Twitter, @E_Zielinski.