Brainstorming is the process of getting ideas about a certain topic out of your head and onto paper. Rather than having to maintain the ideas in your limited short-term memory, it’s best to document them using a tool called a mind map. To do this, put your central topic in the middle of a sheet of paper and draw branches out from it like a tree. On these branches, write your major ideas or thoughts that relate to the central topic. You can connect branches to indicate relationships and extend branches as more details about an idea emerge. The point is that you can store a lot more ideas on paper than trying to keep it all in your head. In fact, if we tie up our brains with keeping track of the ideas we already had, it’s increasingly difficult to think of new ones.
Another important skill to improve brainstorming is to recognize that we are not good at creating and editing at the same time. How many times have you been sharing ideas with someone and after the first few thoughts come out, people start commenting on whether those ideas would work and focus on changing or eliminating them. We’ve all seen it at least once and it’s a natural response to test whether we think a new idea will work. The problem is that this prevents thinking of new ideas. The solution is to side-step the brain’s natural critical thinking processes and commit to avoid editing ideas during the brainstorming process.
Peter Meyer has a long career in the theater. He is the founder and CEO of Stand and Deliver, a company focused on helping people and organizations communicate with more impact. In his book, As We Speak, he explains that one effective way to keep the good ideas flowing in a brainstorming session is to use the phrase “Yes, and…”. This allows the follow-up speaker to build on the last idea, start a new one, or go back to a previous idea from the session. By eliminating the impulse to edit, people’s ideas flow better and faster while creativity is boosted.
The best ideas are often not the first ones we think of when presented with a problem. Pacific Power and Light (PP&L) used brainstorming to come up with an elegant and effective solution to a problem that plagued them every winter. Whenever winter storms came through their service area, the ice build up on the power lines could cause them to break. To combat this, PP&L would send linemen to climb the icy poles and towers to shake the lines with long poles to remove the ice. Some of them fell in the icy conditions, and they disliked having to go deep into the woods.
The company hired an external consultant to help them develop a solution. The consultant brought together people from multiple areas of the business, not just the linemen that went into the field.
During a break, two linemen were talking about jobs they’d done. Recently, one of them had been confronted by a black bear and chased for about a mile. The consultant overheard this and shared it with the team when the session resumed. One of the other linemen suggested that since the bears are so big and strong, maybe they could train them to shake the poles and knock the ice off for them. Another suggested putting honey pots at the top of the poles so the bears would climb to get the honey and shake the poles as a by-product. A third lineman said they should use the corporate helicopter to place honey at the top of the poles when it was icy to draw the bears at the right time.
At this point, a secretary explained that she was a nurse’s aide during the Vietnam War. As she watched soldiers arrive at the hospital by helicopter, she noticed how much dust it kicked up while landing. She suggested they could use the prop wash from a helicopter to knock the ice off the lines. This was exactly the answer they were looking for, and they adopted it. Ever since, PP&L flies helicopters over its power transmission lines after each ice storm and it clears them faster and more safely than sending linemen into the field. They had to start with the less feasible ideas to recruit bears to help clear the lines to reach the solution that worked best.
A mind map for the PP&L brainstorming exercise could look like the diagram above. Here we can see how the concepts branch off from the main idea which is to find better ways to clear ice from the lines. They add bears to the list of available resources and start a new branch considering how to get the bears to help. This leads to the idea of using a helicopter which has the dual benefit of solving the problem while reminding them of an overlooked resource, the executive chopper.