Brainstorming: A Guide to Breaking Through Your Barriers

Alyssa Gregory

Breakthrough BrainstormingBrainstorming can be a valuable tool for developing new ideas, creating plans of action and thinking outside the box. But, if you tend to be a structured thinker, it can be challenging to let your mind go into the necessary freeform mode to brainstorm effectively.

An unrestricted brainstorming session with a group of individuals can be highly productive for those able to let their minds take the necessary path, but it’s also possible to successfully brainstorm on your own in a much more controlled way.

This three-part series on individual brainstorming will provide the structure for a successful brainstorming session.

Get Ready

Here’s what you’ll need to get started with your brainstorm:

  • A sheet of paper and pen, or a blank document on your computer
  • A quiet environment
  • A block of time (20 minutes is a great starting point) with few distractions
  • A timer or alarm
  • A clear, focused mind

Identify One Issue

One of the most important parts of successful brainstorming is limiting your focus. Although this may seem counterproductive to the brainstorming process, it’s necessary to define the one problem or challenge you are attempting to solve.

Not only does this make the entire process of freeform thinking less intimidating and overwhelming, but it also allows you to target your creativity on one tangible issue in a more productive way.

Set Ground Rules

This step simply identifies the limitations of your challenge. For example, you may not want a solution that prevents you from taking action immediately, anything that will require an unrealistic investment, or a solution that may be considered unethical.

While you should get these rules down on paper before starting, don’t focus on them during the brainstorming process. As long as they are identified, you will be able to eliminate them during the evaluation stage of the process.

Pick a Process

There are so many ways to brainstorm on your own. Instead of trying to cover your bases with all of the options at once, pick one or two methods for each brainstorming session (yes, you may need more than one session in order to develop enough working ideas to take you to the next step).

Here are a few brainstorming processes to consider:

  • Brain dump – This is exactly as it sounds. You let your mind take off and write down everything that you think of, ignoring formatting, grammar, punctuation, etc. This can be a great way to get started before moving on to another brainstorming method because it helps to clear your mind.
  • Lists – List-making can help you develop the individual tasks related to your chosen issue. I use this method quite a bit when writing to create an outline before I start filling in the details. Depending on your subject matter, you may want to create multiple lists that break down your issue from a general viewpoint to a more specific focus.
  • Challenges – The challenge method of brainstorming involves writing down all of the assumptions you have related to your topic, and then challenging them. Answering questions like this for each assumption you have: Why does the process have to be done this way? What alternatives do you have? What would someone else do?

This is just a short list to give you a starting point. In a second post, I’ll write about two other brainstorming methods – cubing and webbing – in more detail.

Evaluate Your Results

Most brainstorming sessions will result in a number of ideas that support, define or otherwise aim to solve your focus issue. But you will likely have just as many irrelevant, non-applicable or off-topic ideas to wade through. The evaluation and clean-up stage is a fundamental part of a successful brainstorming session.

The last post in this series will provide an overview on how to evaluate the work you’ve done and select the best ideas for development.

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Image credit: Michal Zacharzewski