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Principles behind brainstorming

This page will explain the principles behind why brainstorming works. There are many such principles and they are designed to counter our natural inhibitions in suggesting new ideas.

The fear of making mistakes
The fear of the manager
Principles relating to Rule 1: Withholding judgment
Principles relating to Rule 2: Encourage wild and exaggerated ideas
Principles relating to Rule 3: Quantity counts at this stage, not quality
Principles relating to Rule 4: Build on the ideas put forward by others
Principles relating to Rule 5: Every person and every idea has equal worth

The fear of making mistakes

In raw nature, mistakes can mean dying, injury or being eaten by predators. Animals that take unnecessary risks do not live very long.

In the human jungle, mistakes usually lead to mental pain rather than physical pain. And yet mental anguish can seem much more frightening to many people than the fear of physical pain. In a modern society with a welfare state you will always have food and shelter, and yet some people fear that their whole existence is at risk if they say the wrong words in front of their manager. The fear of making mistakes at work can be the greatest fear of all because it can lead to the destruction of an individual's vision of their future. Never underestimate the fear that many people have about making mistakes at work.

Some people see the smallest of mistakes at work leading to lack of promotion, reduced salary, and even unemployment - and all of the social problems associated with this. They see their family and social life held together by the fact that they are working and earning money.

And now you put these people in a room and tell them to put forward crazy ideas which may not work!

Everyone has thousands of good ideas within them just waiting to come out. Even if you don't know what yours are, you will have them and those ideas will help improve the world. The problem is creating an environment where those ideas can come out without feeling the fear of making mistakes. This environment is the brainstorming environment. This is a situation where the group has actively decided not to judge anyone by what they put forward. Here, making "mistakes" and putting forward ideas which don't work is not only acceptable but is actually encouraged. Your ideas are never criticized and never judged. Your ideas can never be a mistake because they can be used EITHER as a solution OR as a stimulus for others.

Brainstorming is designed to remove, or at least reduce, the fear of making mistakes. The professionalism and attitude of the participants is the key to how much inhibitions are reduced. This is why sticking strictly to the rules, coupled with good training and a good facilitator, is so important.

The fear of the manager

Now, imagine you are with your manager and your manager's manager in a room for a normal business meeting. They ask you for your ideas on how well your department is run and how they should change their management style. Now obviously some of us do have managers who we can approach with confidence and who are actually pleased when we tell them. However, in most situations this is highly awkward and many of your true ideas will be kept to yourself, however valid and valuable they are.

This is because of the fear of making suggestions which challenge those people who can affect your personal future. There are many situations where valuable ideas are not put forward because of fear of "the manager", such as:

  • job interviews
  • sales presentations
  • press releases
  • government strategy meetings open to the public
We need to create a special situation where the participants do not feel that their actions will harm them when they put forward ideas which challenge the views and feelings of those in authority. Brainstorming sessions are ideal for this as good managers realize that they can get valuable feedback and suggestions which they would not normally get. If you really want to improve yourself as a manager and get good quality feedback, try a brainstorming session on company improvement, but be very careful not to criticize at any point and remember to thank anyone for their ideas which were frightening to say. Your staff will reduce their fear of you if you join in actively and purposefully help to start the session by putting forward ridiculous ideas, however challenging this is to you personally!

Principles relating to Rule 1: Withholding judgment

  • Ideas which initially seem like they won't work can sometimes have enormous benefits when modified.
  • You will reduce the inhibitions in others.
  • You will encourage others to give you the freedom to share your own ideas.
  • Original ideas are more likely to surface.
  • Ideas which stimulate good solutions are more likely to be shared.
  • The generation of new ideas is maximized because no brain power is used on evaluation.

Principles relating to Rule 2: Encourage wild and exaggerated ideas

  • It's easier to tame wild ideas into a valid solution than it is to boost normal ideas into an original solution.
  • Ideas which stimulate good solutions are more likely to be shared.
  • Wild ideas are better at stimulating new thought patterns.
  • Original ideas are encouraged by such actions.
  • A loss of inhibitions is more likely.

Principles relating to Rule 3: Quantity counts at this stage, not quality

  • It's easier to pick out good ideas from a large list than a small list. Idea evaluation is often easier than idea generation, so give yourself lots of ideas to analyze later.
  • It's easier to create a good idea from combining lots of little ideas.
  • A fast output of ideas reduces the likelihood of evaluation and so helps a loss of inhibitions.
  • People get more absorbed by the process and think more freely.
  • Quantity, in this case, brings quality.
  • The focus on each idea is minimal at this stage and so participants feel less pressure on each idea.

Principles relating to Rule 4: Build on the ideas put forward by others

  • Every idea put forward has a principle or concept that will be useful.
  • Wild ideas can be turned into valid solutions.
  • You encourage others to put forward stimulating ideas by using those ideas.
  • You build freedom for yourself when you put forward stimulating ideas.
  • It's often easier to adapt someone else's idea than to generate a completely original one.

Principles relating to Rule 5: Every person and every idea has equal worth

  • You will get solutions from a wider range of people.
  • The breadth of ideas will cover different personality types.
  • You will encourage others to listen to your own ideas.
  • Every idea has equal worth as a stimulus.
  • You will know that you have created a healthy brainstorming environment if everyone feels confident to contribute.

From the above principles you should be able to see that brainstorming rules and techniques are a helpful way of generating a lot of original ideas. This is done by creating an environment which encourages these ideas to be voiced and helps spark off new solutions.

The next stages of this training course will tell you how to prepare and run a successful brainstorming session.

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