Three simple brainstorming tools

Divergent thinking is the first step toward developing a plan.

Brainstorming is a divergent thinking - group process aimed at generating a lot of ideas, topics or solutions. A tool is a device that aids in accomplishing a task. Therefore, brainstorming tools can aid the brainstorming process, creating a richer outcome, with more ideas, topics and solutions.

In general, the brainstorming process involves these steps:

  • Define and display guidelines. For example: All ideas or OK, build on others suggestions, clarification – not evaluation, one person speak at a time, keep the discussion moving and feel free to ‘pass’.
  • Write the topic for everyone to see. Allow a few quiet moments for participants to think about ideas, maybe even jotting down a few thoughts on paper.
  • Introduce the tool you will use to brainstorm. Clarify how much time is expected to be spent on this process.
  • When participants seem to have run out of ideas, allow a few additional moments of thinking time. Sometimes the best thoughts emerge from this second round.

Below are three simple brainstorming tools:

Popcorn and Round-Robin

  1. Ask participants to let their ideas flow. It may be helpful to have two flip charts and two people recording responses.
  2. The popcorn technique is to let the group offer ideas, spontaneously, as they come to mind.
  3. When the synergy begins to slow, suggest going round-robin around the group, from one person in a line to the next. This ensures quieter members, with still unspoken contributions, to fully participate.

Rotating Flip Charts

  1. Generate and agree on category titles before beginning this tool. For example, if brainstorming how to implement a rain garden in a community space, the categories might be “native plants”, “community partners”, and “funding”.
  2. Post multiple flip charts or newsprint around the room and label each chart with a different category title.
  3. Have participants walk around the room and write their ideas on the flip charts
  4. Optionally, separate participants into small groups, positioning each small group at a different flipchart, to generate ideas as a group. After a few minutes, have them rotate to the next flip chart until they have had a chance to respond to all the category titles.

Nameless Ideas

  1. Provide each person with notecards (5-10) and ask them to write one idea per notecard and place it in the middle of the table.
  2. When the writing has slowed down, ask participants to grab the same number of cards they contributed to the table center, which are not their own and add additional thoughts to the initial idea.
  3. After 2-5 minutes repeat the process.
  4. Finally, ask participants to read aloud all the ideas on the cards and without identifying who suggested the idea, discuss enough so the ideas are understood.

Michigan State University Extensions’ Leadership and Community Engagement team offer programs, such as Facilitative Leadership and Advanced Facilitative Leadership, that help leaders, managers and citizens build important skills and teach tools that promote effective communication.

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