April 4, 2014 11:00 am

One of the ways inventors come up with cool invention ideas is through a process called brainstorming. Did you know that “brainstorming” itself was an invention?

The Inventing Invention

Originally presented in the 1953 book Applied Imagination: Principles and Practices of Creative Thinking, author Alex Osborn identified brainstorming as a theory of steps involved in the creative process of spontaneous thinking, including some or all of these phases:

  • Orientation (pointing to the problem)Preparation (gathering pertinent data)
  • Analysis (breaking down relevant material)
  • Hypothesis (collecting alternatives by way of ideas)
  • Incubation (letting up to invite the illumination)
  • Synthesis (putting the pieces together)
  • Verification (judging the resultant ideas)

Sounds pretty technical, but the beauty of brainstorming is that it is anything but technical. There are four basic rules to keep in mind when brainstorming for great new invention ideas, all of them fairly low-tech:

  • Criticism is ruled out.
  • Think outside of the box—the farther outside, the better.
  • Quantity is the goal.
  • Combination and improvement of ideas are sought.

Fun with Problem Solving

Brainstorming is fun.  Gather a group of people, present the problem, share the known information, and start throwing ideas and solutions against the wall to see what sticks. The goal is to share as many ideas as possible, no matter how far out they may initially sound, without fear of judgment. Those ideas may then be combined, stretched, and played with in multitudes of variations—or they may inspire yet another, even better idea. Here are some tips to help make your next brainstorming session productive.

  1. Start Thinking Sooner. Encourage participants to start thinking about the issues before you meet, and have them bring thoughts to the table. It saves time and might allow for some additional research and trial and error before the session.
  2. Anything Goes. This is so important it is worth repeating. No idea is too farfetched to throw out to the group.  Never reject an idea. This is not the time to judge or criticize but to let one idea flow into another.
  3. Guide the Discussion. Don’t allow your open discussion to become a free-for-all. Keep your participants gently on target so your meeting does not spiral out of control. You are meeting to propose ideas and solutions in a problem-solving round-table, not to discuss movies or music.
  4. Take Notes. Scribble some brief notes during your brainstorming session so as not to lose any relevant ideas. But don’t be so detailed you miss out on the exchange of ideas because you are worried about the correct placement of a comma.
  5. Set a Time Limit. Not setting a time limit may either create a brain drain or lead to boredom (and discussion of movies). Set a time limit and stick to it. This may encourage people to stay on track and pump out as many ideas as possible within the designated timeframe.
  6. Include an Outsider. If you bring in someone outside of the normal team, you may help to avoid groupthink, when everything with the same knowledge thinks in a certain way. If you have a bunch of engineers talking about creating widgets, bring in someone who actually uses the widget. You are looking for—in fact encouraging– fresh perspectives and new ideas.
  7. Practice, Practice, Practice. Was your first brainstorming session a bust? If so, don’t be discouraged. Any new endeavor takes practice, be it riding a bike, learning a new language, or making a great grilled cheese. Try it again, and again, until it becomes a reflex. Brainstorming, when performed correctly, can be such an important and innovative tool.

Trying Is Believing

If you have not yet tried brainstorming new ideas, these tips will give you a place to start and set you up for success. We’d love to hear your feedback on what did or did not work. Are there any further tips on effective brainstorming you could share?

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