Brainstorming, also known as ideation, is a tried and true method of solving problems and discovering new ideas. There are countless different brainstorming techniques designed to help people come up with a wide selection of ideas that can be narrowed down to the best few. As more businesses and people turn to remote work and work from home options, virtual brainstorming techniques and tools have taken off. It doesn’t matter where you call “office”—there are plenty of opportunities for brainstorming online.
This post is all about coming up with ideas, including virtual brainstorming exercises, virtual brainstorming tools, and tips for conducting a brainstorming session. We’ll dig into design thinking exercises such as free association, brainstorm bubbles, virtual mind maps, impact/effort matrix, and more.
Brainstorming is the act of generating a bunch of ideas in order to solve problems and make new discoveries. The best solution isn’t always the first thing that comes to mind; in fact, it’s usually not the first idea you come up with.
In order to find the best solution to whatever problem you’re facing, you need to dig deep and come up with a lot of different ideas. Brainstorming produces a wide variety of ideas that you can then narrow down to the best ones.
How do you catch a big fish? You catch a lot of fish and throw all of the small ones back. Ideas are the same. You’ll only find that big, magic, problem-solving idea by beginning with quantity. After the ideation phase, you can move on to narrowing your several ideas down to the quality few.
Free association as a creative technique is the act of coming up with new ideas based on a chain of connected thoughts. It’s a process that requires an open mind and a single starting point that can come from anywhere. Your starting point could be a problem, a single word, an image, or an object.
Think of associations to your starting point. If it’s a word, what does that word remind you of? What other words or images come to mind? Continue to make a chain or cloud of associations that can help you find completely new and maybe even silly ideas. How can you relate those associations to the problem you are trying to solve? Think freely while preserving a connection to the problem at hand.
Brainstorm bubbles organize your ideas around a central problem. Begin with a central circle or bubble. This is the problem you are trying to solve. From there, you can branch out from the center circle, listing all of the ideas you can think of. Try your best to come up with a wide variety of ideas, one for each branching circle.
You can use a Brainstorm Bubble template or create your own by circling each idea as it branches off of the central problem.
The wishing technique helps capture your wildest ideas. Consider your problem without any limitations. If you could wish for anything, what ideas could you come up with? List all of the ideas or solutions you can think of, even if they seem impossible.
Once you have a list of wishes, you can begin to assess why they aren’t possible. Are the constraints to your problem actually set in stone? What can you learn from assessing your problems without limitations? Thinking beyond what’s ‘realistic’ will help you imagine solutions you may never have considered before.
A Lightning Decision Jam is a simplified version of a Design Sprint, which is a design thinking method for solving problems quickly and effectively as a group. A Design Sprint involves an intense, multi-day process of understanding a problem, ideating and deciding, prototyping, and testing. The end goal is solving complex problems as a group with rapid prototyping and testing based on a target audience.
Since we can’t always dedicate a full week to solving a problem, there’s the Lightning Decision Jam. With this design thinking method, you work as a group to get everyone on the same page about a potential problem and its solutions. The process should only take 30-60 minutes. It involves identifying a problem, reframing it, generating possible solutions, voting on the priorities, and deciding how to take effective action.
💡 Learn how to run aLightning Decision Jam session with your team.
Post-it notes are the ultimate brainstorming tool. They make it very simple to separate new ideas because you can put one thought on each note. Since they stick to most surfaces, you can display the ideas on a wall or table to sort them in the next phase of your problem solving. Brainstorming Post-it notes with similar ideas can be grouped on a wall, and from there, you can sort them in whatever way makes the most sense to your team.
Today, there are all sorts of online resources that bring Post-it notes into digital spaces for visual collaboration. An online Post-it notes board gives you the same functionality as physical Post-its, without the location restraints or the paper cuts. Plus, you can save your virtual Post-it notes to review at a later date without needing to disassemble your entire brainstorming session.
Online resources for virtual sticky notes:
There are many online tools available to help you and your team collect ideas virtually. Mind maps help you visualize ideas and organize data. They’re often interactive and can illustrate the relationships between ideas.
MindMup is a digital mind mapping program that creates visual diagrams. The program offers a free version for public maps, and up to 100 KB can be saved for up to six months. Kumu is another mind mapping software that can create visually appealing interactive maps full of complex information. You can join for free to create public projects, or they offer a paid version with an expanded list of features.
A word generator is a simple but effective tool for brainstorming. It helps spark new ideas based on associations with randomly generated words. As new words are generated, ask yourself how they could relate to your problem. What new ideas come to mind?
You can also do this random association exercise with any book in your home. Pick any page and point to a word at random. Continue doing this to create a small selection of words that you can use to force an unexpected idea.
No meeting should ever be set without an agenda in mind. Time is a valuable commodity, so you should always set a purpose and an objective whenever scheduling a meeting. Create a brainstorming meeting agenda with a clear time limit, expectations, and goals. Your brainstorming agenda should go out to everyone that’s expected to participate with plenty of advance notice.
Provide brainstorming session rules to get all participants on the same page. These don’t need to be strict rules for the session, but rather general tips, guiding principles, and best practices.
For example, let everyone know that there’s no wrong answer in a brainstorming session. There will be plenty of bad ideas, but that’s the point. There is no right or wrong, which means everyone needs to be respectful and encourage all ideas, no matter how wild, out there, or zany an idea is.
All of those ideas are no good to your team unless you start to narrow them down so you can act on them. An Impact/Effort Matrix can help your team assess ideas based on clear criteria.
The matrix is divided into quadrants that help you identify which ideas you should prioritize.
With the matrix, you can judge ideas based on high to low impact and high to low effort, ideally finding the ideas that require low effort to achieve high impact.
Ensure you have a process in place to collect and save all of the notes and ideas that came up during the brainstorming session. Even if you’ve moved your focus to a single idea, you shouldn’t toss out all the rest. Your team may want to go back to a previous idea later on or use past ideas to solve your next problem.
If you’re using a virtual brainstorming tool, ensure your data will be saved or that you have documented your progress in a separate, shareable online file.
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