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A practical guide to brainstorming


Venuri Siriwardane of Inc.com shares some advice on running a brainstorming session and encouraging an open flow of ideas to spur innovation.

Siriwardane takes inspiration from design firm Ideo, where one of the partners, Brendan Boyle, teaches creativity and design classes at Stanford University.

Boyle claims that brainstorming is ingrained in the company's culture.

Siriwardane outlines how the company sparks good ideas during brief sessions in the office, and says the same steps can be taken by any company.

First, Boyle says you have to get the chemistry right. The session should have a mix of senior and junior staffers in attendance, representing a range of disciplines, "from finance to design to engineering", to suit the end goal.

Boyle warns the boss shouldn't sit at the head of the table and take control, but someone should "assume the role of facilitator" – which might mean just standing in front of a whiteboard and jotting down ideas, or moving the conversation on.


Next, you have to set up the space for creativity. A bright, spacious room that allows you to stand up and walk around is ideal.

Siriwardane says: "Make sure there are plenty of ways for people to externalise their ideas." Provide materials that people can manipulate. For example, Ideo uses easel-sized Post-it Notes to sketch out a flow of ideas – a method that has helped to develop a number of successful products.

The aim should be to generate as many ideas as possible. Boyle says a common mistake is to try and come up with the best idea, but this encourages too much judgment.

Keith Sawyer, a professor of psychology and education at Washington University in St Louis, tells Siriwardane that the best way to brainstorm is to infuse the process into the company's culture.

Siriwardane explains: "In [Sawyer's book Group Genius], he lauds W.L. Gore & Associates, which makes waterproof fabric. Calling it 'dabble time', the company asks its staffers to spend 10% of their week working on whatever they want. All of their new innovations emerge during this time. The idea is that new products emerge from the bottom up. They don't come from an R&D lab and they don't come from marketing surveys. They come from individual employees independently deciding how to pursue their time."

How to Run a Brainstorming Session
Venuri Siriwardane