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Quality Glossary Definition: Brainstorming

Variations: There are many versions of brainstorming, including round-robin brainstorming, wildest-idea brainstorming, double reversal, starbursting, and the charette procedure. The basic version described below is sometimes called free-form, freewheeling, or unstructured brainstorming.

See also: nominal group techniquefishbone diagram

Brainstorming is defined as an idea creation method for generating a large number of creative ideas in a short period of time.

When to Use Brainstorming

  • When a broad range of options is desired
  • When creative, original ideas are desired
  • When participation of the entire group is desired

Brainstorming Procedure

Materials needed: flipchart, marking pens, tape, and blank wall space.

  1. Review the rules of brainstorming with the entire group:
    • No criticism, no evaluation, no discussion of ideas
    • All ideas are valid and worthy of consideration
    • All ideas are recorded
    • Piggybacking—combining, modifying, expanding others’ ideas—is encouraged
  2. Review the topic or problem to be discussed. Often it is best phrased as a "why," "how," or "what" question. Make sure everyone understands the subject of the brainstorm.
  3. Allow a minute or two of silence for everyone to think about the question.
  4. Invite people to call out their ideas. Record all ideas, in words as close as possible to those used by the contributor. Note: No discussion or evaluation of any kind is permitted.
  5. Continue to generate and record ideas until several minutes’ silence produces no more.

Sticky Storm Technique

The practice of combining individual and group brainstorming facilitated by sticky notes—called a "sticky storm"—is a technique that can help ensure everyone participates as well as prevent team members from overshadowing more hesitant members from contributing ideas.

The main difference between this technique and the general brainstorming procedure is that after carefully defining the brainstorming topic, team members brainstorm independently prior to the meeting and quickly write down as many ideas as possible—one idea per sticky note. Each member places his or her sticky notes on the wall one at a time while reading the idea aloud. There is no criticism during this time, but questions may be asked for clarification. Once all members have placed their sticky notes, discussion occurs and ideas continue to be generated and recorded.

Figure 1 shows the resulting cloud of a sticky storm used in establishing a supply chain management (SCM) program in the management department of a large college of business. To learn more about this example, please see the Quality Progress article, "Sticking Out the Storm."

Brainstorming Sticky Note Example
Figure 1: Brainstorming Sticky Storm Example

Brainstorming Considerations

  • When possible, have a separate facilitator and recorder. The facilitator should act as a buffer between the group and the recorder(s), keeping the flow of ideas going and ensuring that no ideas get lost before being recorded. The recorder should focus on capturing the ideas.
  • The recorder should try not to rephrase ideas. If an idea is not clear, ask for a rephrasing that everyone can understand. If the idea is too long to record, work with the person who suggested the idea to come up with a concise rephrasing. The person suggesting the idea must always approve what is recorded.
  • Keep all ideas visible. When ideas overflow to additional flipchart pages, post previous pages around the room so all ideas are still visible to everyone.
  • The more ideas the better. Studies have shown that there is a direct relationship between the total number of ideas and the number of beneficial, creative ideas.
  • Allow for and encourage creative, unconventional and out-of-the-box ideas.
  • Don’t be afraid to piggyback or build on someone else’s idea.

Adapted from The Quality Toolbox, Second Edition, ASQ Quality Press.

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