Problem solving: brainstorming on your own
In response to an earlier article on problem solving, Heather Smith asked me how I brainstorm on my own. So here’s an overview of the brainstorming process and techniques I use.
Set the scene for brainstorming
I set aside a block of time to brainstorm. I clear my to-do list for the day and turn off email and phones.
I find changing my location literally changes my perspective. I find walking or sitting in a café helpful and notice random input from the outside world can trigger new thoughts.
I make sure I am in a playful mood, so if I am stressed, fearful or angry, coffee and baked goods may be in order!
I am a visual and kinaesthetic thinker, so I always want pen and paper or a whiteboard handy. If you are more of an aural person, you may want to use a sound recording device.
Retelling and reframing the problem
I talk through the challenge with myself, the cat or the television. Verbalising this way often leads to a deeper understanding, which is why talking therapy works.
I reframe the challenge: What if I had to explain this to a five year old? To a competitor? Or the neighbours Labrador? What if I were someone else? The CEO, a cynical customer, my grandmother… how would things look from their perspectives? What would they do? Ridiculous as this may seem, startling revelations can and do appear.
"I talk through the challenge with myself, the cat or the television."
Often, problems are defined with an implied solution which limits the possibilities. Reframing the problem challenges the underlying assumptions about it. “We need more sales to make money” can become “we need to reduce waste to save money”.
What if the problem was not a problem after all? What if the priorities were reversed?
I look at how other people in different industries, have solved similar problems. Can their solutions offer any insights?
To make comparisons easier, I create simple conceptual models of situations or processes.
Example: Film camera makers sell cameras cheap and make their profits from consumables. Inkjet printer manufacturers do the same thing. How can this apply to a service provider like a health spa?
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I look at unrelated concepts to find potential solutions in them, however wacky these may be. A fish does not have nostrils, so gas exchange happens through gill slits; thus instead of using nozzles to pipe cool air into a room, why not use floor-to-ceiling slit vents?
Building a concept extension tree can be fun, too: Bake and sell cupcakes > bake varieties of baked goods > bake for different demographics > tailor opening hours to demographics > create a home away from home > … a potential redefinition of what a bakery is!
Laughter is a great benchmark for how well the brainstorming session is going. If I am not giggling or laughing some of the time, then I know the ideas are not flowing.
I like to consider funny, silly, out-of-this-world possibilities as real solutions often hide inside outrageous propositions.
- To attract more customers, we’ll pay them to visit our website! (EmailCash)
- We want a TV show that’s compelling viewing, so we’ll create a show about nothing! (Seinfeld)
Judgments and evaluations
Brainstorming is not risk analysis or decision making so I consciously set aside all judgments and evaluations. This is often the hardest obstacle as we are more used to decision-making in business.
When I catch trying to logically think through why an idea will or will not work, I stop myself and go into “feel mode” instead. Does the idea feel good or not? If it does, it is explored further and set aside for rational evaluation later. If it is not, I get on another train of thought.
If I constantly find myself thinking “that’s not going to work”, or “that’s silly”, or “I’m just wasting my time” then I am not engaged with the process.
Aiming for a state of flow
The techniques above are not prescriptive by any means. If I get stuck, I simply pick one of these techniques and start from there.
So how do I know if I am doing it ‘right’? Remember, it isn’t about seriously evaluating the ideas themselves. I go by whether I am feeling good or not. If I am in a state of flow, I feel good, inspired and engaged. Possibilities abound. I lose track of time.
Brainstorming on your own is about having fun, suspending serious judgment, feeling good, going with the flow and simply being generative. We all have the capacity to do this. So go forth and create!