It begins with a certain, momentary, far-off look. Then a wistful gaze at the black notebook. It’s a running joke with my clients; they know what’s coming next. An idea is taking shape. Some thought — some seemingly random thought or word or picture or sound or image — has sparked something. And we’re off to the races together. It’s time to do some brainstorming.
The thing with brainstorming, though, is that whether it’s something you’re doing alone to generate ideas, or something you’re doing as a team to work through a strategy, you can either be good at it, or quite bad at it, frankly. For me, brainstorming is an invaluable tool; and it’s one I use regularly, both as an individual and in group scenarios.
This tool, however, isn’t one that I use haphazardly or without any sort of method. On the contrary. There’s a method behind the madness, as they say.
Brainstorming Secret #1: Expose yourself to stimuli
Think of it as fuel for your mind. And don’t limit it to “traditional” stuff. I try to read as much as anyone, but if you want to get better at brainstorming, you’ve got to do more than simply reading articles about stuff. Read articles that represent viewpoints opposed to your own. Look around. At everything. Anything. Observe. Think.
Brainstorming Secret #2: Ask more questions
I can’t emphasize enough how huge questions are. Learn to use questions. Learn how to structure them. Learn about the different kinds of questions. Learn how to use silence. Read about how the great thinkers and orators used questions.
Start using questions with others. Then listen. Then ask follow-up questions. Probe for understanding. Push yourself to think differently. Challenge your own presuppositions before you challenge those of others.
[bctt tweet=”Brainstorming secret: Ask more questions. Push yourself to think differently. #leadership” username=”MattMonge”]
Brainstorming Secret #3: Make time to think
I know, I know. Seems too painfully obvious, doesn’t it?
But here’s the thing — very few people actually do this. Now before you begin shouting protestations at the top of your lungs, allow me to explain what I mean.
I’m not saying that you always need to block out 18-hour chunks of time to think. That’s not realistic. But you’d be surprised what you can do if you intentionally make it a priority to give yourself time and space to think. It could be fifteen minutes here, thirty minutes there. And occasionally, yes, you’ll want to give yourself time to really dive into the deep end of the mental pool and explore some stuff. Feel free to take floaties with you if you’d like.
And it’s not just me who thinks this is a necessity. Gone are the days when people say that leaders are supposed to run around frantically all the time. “Busyness” isn’t leadership. It’s just…busyness. Warren Buffet is famous for noting that he has spent 80% of his career reading and thinking. Tim Armstrong, AOL’s CEO made it mandatory for his exec team to spend 10% of their time just thinking strategically. Similarly, LinkedIn’s CEO, Jeff Weiner, blocks out two hours a day for thinking and views it as a non-negotiable part of him being an effective executive.
The bottom line, though, is that you simply cannot possibly expect to think and lead strategically if you do not give yourself time to do so.
[bctt tweet=”Strategic leaders make time to think. Don’t get stuck in the weeds. #leadership #strategy” username=”MattMonge”]
Brainstorming Secret #4: Embrace the nonsensical
The time for being reasonable and sensible will come later in the process. While brainstorming, chase ideas down. Remind yourself that you don’t have brakes on your mental muscle car at the moment. Just think. And think. And then think some more.
Talk about ideas that feel both feasible and not as feasible. You’d be surprised how many practical ideas had their origins in ideas that seemed entirely impractical at the time.
Brainstorming Secret #5: Use mind maps
Try using mind maps. Or word maps. Or semantic treasure maps. Or doodles. I don’t really care what you call them, but this is another one of those things I just can’t live without.
I use sketchbooks, whiteboards, walls, my hand, random strangers who stand still too long, or whatever else is handy to write down words, phrases or whatever else comes to mind. Before long, there are lines, dotted lines, squiggly lines, circles, boxes, shapes, colors, and all sorts of other stuff all over the place connecting different ideas and themes.
It’s a fantastic tool, and the cool thing is that there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to do them. In fact, no two of mine even look the same. If you search online, you can see several different ways that folks use them, so knock yourself out. They’re a great place to kickstart your creativity and brainstorming.
Brainstorming Secret #6: Break patterns
Make yourself do something differently or think about something differently. Our brains are naturally inclined to take the path of least resistance, and that will also be the case when we brainstorm. What that prevents us from doing, however, is really thinking strategically and creatively about how to do things better.
We have to force ourselves to think about things differently or most of us likely won’t. So what does that mean? It might mean that you have to get up and move while you’re thinking. It might mean that you remove a variable from the problem you’re trying to solve and try to solve the new problem. Similarly, it may mean that when trying to solve a particular problem, you don’t allow yourself to use a particular solution or tool. There are lots of ways to disrupt your cognitive habits and patterns. Do it.
[bctt tweet=”Want to be more creative? Break your mental patterns. Force yourself to think differently. #leadership #companyculture” username=”MattMonge”]
Brainstorming Secret #7: Let the ideas breathe
Once you’ve scrawled these ideas all over the notebook or whiteboard or wall or wherever else, don’t be too quick to begin drawing lines through the ideas that you just know won’t work. Save that for a different meeting or day. Devote the entirety of your time to thinking and talking about how these things could work. Don’t talk about why they won’t work — talk about how they could. Don’t ask why. Ask why not.
Sometimes, all an idea needs is just a little breathing room. A second look. Someone to tilt their head and look at it just right. And then…
So what’s the bottom line?
Brainstorming is just one tool that can be utilized within the larger context of a humanized workplace culture. The best, most human workplaces are unleashing the amazing potential of people by creating company culture that’s defined by humanness at its core. Part of that humanness involves people using their minds in meaningful and productive ways to propel themselves, their teams, and their organizations forward toward shared purposes and goals. The Mojo Company helps teams and companies develop unique culture defined by humanness and high performance. To learn how, click here.