Step 3 of the Design Process: Brainstorm

After a diligent and timely process to understand the problem (Step 1) and to collect information as a self-study (Step 2), you are now fully ready to springboard into brainstorming, heck, your team may be chomping at the bit to dive right in! The critical element to success in brainstorming is to rely heavily on your work in the last two steps as a frame for making decisions going forward. The danger is that your team or individuals do not honor the work that is already done and return to notions that they entered the process with and that are not supported by your self-study or by the problem definition. Done well, true brainstorming is a group gathered to share their individual thoughts, add to those thoughts and improve the ideas in real time to develop new, better and collaborative ideas that individuals would never have had on their own. In this way, a set of next, great ideas are the result of dedicated group members who are well primed to make those great ideas happen.   

A quick reminder of The Design Process:

  1. Define the Problem (Verification vs. Validation)
  2. Collect Information (Nodes and Links)
  3. Brainstorm and Analyze (Modeling or Ideation)
  4. Develop Solutions (Prototyping)
  5. Solicit Feedback (Closed Loop)
  6. Improve Your Design (Iterations, Iterations, Iterations!)

There are two main parts to a successful brainstorming or ideation session. First, your group’s goal is to get down as many ideas as is possible without judgement or filtering. Second, your group’s goal is now to meaningfully arrange the the ideas to tell the story of many potential solutions. To get as many ideas down as is possible, you will need to establish the capacity and willingness of your team members to share any and all ideas and you can begin by making space and time for wild ideas. At the same time, you want to keep the ideas focused on solutions that could fit, given your problem definition and self-study. Therefore, the frame for brainstorming might sound like, “Given this clearly defined problem and given our real situation it exists within, what are any and all possible solutions we could imagine, regardless of time and money?” In this way, your brainstorming becomes both grounded in the realities of your real situation and your well defined problem as it also allows participants to dream out loud about what those solutions might become.

The work to do step three is ideally done directly with the products from the first two steps. Whenever the original documents can be reused for step three, there will be much less atrophy of the group’s understandings. Do allow and encourage not only a reading but a use and manipulation of those chart papers full of sticky notes to allow those documents to remain fully alive in your design process. Preservation and curation of the work your team will do are critical to ensuring that the process moves forward meaningfully. Sticky notes not sticking anymore? Grab tape and push pins, allow things to get messy while the meaning builds.

Collecting as many ideas as is possible does require framing. Team members may be unwilling to share unless they see a safe place for that idea on the board. Imagine someone on your team writing down a wild idea on a hot pink sticky note and their justified hesitation to place it on the large chart paper with other’s ideas that has “Success” written across the top in bubble letters. Or imagine someone whose ideas have yet to find an audience in the group and today they face placing the sticky note on a blank space that will only have a dozen or so ideas on it. A frame is needed if you intend to tease out every idea you can. To do so, provide categories that participants can choose from and even provide space for participants to make their own category. Try categories like; reasonable, trending, a dream I had, wild, practical, old school/good school, recycled but relevant, crazy but can’t shake, meaningful, something I read once, and so on. Aim for three categories that seem to encompass the work you are trying to do and space for another. From there, you are likely to collect and create dialogue around ideation and brainstorming that far exceeds an email request for ideas or going around the table asking for ideas. Your staff is teaming with ideas and are eager for a safe place to bring them out, show to peers and to have meaningful dialogue about those complete and fragmented ideas they hold.

Having collected and organically grown as many new ideas a possible, it’s time to organize those ideas. Do all of Step Three on sticky notes or cards once more to make the singular ideas organizable, shared, linkable and democratic to the process. Organize the ideas in a few different categories such as; reasonable (safe), meaningful and wild (risky). These three ideas for categories might have one, most viable to that category rise up and demonstrate its value to Step Four, Prototyping, where you would strive to prototype all three top category ideas into practice. More on that in the next article, but for now, the work of your team is to pare down each category to the one that is most likely to be successful as, a safe, meaningful or wild idea. Here, is a great time to ask clarifying questions to learn more about what the author meant or how the group considers the idea and to ask evaluating questions to determine how likely any one idea is to be successful and to be able to go into prototyping. Perhaps the greatest outcomes may happen when participants ask themselves how to make a great “wild” idea ready for prototyping and how to make a great “safe” idea be as successful as possible. Either way, the challenge is yours to identify two or three ideas that the team is excited to support and to commit energy into the task of prototyping.

Using products from Step 1 & 2 to be successful while brainstorming:

  • Make sure they are posted and always visible to refer back to.
  • Review thoroughly but quickly to start off the brainstorming meeting.
  • Encourage reference to and use of these steps.
  • Allow the original materials to be changed added to or drawn on. They are live documents you will depend on.
  • Create categories that encourage all ideas.
  • Pare down ideas so that the best may rise to the top, ready for prototyping. .

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