Pragmatic Brainstorming for Productivity

For many of us, brainstorming is a lot like play: it’s something we used to do in the golden age of youth, but these days, we have serious work to do, and have no time for futzing around with different colored pens and butcher paper.

In some workplaces and industries, a strong reliance on processes can reduce the perceived need, opportunity and respect for brainstorming as a valid work process. Where brainstorming does take place, it’s often on a “corporate retreat” and adopts a cheesy, hackneyed air — the inference being that it’s not “real work.”

I find brainstorming an immensely helpful process, and I think one of the reasons it’s so commonly dismissed as a frivolity is that few people actually know how to take the outputs of brainstorming and apply them to whatever it is they’re supposed to be doing. Here, I’d like to outline some tips for getting the most out of brainstorming — including applying what you learn.

Why Brainstorm?

You don’t need to be a big-shot creative, or part of a team-building exercise, to find brainstorming useful. As an independent freelancer, I find it handy, first and foremost, for starting difficult tasks.

If I’m not sure how to tackle a job, or what to do about a work problem, I can wind up avoiding thinking about it altogether — a very unproductive way to go about things. I find brainstorming an excellent way to get around this problem.

Similarly, brainstorming can really take the pressure off when you’re working on something important. Since brainstorming is unstructured and fun, using it to tackle different work challenges can reduce the performance anxiety I can feel when I’m facing a tough deadline, important client or career-defining project.

Finally, I find brainstorming a fantastic way to innovate, to get disparate thoughts “organized” (or at least work out roughly how they might fit together), and to relieve my thought patterns from the process-oriented tracks they usually run along.

Make Brainstorming Work

I’ve found these tactics to be especially helpful in making brainstorming a valid, valuable aspect of my work practice.

1. Know what you want.

If you want to be able to use the outputs of your brainstorming exercise, you’ll need to know what kinds of outcomes you want from the work.

Usually for me, the answer to this question is “story ideas” or “pitch angles” or something similar, but obviously it will depend on the task you’re brainstorming. In any case, I usually try to visualize what I’ll have at the end of the process — a list of bullet points, a mind map or a process flow, for example — so that I have some idea of what I’m working toward.

2. Set limits.

To get the most out of my brainstorming, I usually set limits — or, more specifically, a time limit and an output goal.

The time limit helps me avoid dwelling on any one idea for too long. If I’m only brainstorming for fifteen minutes, I know I have to keep my thoughts moving, and not get bogged down in details. An output goal supports those objectives — it provides motivation for me to keep thinking, and thinking, and thinking, rather than to stop after I get one or two ideas that I think are OK.

I find my ideas go through a bit of a lull in the middle of a brainstorming exercise: the first few ideas might be acceptable, then they head downhill, and then I break through a sort of wall, or get a second wind, and there are a few more good ones. So setting time and output expectations help me to stay on track and produce usable outputs.

3. Leave your desk.

I find that it helps me mentally distance myself from my “normal” work processes and thought patterns if I can leave my workspace and brainstorm somewhere else.

If I can’t leave my desk, I usually switch off my monitor and turn myself away from my usual working position. For purely psychological reasons, this seems to help me to clear my mind and focus on doing “something different” from the usual.

4. Use different tools.

My brainstorming is always most effective when I’m not at my desk, and I’m not using my computer. I usually brainstorm using a notepad and pencil — and if I have some, unruled paper works wonders.

I find that my thoughts move more freely when they’re not constricted by the structures applied by software or technology. The paper is really often only there to capture random thoughts and help me remember how I put them together later. In short, using different tools for brainstorming than you would ordinarily use for everyday work can signal new freedom to a tired, restricted mind.

5. Get it down, then move on.

When I’m in idea-generation mode, I try to stick to the mantra that no ideas are dumb ideas (which is definitely easier to believe when you’re brainstorming solo!) and that once they’re noted, I can move on.

This increases brainstorming productivity, but it also helps me not to get too bogged down on the issue of whether an idea is clear, appropriate, or just plain good enough. Whatever it is, I write it down, because my brainstorming philosophy says that once that’s done, I can move on to other ideas.

6. Sum up.

Once your brainstorming time is up, don’t just throw down your pen and head out for coffee. Take a moment to list your outputs, or formulate them somehow into a usable format.

Then, when you come to apply them in your work, send them to your team mates, or try to extend them further in your next brainstorming session, you’ll have concrete, pragmatic items to work with.

These are the main approaches I use to ensure that my brainstorming work is as productive as possible. What tips can you add from your brainstorming experience?

Image by stock.xchng user Arcobal.

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