How to Brainstorm – tips

I’m really not sure if I’m the best one to be writing this post, because brainstorming comes really naturally to me. I love coming up with new ideas, and I love playing around with existing ideas to come up with new combinations. Ideas are just pure awesomeness to me.

So I don’t know if I can tell you how to brainstorm. But it’s an important thing for an entrepreneur to know, so I’ll see what I can do.

Define the Problem

This step isn’t strictly necessary, but it will make your brainstorming a lot more effective. What, specifically, are you brainstorming? I prefer to write at the top of my record (see below) what it is that we’re looking for, eg “Ways to make money from this skill” or “What else would you like to see on this site?”

Don’t Judge

A lot of the ideas you come up with will be terrible. A larger percentage of them will be OK, but not stellar.

There is no way around that.

You cannot brainstorm if you are intent on only having good ideas. It cannot happen.

It’s a little like cleaning out your garden hose in the spring. There’s fresh clean water in the tap, but the only way to get it coming out the hose is to blow out all of the air and the dirty water.

So it’s important to just write down every idea you have, even the ones that are obviously of no use. (Brainstorming ways for my cousin to monetize herself, I wrote down “give people hugs”.) If you’re analyzing enough to determine that it’s a bad idea, you’re judging too much.

And related to that…

Go for Volume

I read an article several years ago about an art teacher who decided to try an experiment. One of her pottery classes was told that they only had to turn in one pot, and they would be graded on the quality of that pot. The other class was told that they would be graded on how many pots they produced; quality was not a factor at all. So class 1 spent all semester working on one pot, to make it as good as possible. Class 2 spent all semester making pot after pot after pot.

The result? Class 1 made some pretty good pots. But class 2 made better ones. It turns out that quality is better than quantity, but… quantity selected for quality trumps both of them.

Later in the planning process, you’ll select for quality. For now, just aim to get lots of ideas. Seth Godin recommends trying for 111.

Get a record

I’ve done this before, and it feels awful: you get excited about brainstorming, and you get tons of good ideas, but you don’t write them down. The next morning, you can only remember 4 ideas, and two of them are lousy ones.

How you choose to get a record is up to you. Since one of my brainstorming team is 1000 miles away, we do our brainstorming online; everyone has to type their comments anyway, and the transcript of the conversation is our record. Using a wiki or Google Wave means you can sort your comments as you go, so that you have an organized hierarchical record of all your ideas.

Less cutting edge but just as effective is an audio recorder. You may have one of these built into your phone; otherwise they’re not terribly expensive.

At the stone-age level (but in some ways better than the audio recorder) is to have someone writing everything down on a whiteboard, overhead, or piece of paper. This method allows everyone to see what’s going on, to review what’s been said so far, and you can organize your ideas as you go with mind mapping, headers, or whatever seems best to you.

Next Step

What the actual next step is depends on what you were brainstorming for. But in most cases, you’ll want to look down the list, and discuss which idea(s) are worth keeping. In some cases you’re only looking for 1-3 ideas; the rest will be discarded. In other cases (like deciding how to monetize yourself) you’ll pick 1-3 to implement right now, and keep the rest of the list for later.

Resources For Further Reading
Step-by-step guide to brainstorming