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The Power of Silent Brainstorming

Conducting brainstorming sessions in multiple countries for diverse customers, including banks, intelligence services, and political action committees, we have learned one major lesson: all brainstorming activities need to include a time when the participants are not allowed to talk. It sounds counterproductive, but it is really true!

Why does silent brainstorming work? People process information differently, and a significant component of the population cannot think productively when others are talking. In every brainstorming session, I facilitate, I ask the participants to specify whether they think better as part of a give-and-take discussion or would prefer to work in silence while gathering their thoughts before the discussion begins. Usually, at least 20 percent of the group falls into the second category; in classes that are dominated by analysts, the “silent worker” percentage can be as high as 80 percent. If the brainstorming session consists of constant dialogue, these individuals will usually opt out, and their contributions will be lost in the process.

How can you be inclusive of all types of thinkers? Some steps you can take include:

  1. Begin a brainstorming session by asking participants to write down their three best answers to the focal question-the question the brainstorming is supposed to answer. Collect these ideas and write them down on the whiteboard. Then everyone has already contributed to a solution, and everyone’s voice has been heard.
  2. If several people appear to be dominating the discussion, pass out 3″ x 5″ notecards and ask everyone to provide input to a key issue under discussion. When you collect the cards, discretely put the cards belonging to the talkative on the bottom of the pack. Then read out the answers or write them on the whiteboard to stimulate further discussion
  3. At the conclusion of a brainstorming session, always ask┬áparticipants to write down their key takeaway on a 3″ x 5″ notecard and give it to you before they leave the room. Then consolidate everyone’s key takeaways and send them out to the group. You will be surprised by how effective this technique can be to validate the idea of holding the session as well as promoting a continuing dialogue on the topic. You may even want to send the list to the supervisor of invitees who was unable to attend, asking for his or her input as well.

Over the years, we have learned that almost all structured analytic techniques benefit from having one or two silent brainstorming sessions incorporated into the process. This extra consideration guarantees that you generate a superior final product.

Don’t Hibernate – Use these Eight: 8 Rules for Successful Brainstorming

When winter weather forces us indoors, do not retreat behind your desk. Shake things up by conducting a brainstorming session!

The August 2015 issue of Analytic Insider highlighted the importance of Structured Brainstorming, explained when to use the technique, and outlined how to conduct a Structured Brainstorming session. (Click here to reread the article.)

The eight rules shown below are simple but important guidelines to follow when running any brainstorming session. We hope you use them soon!