The best part about working with a team is the chance to come together to solve a problem. As smart as we all are, our intelligence is overshadowed by our team’s collective knowledge. Harnessing that knowledge through brainstorming is a great way to identify pain points and find new solutions to old problems.
With project management, brainstorming is typically a beginning step of the project phases, but it is a helpful process whenever there’s an issue or potential risk coming down the pipeline.
While brainstorming ideas usually elicits pictures of entire rooms shouting at each other while a flustered individual helplessly tries to write down every contribution onto a whiteboard, there are better ways to facilitate these discussions.
I’ve put together a list of useful brainstorming activities I’ve used several times throughout my professional career. I like to think of these techniques more as creativity exercises rather than dull discussion sessions. Each technique employs unique roles and tools to better understand concepts and discover new perspectives.
1. SWOT analysis
My first introduction to the concept of SWOT analysis was five years ago, thanks to the HBO series Silicon Valley. If you want a fun little explanation plus a laugh or two, you can watch this spoiler-free clip right here:
I’ve been dying to reference Silicon Valley in one of my pieces since the start of The Blueprint, and I finally got my chance. Now, for those of you who don’t like fun or have limited bandwidth and can’t watch the video, a SWOT analysis analyzes decision making. SWOT stands for:
Whenever you “SWOT” an idea, you brainstorm these four categories of the idea until you feel as though you’ve weighed all of the possibilities that might arise from that decision. It’s the perfect four-pronged “pros and cons” approach before putting together an action plan.
Here’s a simple example I put together:
Idea: Buy a new car instead of a used one
- Strengths: Probably more reliable than a used car, lots of new technology, nicer to look at, comes with a manufacturer's warranty, easier to negotiate price on a newer car, low interest rates.
- Weaknesses: More expensive, most new cars depreciate faster than used cars, higher potential for recalls, higher insurance premiums.
- Opportunities: Looking swanky on the block with a new ride (yeah, that’s right, I’m cool), feel more comfortable driving longer distances with a newer and more reliable vehicle.
- Threats: Potential for more issues if the car is going through a redesign year, for buying new instead of used.
Don’t judge this analysis too hard since I put it together in five minutes, but this’ll give you a great starting point for using a SWOT analysis in your next brainstorming session.
2. Mind mapping
Mind mapping is an effective way of brainstorming, and as the name suggests, “mapping” out your ideas. When creating your mind map, start with a central idea where all of your brainstormed ideas radiate from the center as “branches” in whatever creative way you choose.
The ideas of smaller importance that extend out from these primary ideas are called “twigs” and are represented in a “smaller” fashion. The idea is very similar to that of a concept map.
In my opinion, this is a fun and entertaining way to brainstorm ideas, especially for those with artistic skills. Here’s a basic template example I created:
No matter how many branches or twigs you create, they all map back to the main idea. This will help you maintain focus on the primary goal rather than getting lost in your brainstorming.
I wish this method somehow involved eating Starburst candy. Starbursting is yet another visually-driven brainstorming method best used for developing the business strategy around a new product or service. Starbursting focuses on six main categories:
The specific details of these categories is up to you and your team. These six categories make up the points of a star with the product or service in the center.
When you and your team are starbursting, you don’t have to limit yourself to one answer per category. You have plenty of room for multiple answers for each one until you are satisfied that you’ve covered all of your bases.
4. Word banking
This technique has many names, from “word association” to “word storming.” Word banking is as easy as starting with one or two words related to whatever it is you’re looking to brainstorm and then everyone writes down the first words that come to mind. This is an easy brainstorming method that requires minimal effort.
When I say minimal effort, I mean it because the key to successful word banking is to not overthink it too much. This kind of brainstorming is great for coming up with content marketing topics, thinking of potential risks of certain actions, or maybe even coming up with the name of a new product. The world is your oyster with this method.
5. Gap analysis
While I love evaluating average looking clothing stores, a gap analysis doesn’t require you to take a trip to your local mall (please forgive these awful jokes, I’m in a weird mood today). A gap analysis is when you determine your current starting point and the goal you hope to reach while asking the question:
“We are here. How do we get there?”
It’s the ideal methodology for coming up with your project management steps and process map as this technique is so dead set on getting from one point to another. This technique doesn’t employ a specific methodology, but rather encourages you to use any number of techniques to conclude this, including, but not limited to:
- SWOT analysis
- Mind mapping
- SMART goals
- And all other kinds of planning, brainstorming tools
A gap analysis requires you to come together with your team to identify everything you’ll need to reach your goal and the processes you’ll require along the way. This is a more overarching approach than most of the techniques on this list since it is so multifaceted, but is perfect for project planning.
6. Brain writing
Let’s get back to the simple stuff after that more complicated technique. Brain writing is similar to word banking since it doesn’t require any fancy artistry, models, or categories.
You start by writing a business opportunity or idea on a piece of paper, then saying nothing, you pass the paper onto the next person in the room. That person then reads the idea silently and adds their own contributions related to that idea, and so on.
Once this process has concluded and everyone has had the chance to add their thoughts to the paper you open the floor up for discussion about these ideas. There are several benefits to this method over standard brainstorming including:
- Lack of vocal judgement by peers while writing down ideas
- Allows every person in the room to be heard
- Potentially inspires more solutions thanks to the accessibility of written ideas
This is a particularly helpful solution for introverts who feel drowned out during meetings and gives everyone the chance to contribute to a solution.
7. Six thinking hats
My father used to tell me to “put on my thinking cap” when he would ask me a question that I was having a tough time answering, like “who ate all of the oatmeal cookies?” That’s a tough one to answer, and when I was a kid, I would wonder to myself what good a hat would do to get me out of that situation. Luckily, the “six thinking hats” is a technique where certain “hats” are actually useful for coming up with answers.
This technique doesn’t just use one metaphorical thinking cap, but six individual ones instead. The six thinking hats is a team brainstorming technique that allows different people to use their strong points when coming up with answers to business questions. The six hats represent different perspectives for thinking about solving a problem:
- Blue hat: This hat is the director of the conversation. Their purpose is to control the flow of dialogue and prompt discussion when ideas run dry.
- Black hat: This person thinks of the negatives. They are the cynical thinkers that look for the potential risks and pitfalls of making certain decisions. If there’s a weak spot in the plan, the black hat will find it.
- Red hat: These are your emotional thinkers. They look at problems and go with their instinctual inclinations. The red hat is the perfect person to help bridge the gaps between the different hats by trying to understand the emotions behind certain decisions.
- Yellow hat: The yellow hat is juxtaposed to the black hat. Where the black hat thinks cynically, the yellow hat is the positive thinker. They help find the value in certain decisions by pointing out the potential positive outcomes.
- Green hat: The green hat is the creative type. They have a very “outside the box” way of thinking, which leads to new ways of tackling problems.
- White hat: Finally, the white hat is the analytical thinker. They offer solutions and criticisms based on previous data and knowledge.
Brainstorming using the six thinking hats technique essentially allows you to turn your team into a fully functioning Sherlock Holmes in all his brilliance. You’ll tackle any issue by looking at it from all angles and perspectives.
The Blueprint will help you through the brainstorm and onto success
There’s more to project management than coming up with ideas. You need a project management plan, a strategy for execution, and the project management software to keep it all running smoothly. That’s why we at The Blueprint have the resources, software reviews, and how-to guides you need to breeze through every project without a hitch.
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