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5 Effective Brainstorming Exercises

Brainstorming is used when you're searching for ideas and discovering possibilities that may be found in problems. The most common brainstorming exercise is to simply write down your ideas on a sheet of paper. Though, this may be an effective approach, you might like to change technique and find certain exercises that fit your personal learning path.


Before you start, remember that brainstorming is not about reaching results, but it’s about going beyond operational thinking and move onto creative thinking. Thinking creatively is about finding potential in ideas for a problem in which its solution is in a blur. Brainstorming requires a great deal of open-mindedness from your part. And, if you’re bad at being open-minded, keep doing these exercises since they will force you to become creative.

Here is a mini-exercise that can assist you in defining your problem.
Write down 10 metaphors that describe your problem. The metaphors don’t need to be in existence; you simply create new ones that are relevant to your problem. This way you will know if you have understood your problem thoroughly or not.

For these particular brainstorming exercises below, make sure that you limit your time: for instance, time about ten minutes to work with each one. This process will speed up your mind and pressure you slightly to become more alert and active. After the short "deadlines", look through your ideas and see if you can find anything useful in them. And, when ready, start anew and repeat the exercise, or go over to a new one.

1. The Association Game

The Association Game can either be worked on as an individual exercise or brainstormed within a team.

...If you're alone…
1. First define the problem.
2. Then, write down the first solution that comes to mind.
3. Following that, you take that answer and imagine what it would be like to if realized.
4. The final step is to develop common ideas based on the first.

...If you're in a group
1. Once again make sure that you define the problem. Remember that the clearer the problem is the easier it is to brainstorm solutions and be creative).
2. One person begins by giving a solution to the problem.
3. The next person is then challenged to associate with that idea.
4. The game continues in this path, the more team members there are, the better chance for good ideas.

To give clearer guidelines: Sit within a group of about five people, each with a sheet of paper and pen. Time ten minutes to come up with say five ideas. When the times is up, exchange paper with the one sitting to the left of you and receive ideas from the person who sits to the right of you. Now, time another 10 minutes to develop the ideas you received from your team member. Keep doing this until you get back your own paper, and find out how your initial ideas have evolved. This exercise can be a lot of fun because not only do you force yourself to develop ideas within a time limit, but you might also discover that ideas can be interpreted in different ways and that your initial ideas can be misunderstood, if you’re lucky, to the better. It also pushes you to not immediately criticize others’ ideas. As you are supposed to develop them you cannot be too negative. It’s also great if the members are experts in different topics so that you can have various perspectives on each idea.

2. Erase

We have a tendency to repeat ourselves; therefore we might be stuck with the same ideas. This can get extremely frustrating and for that reason alone, it's a good idea to rapidly implement your ideas as soon as you get them. And, instantly see if they work or not. This brainstorming exercise is based on not repeating your solution twice:

First write down the problem and as you come up with an idea, don't repeat it twice! Just pretend that you'll get killed if you use it again (this might be a harsh method, but sometimes you have to be slightly hard on yourself). Now, it's time to figure out completely new activities to build your strategy on. Mentally erase those benefits you are currently offering, so that you can start from scratch!

3. Face your Fears

Write down the Weirdest Ideas You can Come up with
Even though this is just an exercise, it's common to experience some fear as you might feel that it will not help. Or, maybe you fear your own impulsiveness, and believe that you may actually get “crazy” and consider trying these ideas for real. But, by doing this exercise full-heartedly and avoid taking the brainstorm session too seriously, you can completely relax and allow your brain to play with ideas. It's important that you don't restrict yourself. Don't fear impossible thoughts, let your imagination experiment for itself and see what happens. You can question your ideas when the session is over. For now, just go with it.

This is called “freewheeling is encouraged” which means that the wilder the idea, the better. This is one of Alex Osborn’s (more or less the founder of brainstorming as a theory) rules of brainstorming.

The most intuitive thing is to think about what you should do, and about what is right or logical. Not in this exercise. Begin now with writing down those ideas that will most definitely ruin you if you attend them. This is a creative way to see a problem from a different perspective.

Since we are talking about what not to do, let me go through a list of things that will most definitively ruin your brainstorming session:
• Comments such as, “this will never work”, “I cannot afford this”, “I’m too stupid”, “I wish I was as smart as… (Someone smart you know)” or “this is too complex”.

• Working with people who you feel are “above you” intellectually. This does not really make sense, because you don’t need to be academically smart to come with good ideas. But, it’s common that when you work with others you believe to be superior, you become too nervous to share your ideas. So either you go against your fear, or you simply brainstorm with people you feel comfortable with.

• Same thing if you’re working with others who you might feel are less educated than yourself, thus you might not listen to them or value their viewpoints. Lesson to learn here is not to judge them, and simply keep exchanging ideas; these people just might surprise you. However, if these people are rigid and complaining more than helping, then I suggest you stay away from them.

Break Rules
This is somewhat associated with the previous exercise (the one above), as it's about facing and letting go of some of your principles for a second and give your creativity the opportunity to flow more freely. The principle for this exercise is: Deliberately break rules.

As an example: if you're setting out a strategy for a specific market, you first reflect on all the rules and principles that this market field consists of. Now, break each and every one of them (no mercy!): have them on their heads, shake the systems and then make entirely new rules with your own principles. In this brainstorming exercise you're creating your own empire: be a destructive innovator!

4. Ask Weird Questions

Weird questions can lead to innovative answers. The questions don't need to be relevant to your topic but can help answer the most bizarre questions. Sometimes randomness generates ideas for our own problems because they free us from our narrowness. It might feel a bit silly at first to answer weird questions, but after awhile you’ll notice that the challenge forces you to break barriers that are keeping you in the “safe zone”.

Here are some examples that can get you started:
What if people didn't need to eat, how would they stay strong?
How would a white apple taste?
What would happen if bikes started breathing? How would people react and how long would it take until breathing bikes were ”normal"?
Which bug is the most loved one? Why?

5. Visual Imagination

At times you know you that you are close to a good idea but you just can’t find the words to describe it. The easiest solution to this is to simply draw it instead. Perhaps it’s easier for you to express your thoughts in sketches. It’s worth a try and I believe you’ll find it liberating. Sometimes you need a picture before you can find the words. Simply start by daydreaming for 5 minutes and when the time is up, draw the most interesting/peculiar thoughts.

Another way to use visual exercise is to take a random magazine/book and look up an image. Then note everything you see, don’t try to think just write down what keywords of what you see. When you’ve done this, try to analyze the picture: what connections and irregularities did you find? This will help you discover objects and people in different scenarios at random instead of judging what you see first. Judging is the very last step.

Final Tips and Thoughts

It’s difficult to think straight when we are thinking about too much information at the same time. Choose one issue/problem at the time. This will make it much easier to think without restraint because you have one thing to associate with.

Teamwork with New Members
If you’re working with a group where the members don’t know each other very well, write your ideas on anonymous papers to make sure that everyone can be creative without fearing judgement.

Also, if you have a specific workplace where everyone is gathered, you might want to gather your team in another place so that the brainstorming session doesn’t feel like “work”.

In Conclusion
The outmost important thing to remember here is not to become the “I-know-it-all” victim. In school we learn to read our textbooks and have the “right answers”. Brainstorming, on the contrary, is about not knowing, but instead looking at one problem from multiple perspectives and experimenting with opportunities. So, basically, the pressure if off, you don’t need to know anything, you just need to be consistent and persistently redefine the problem, while connecting ideas with each other. The focus is the problem, not the solution.

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  1. Nahuel says:

    After reading all the exercises I figured out that what blocks my mind when I try to get ideas to write is that I've always been trying to write what the writting task says. I mean, I've never really written MY thoughts, my feelings, my ideas towards the task writting topic. And that's probably what blocks me out. I try to come up with ideas which are not mine. For example, not everyone likes wedding parties so how can they write and describe a wedding if they just don't like it at all?

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  1. [...] Brainstorming is used when you’re searching for ideas and discovering possibilities that may be found in problems. The most common brainstorming exercise is to simply write down your ideas on a sheet of paper. Though, this may be an effective approach, you might like to change technique and find certain exercises that fit your personal learning path. Read More [...]

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