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Brainstorming and Angel’s Advocate

This is a part of the Creative Problem Solving Toolkit (2023).

  • Use when looking for new ideas.

  • This is a tool for Divergence.

  • Can be used with Angel’s Advocate.

What and Why?

Brainstorming is a collaborative technique used to generate ideas and solutions to a problem. It involves bringing together a diverse group of individuals to freely share their thoughts and ideas in a non-judgmental environment. The process starts with defining the problem or topic at hand and establishing ground rules that promote open-mindedness and active participation. Participants then generate a large quantity of ideas, emphasizing quantity over quality. The focus is on encouraging creativity and thinking outside the box. Ideas are built upon when participants play the role of an Angel’s Advocate and improve, modify and expand ideas that have already been created. Brainstorming taps into the collective creativity and problem-solving capabilities of a group, leading to innovative solutions and fresh perspectives on challenges.


Use this tool if you want to:

  • Find breakthrough solutions: Brainstorming overcomes challenges and generates novel approaches.

  • Increase idea generation: Brainstorming generates a wide range of ideas through collaboration.

  • Enhance creativity: Brainstorming stimulates innovative thinking and fresh perspectives.

  • Foster collaboration and synergy: Brainstorming fosters teamwork and the combination of ideas.

  • Create team cohesion and engagement: Brainstorming boosts team morale and active participation.


Facilitation Elements

A. Sequence of Steps and Time Allocation (~75 minutes)

5 mins

  1. Introduce the Challenge that you wish to invite the participants to work on. Ensure that the challenge is framed as a “How might we…?/ “What might be all the…?”

  2. Explain that now the group is going to be using brainstorming with post-its (also called stick’em up brainstorming) to generate multiple ideas for addressing the challenge.

  3. Emphasize that brainstorming only works if we follow the guidelines for Divergent thinking.

7 mins

  1. Introduce the guidelines for Divergent thinking

  2. Suspend judgment: Create a safe space where all ideas are welcome. Avoid criticizing or evaluating ideas during the brainstorming process. Focus on generating a variety of possibilities.

  3. Build upon ideas: Instead of dismissing ideas, aim to expand and build upon them. Encourage others to add their own thoughts and perspectives. Collaborative thinking can lead to exciting breakthroughs.

  4. Quantity over quality: Don't worry about perfection or finding the perfect solution right away. Focus on generating as many ideas as possible. Quantity breeds creativity and increases the chances of finding innovative solutions.

  5. Embrace all ideas: No idea is too crazy or outlandish. Encourage wild and unconventional thinking. Let your imagination run free!

  6. Have fun and be open-minded: Keep a lighthearted and open attitude. Encourage humor, playfulness, and thinking outside the box. Embrace the joy of exploring new and unexpected ideas.

  7. Post the guidelines where everyone can see them and remind the group of the guidelines throughout the activity.

  8. Introduce the “Stick’em up Brainstorming” technique

  9. Every idea is written in Sharpie on a post-it note

  10. Only one idea per post-it note

  11. Keep your pen moving

  12. Collect your post-its in a pile (they can be transferred to a flipchart later)

10 mins

  1. Do a warm up brainstorming activity with the group to get them to use the guidelines for divergent thinking.

  2. Pose a low stakes challenge question like “What might be all the uses for 10,000 used golf balls?” (see Tips for additional prompts)

  3. Ask the group to generate at least 20 ideas for the challenge (they can call out the ideas as the facilitator writes them on a flipchart)

  4. Push the group for a quantity of ideas by asking “What else?” or “How else?”

  5. Invite the group to play with ideas by building on them and creating variations of ideas that have already been suggested.

  6. Remind them to have fun!

5 mins

(Divergence)

  1. Transition to working on the group challenge.

  2. Post it where the entire group can see it - along with the guidelines for divergent thinking.

  3. Remind the group to:

  4. Write one idea per post-it note

  5. An idea is a complete thought - with a verb and a noun. (Single words are not an idea!)

  6. To keep their pile of post-it notes with them

  7. To keep their pen moving

  8. To keep the guidelines in mind!

10 mins

(Divergence)

  1. Group generates post-it notes.

  2. If the group is small (8 or fewer) - the facilitator can collect post-it notes and start adding them on a flipchart sheet.

  3. Occasionally prompt the group to keep their pens moving and to push for new ideas no matter how wild they might seem.

  4. Challenge the group to push for a total of X number of ideas (X = 10 to 15 ideas per participant).

  5. Prompt the group to view the challenge from a different perspective - perhaps adopting the role of a stakeholder who is not in the room.

10 mins

  1. Ask the group to pause in their generation of post-its.

  2. Invite the participants to now transfer all the ideas from round 1 of the brainstorming activity to the flip charts at the front of the room. (Skip this step if facilitator has already collected post-its)

  3. Ask the group what they imagine happens when someone adopts the stance of a “Devil's Advocate?” (Generally groups talk about finding faults and gaps).

  4. Introduce the group to the concept of an “Angel’s Advocate”:

  5. In this role - we take an idea and see the possibility in it.

  6. We build on the possibility embedded in that idea by adding builds.

  7. We improve the idea in some way by either making it more usable, more novel, more scalable, or more…!

  8. We might even add variations of the same idea.

  9. Invite the group to now visit the flip charts at the front of the room and to select three post-its that catch their eye because the ideas strike them as interesting or because they have some possibility.

  10. Ask the participants to take the three post-its that caught their attention back to their seats.

  11. (In a large group - distribute the ideas so that people have ease of access and don’t force everyone to consider every idea on the board - they can review any section and select three ideas)

15 mins

(Divergence)

  1. Now ask each participant to create 5 builds for each post-it that they selected. (Looking for a total of 15 new ideas from this activity).

  2. Each build becomes a new idea and is recorded on a new post-it note as an independent new offer to the pool of ideas.

  3. Remind the participants that a “build” is:

  4. We improve the idea in some way by either making it more usable, more novel, more scalable, or more…!

  5. We might even add variations of the same idea.

  6. If they cannot create 5 new builds for a post-it - ask them to move on

  7. Participants can also return to the pool of ideas and select new ideas to add builds for.

5 mins

  1. Close the activity by thanking the group for their effort.

  2. Ask for all new post-its to be added to the pool of ideas on the flip charts.

5 mins

Debrief the Brainstorming and Angel’s Advocate activity. Invite the group to share what they experienced as a result of using these tools.

  • What did you observe or experience as a result of using these tools?

  • What insights did you have?

  • Can you see yourself using these tools? How?

B. How Groups Are Configured

  • This activity works well with groups of any size.

  • With large groups of more than 20 - break up into groups of 5-7. Provide a flipchart for each group to collect the ideas that group generates, and invite them to work from the ideas on that flipchart for the Angel’s Advocate activity.

  • Each participant works solo but interacts with the output of the other participants by using Angel’s Advocate.

C. How Space Is Arranged and Materials Needed

  • Post-its (At least 30 post-its per person) (Preferred size and color Yellow 5X3)

NOTE: It is important that everyone has the same color post-its to avoid giving away too much information about who suggested each idea. This can sometimes be important.

  • Black Sharpie Markers (not Pens) (We prefer these as they show up clearly when photographing the output and also discourage people from writing a thesis on a post-it)

  • Flip charts

  • Poster with Divergent Thinking Guidelines

  • Ensure that there is ease of access to the flip charts so that everyone can read and select post-its for the Angel’s Advocate activity.

Tips and Watchouts

  • You might be tempted to skip the warm up activity for Brainstorming. It is strongly suggested that you do the warm up. In our experience, groups that move into Brainstorming without warming up often do not generate as many options, or as exciting options as groups who have experienced a warm up.

  • If you see post-its which have incomplete ideas (For example: “Money”, “Upskill”, “Senator” are not complete ideas), Ask the group to help complete the idea by asking “What about “Money” - do we raise it?/spend it?/borrow it? - we need an action associated with the word to make sense of it!” Do this early in the process to remind people to create ideas that are actionable.

  • DO NOT comment on the quality of a particular idea - praise the ideas in general or praise the effort not the product.

  • Discourage people from pausing in the activity to explain their ideas to someone else. This slows down production and could potentially create a bias for more ideas that represent a single perspective.

  • Additional prompts for Brainstorming Warmups:

  • “What might be all the elements of my dream vacation?”

  • “What might be all the innovations of the future that we need today?”

  • “How might we improve a bathtub/umbrella/door mat/carry-on luggage?”

  • “What might be all the superpowers you could really use right now?”

  • “What might be all the reasons why the chicken crossed the road?”

  • “What might be all the uses for a spoon/brick/paper clip/10,000 boxes of orange jello?”

  • Use a convergence tool like “Hits and Highlights” after Brainstorming to identify which ideas can be used to create a solution.

Informal Application

Invite collaborators (or yourself) to make a list of many possible options before selecting any. Establish a number to strive for. For example you might say: “Let's first make a list of 10 ways in which we might…”

  • Remind yourself and others that you are just making a list, not a commitment - so unusual ideas are welcome

  • Stay open to all offers and suggestions.

Riffs and Variations

  • Facilitate a Brainstorming session with each group working on a different challenge.

  • Reverse Brainstorming: Instead of generating ideas for a solution, focus on identifying potential problems or obstacles related to a particular topic. “What would create the opposite of our desired effect?” Once the obstacles are identified, brainstorm solutions to overcome them. This approach helps to uncover potential challenges and find innovative ways to address them.

  • Role-playing Brainstorming: Assign participants specific roles or perspectives related to the topic at hand. They can brainstorm ideas from the viewpoint of a customer, a competitor, or someone from a different profession. This technique encourages participants to think from different angles and gain diverse insights.

  • Online Brainstorming Tools: Utilize online collaborative platforms or brainstorming software that allows participants to contribute ideas simultaneously in real-time. These tools often provide features like virtual sticky notes, voting systems, and idea clustering, enhancing the brainstorming process and making it more interactive. (Mentimeter/ STORMZ)


Attribution:

The creator of Brainstorming was advertising executive Alex F. Osborn.

Osborn, A.F. (1953). Applied Imagination: Principles and procedures of Creative Problem Solving (3rd. ed). New York: Scribner’s.

Angel’s Advocate is a modified version of Brainwriting attributed to:

Geschka, H. (1979). Methods and organization of idea generation. Creativity Week Two, 1979 Proceedings. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership.

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