#428  from Innovative Leader Volume 8, Number 10          October 1999

Computer-Aided Brainstorming (or Advanced Brainstorming)
by Peter Clayton, Ph.D.

Dr. Clayton is owner of Infinite Innovations Ltd., UK (phone 0114 2967546, email peter_clayton@infinn.com), helping companies improve themselves through creativity software, training and consulting. A website dedicated to brainstorming is www.brainstorming.co.uk and it welcomes your contributions.

Brainstorming is all well and good until you come to the point where you can't think of new ideas. It promises so much yet often doesn’t meet expectations. Do your brainstorming sessions come up with the same ideas again and again?

It’s now time to start using advanced brainstorming techniques. Computer-enhanced brainstorming is an ideal way to come up with new ideas.

One of the problems with standard brainstorming is that most of the people start off thinking in the same way. In most cases, people who work in the same department have similar experiences and backgrounds.  They often have the same ideas about potential solutions because they have worked together for a long time. It’s very hard to escape from their current mindset. Standard brainstorming techniques are also inhibited by groups of people who have built up their social structure over a long time.  They are now in need of advanced brainstorming techniques to break people out of their normal thinking patterns. For an unlimited number of new prompts, all they need is one ordinary computer.

Advanced Brainstorming

So what is an advanced brainstorming technique? Well, if standard brainstorming is the process of losing inhibitions in order to follow abnormal trains of thought to a useful conclusion, then advanced brainstorming makes this loss of inhibition easier. It also creates totally original starting points. And when these trains of thought are followed, there’s an increased likelihood of new solutions.

Creative-thinking techniques involve presenting yourself with a new stimulus which you then use to spark off a new solution. You take the stimulus, extract the principles and concepts behind it, and reapply these principles to see what happens. By cross breeding two different objects or actions you will create thought patterns and ideas that have never existed before. To come up with a radically new, yet practical, solution you need to start from a concept outside of your current environment. To think out of “the box” you must first realize that you are in an enclosed box of thought and that the box can only be opened from the outside. You need to seek external stimuli to break out of your current mindset. If you need instant access to external stimuli then a computer is the ideal tool.

A computer has absolutely no inhibitions, and isn’t constrained to any current philosophies on market behavior or social structure. Creativity software will present you with an original suggestion to develop into a workable solution. Some companies invite “creative” people to their sessions to spark off new ideas. Why not use computer software to spark off new ideas instead? The combination of a computer and our human minds is perfect for easy generation of new ideas. Not only will the computer be more reliable in its production of fresher and broader stimuli, it will also be less disruptive and it will keep quiet when necessary. No individual can provide such a wide-ranging range of stimuli. A computer can draw its information from an enormous electronic database including encyclopedias, image warehouses and the entire Internet. If one stimulus doesn’t work, instantaneously get another!

Two Methods

I’ll mention two methods for improving your group brainstorming sessions. See www.infinn.com/innovationhouse.html for more details on using computer-based creative thinking techniques.

1.         Single computer method

This requires the use of one computer.  Use the stimuli from the computer to start off the brainstorming process.  Insist that each member of the group make use of the stimulus to generate the initial ideas.  Then encourage the progression of these initial ideas into workable solutions.  A note-taker should record all the ideas for later analysis.

2.         Multiple computer method

This method requires that everyone in the group has their own computer and each person starts off with his or her own computer-generated creative stimulus.  You now have a situation where everyone in the group is approaching the problem from different directions. It’s vital, at this point, to remind participants that they are “supposed to be” putting forward challenging ideas and that they are fully justified in putting forward seemingly-strange ideas with the primary purpose of sparking off further ideas by other people.

Which Method to Use?

The single computer method is ideal for any of the following conditions:

  Computer resources are limited.

  You want to be able to brainstorm in any room anywhere (using a laptop).

  You want to slowly convert from standard brainstorming to computer-aided brainstorming.

  The people in the group are not good at working by themselves.

  You are working by yourself.

The multiple computer method is ideal for any of the following conditions:

  You have access to a room of computers.

  The group is good at role-playing and, therefore, will market and promote their own stimulus with enthusiasm.

  The people in the groups love rowdy and unstructured debates and discussions.

  The people in the group prefer to generate ideas by themselves and are usually inhibited by rowdy and unstructured debates and discussions.

The normal rules for brainstorming still apply in all cases. No one can say, “it won’t work” and there’s to be no evaluation of the ideas until the end of the creative part of the session. The purpose of the group is to put forward new ideas and to spark off new solutions in other people and themselves. No one should put other people, or their ideas, down. Such people should be sent out if they break the rules; perhaps, only temporarily and with a bit of humor.  The ideas put forward are proposed as a catalyst for a solution and aren’t expected to be the final solution.

There are many other uses of computers in brainstorming sessions, such as (1) recording and distributing the sequence of ideas and the final conclusions, (2) allowing simultaneous contributions of ideas by different people into their own computer, and (3) in the future, voice-recognition software will enable the entire sequence of events to be recorded as it happens and replayed exactly. Creativity software can also be used to analyze and narrow down the proposed solutions.

The notes made in these sessions should be made available, not just to the group of participants, but to many other people in the company.  The same ideas that aren’t used in one situation could spark off great improvements in other departments and groups.  By withholding ideas and information, you prevent development of a creative environment. Computer networks are perfect for the distribution of brainstormed ideas. Group brainstorming sessions combined with wider distribution can be looked at as a permanent, company-wide, computer-aided brainstorming session.

If you want to ensure that you are never stuck for a new idea, you need instant access to an enormous range of stimuli. The range of stimuli available through your computer is practically infinite. Your computer is the ideal tool to prompt you into thinking about things from a different angle at any time. Computer-aided brainstorming will improve the creative ability of you and your group and will ensure your brainstorming sessions never dry up.  

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