Brainstorming Techniques

Load Up the Company Van: Karen Littman, writer, producer, and founder of educational computer game designer Morphonix, says that when she wants to help her employees be more creative, she takes them out of the office. “If possible, don’t put people around the conference table,” Littman said. “Twice a year we rent a beach house. I think being out of the office jump starts your creativity and gets you out of your left brain.” Employees and their bosses both tend to adopt certain attitudes in the office. Changing location may help both groups discard their more dronish tendencies, and encourage creativity.

Put the Decision Makers in the Room: Steven Pritzker, professor of psychology at Saybrook University, was a television comedy writer before he began co-writing scholarly works on the creative process. As is the case at many shows, episodes were written by a team. Pritzker said that the dynamic was always best when the decision makers, who were respected among the writing staff, were in the room. “They were competent, and they weren’t afraid to go with something unusual if they liked it,” Pritzker says. “And if they didn’t, they weren’t afraid to say that it didn’t work for them.”

Take a Break From Ideas: Geoff Garlock, a sketch comedy instructor at New York City’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, recommends a rubber duckie as muse. “Take a shower, or a bath, or a spongebath, whatever you do to cleanse yourself of the daily grime and the grime of trying to come up with new ideas,” Garlock says. “I have some of my best ideas in the shower, or am able to crack an idea I have not been able to figure out. There must be something in the shampoo.” Comedy writers have to be able to keep up on the news of the day, fluently critique every comedy movie since the invention of celluloid, and then write original material under deadline. Sometimes, escaping all the noise is key. “When we let our brains loose, then we start to see the reasons that we think the world is absurd,” Garlock says.

Keep Writing Materials on Hand: Whether he’s in his house or in the middle of one of the nine-mile long walks he takes daily, Tim Jones, CEO of IT and network security solution provider Cybrix, makes sure he has writing materials close at hand. At home he has a whiteboard on which he writes his ideas and draws diagrams showing how the ideas relate to his business. When out in the world, he carries 3″-by-5″ index cards in his shirt pocket, and says that he likes when others do the same. “I seem to get some really good ideas from people using 3″-by-5″ index cards,” he says. At Cybrix, these ideas will be shared at a brainstorming session. “You always need something to record your thoughts,” Jones says. “If you wait and think you will remember later, too late.”

Act Like Your Customers: Littman, the founder of educational computer game designer Morphonix, says she works with a bunch of guys most comfortable solving digital problems, so when she wants to get something new out of them, she finds some way to make them act like the children for whom they design the games. When her programmers were working on their last project, Littman brought Legos into the office and spilled them out on the floor. “I do things in my office that encourage kid-like thinking,” Littman says. “I think that basically we all are very much in touch with those parts of us, it is just a matter of accessing those parts. It’s not that far from the surface, and a half hour playing with Legos accessed it in this case.”

Bring Your People Together: Matt Mickiewicz, founder and CEO of online graphic design marketplace 99designs, said that when he encounters some insuperable difficulty, he likes to hold the start-up equivalent of group therapy. “My favorite technique for brainstorming is to get together with a group of entrepreneurs and hold a mastermind, where everyone shares a problem or issue they are having, and the rest of the group brainstorms ideas and suggestions.” Mickiewicz finds that this technique works best with groups of 10 to 12 people with different backgrounds and different measures of business success. “They can contribute mistakes they’ve made in the past, or share their experiences in overcoming certain issues,” Mickiewicz says.

Keep Your People Apart: Lukas Biewald doesn’t like meetings. “I really hate brainstorming meetings and I try to avoid them,” says Lukas Biewald, co-founder of labor-on-demand crowdsourcing company CrowdFlower. “What I try to do is e-mail everyone independently.” While other CEOs may think the way to come up with ideas to lock a bunch of people in a room with neutrally colored walls and let them play with whiteboards, Biewald politely disagrees. “I think it is hard to keep them focused, and I tend to think there is a kind of groupthink that emerges,” Biewald says. “I think it is hard for people to think creatively in a meeting.” —Matt DeLuca

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