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My first thoughts of brainstorming conjure an image of folks sitting around a restaurant table with pen in hand scribbling ideas on a cocktail napkin. The point being ideas are best conceived in a relaxed environment where all parties and suggestions are weighted equally. As more organizations establish space to spark creativity and problem solve, I was eager to attend Brainstorming Better hosted by the Human-Centered Design (HCD) Community of Practice to learn how this method could be conveyed to a business environment without stifling spontaneity.  

The guest speaker was Natalie W. Nixon, a creativity strategist and president of Figure 8 Thinking. Natalie’s background is impressive, leading companies such as Comcast, Bloomberg, Vanguard, and Living Cities in applying creativity and foresight for transformative business results.  With a background in anthropology and fashion, she brings an interesting perspective toward helping a team or organization to see, interpret, and innovate differently. 

My registration confirmation email asked that all participants bring three blank sheets of paper and a Sharpie, pen, or pencil for use in a virtual brainstorming exercise. Being an introvert, the mention of interacting with the group was a trigger for me to proceed with caution. But my concerns were unfounded, as Natalie put me at ease from the start. She is a dynamic speaker, and her enthusiasm of the topic and incorporation of exercises worked to reinforce what she presented, and it was fun! To paraphrase Natalie, “play is actually very important; when we are having fun, lesson’s stick.”  

Not only was the hour-long event fun, it was also informative. Brainstorming is a form of play that provides a method of discovery. As with all play, there are rules that provide a framework to get you started. It starts with a problem to define or a need to find, but then what? How do you proceed? Natalie offered several rules to brainstorming—the first to use time as a constraint for creativity, and then provided hands-on exercises to demonstrate how to quietstorm, questionstorm, and use the SCAMPER method.  

Our first exercise focused on quietstorming. With a 90-second time limit, we were asked to list 20 uses of a paperclip—any size, any number. Natalie emphasized the value of quantity over quality, by suggesting we think as our 8-year-old self, not as our current adult self as we create our list. We weren’t to judge the feasibility of the use, but simply to suggest it. My list included a slingshot, a shovel, a hair barrette, a bookmark, a game piece, a spoon. It was interesting to hear the similarities as well as differences of ideas. The lists provided a variety of uses from which to choose, which is the main point—quantity over quality with no judgment. Quietstorming has three components: thinking quietly to yourself, pairing off with the person next to you if in a workshop or group scenario, and then sharing with the larger group, or in simpler terms: think, pair, share.  

Our second exercise focused on questionstorming. Over the years, I have heard there is no such thing as a stupid question, but I liked Natalie’s take on the phrase based on what she learned from Warren Berger, “asking questions is a way of thinking.” It puts a more positive spin on the desire to learn or be more curious. Through his research to understand why innovative companies were successful, Berger developed three questions as a method toward defining a problem or finding a need. These questions ask why, what if, and how. To show us the process, Natalie walked us through these questions using a pen. Starting with why—why is the pen plastic; why does the pen have a cap; why is the pen round. Moving on to what if—what if it was made of wood; what if it was a different shape; what if it had multiple colors. And finally, converging these questions into how— how might we make it multiple colors; how might we change the shape; how might we make it out of wood.  

To make the exercise CMS-centric, we were given 30 seconds for each question as it relates to customer experience at CMS. I thought this was a more difficult task but was able to write several questions for each. It was interesting when several participants shared their questions, to learn how similar they were.  

The final exercise was the addition of another constraint defined by the acronym SCAMPER, which represents seven different actions to generate new ideas through the ebb and flow of divergence and convergence. The seven actions are Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to other use, Eliminate, and Reverse. Using one of our “how” questions from the previous exercise, we were first given an action word (mine was eliminate), and then we were divided into smaller groups. Within the group, we presented our “how” question and then indicated how we would apply the action word. I went from “How can we interact more directly with customers?” to “Create interactive chat on the web to eliminate the delay in response.”  

This hour provided great insight on techniques for better brainstorming, whether with a group or individually. I learned that it is not the physical space that sparks creativity and problem solving, but the rules that provide a framework allowing you to play and discover new ideas. If you were unable to attend the event, a recording is available on the HCD CoP Confluence page. 

Article by Susan Pagan . Originally published in PM3 Connect on July 7, 2020.

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