The Key to Brainstorming


Brainstorming means: generating a long list of creative ideas to solve some problem or answer some question. Any time you are feeling a little blank, you need some form of brainstorming to start ideas flowing again.

Often we think of brainstorming as a group activity, with these four guidelines:

1) Just blurt out ideas as they occur to you.
2) No criticism–of yourself or others. (You’ll evaluate the ideas later, after you have a long list.)
3) Try to jump off from a previous idea to get a new idea.
4) Try to generate as many ideas as possible.

People often treat brainstorming as a magical process, which mysteriously generates results. I think brainstorming is an entirely understandable process, and when you understand it, you have much more control over your own creative capacity.

To see how it works in an individual mind, consider the “dictionary” version of brainstorming, which uses these four steps:

1) Spell out the question.
2) Pick a random word from the dictionary.
3) Free associate on the word from the dictionary: what’s the first word that comes to mind?
4) Ask your subconscious for a bridge: How does the new word help answer the question?

The two creative steps are #2 and #3. In step 2, you get a concrete idea (a trigger) to think about. On the face of it, the trigger might not have any particular relevance to the question. But it is highly specific, so you can make associations to it. In step 3, you free associate on the trigger. It’s these new free associations (not the original trigger) that might help you answer your question.

Here’s why: the free associations are connected both to the trigger you chose in step 2 and the question you spelled out in step 1. Both of those are part of the context that is stimulating subconscious associations. The question influences what spontaneously occurs to you.

This is why, when you get to step 4, you can ask yourself for a bridge between the free association and the question: the free association does have some connection to the question in your subconscious databanks, and all you are doing is asking for it explicitly.

In a group brainstorming process, one person’s idea is another person’s trigger. Everyone is free associating on whatever came before–suggestion, joke, etc., and these free associations then
suggest other possible solutions.

The thing to remember is: the trigger does not have to seem useful.  It just has to be concrete enough so that you can easily free associate  about it.

This is why you should never censor in brainstorming. If you censor the trigger, you never get the free associations. If you censor the free associations, you never get to make the connection between them and the question. Or in other words, if you censor, you never get to the solutions.

You can use this process of triggering and associating in many different forms of brainstorming.

Next time you feel blank, try brainstorming with these four steps:
1) Identify question
2) Pick a concrete trigger
3) Free associate
4) Build a bridge from the free association to a solution


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