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Brainstorming is a process which has been used extensively in value engineering and other areas where innovative alternatives must be found. It is best done in small groups led by a recorder who simply lists every idea that is offered by any member of the group. There are some simple ideas for working creatively in groups.
The key to successful brainstorming is to withhold criticism until the group has exhausted its creativity. Criticism can be very difficult to resist, especially when water experts brainstorm with stakeholders, because many of the ideas stakeholders provide will have technical flaws, and the ideas experts provide may not address the real problems of stakeholders. But criticism at this point will kill creativity. In order to avoid the embarrassment of being criticized in front of a group, people will simply keep their ideas to themselves. The recorder or facilitator stress before the brainstorming begins that there will be no criticism of ideas during the brainstorming, but in most cases, someone will ignore this prohibition a few minutes after the brainstorming begins. As soon as that happens, the facilitator or recorded must quickly stop the criticism and repeat the prohibition, or the brainstorming effort will be a waste of time.
Encouraging all participants to freely offer solutions achieves many ends: it can allay fears that possible solutions have been overlooked; provide the insight of a fresh perspective to an expert; force the examination of good ideas that have powerful foes; or allow interesting, but ultimately unsuitable ideas to be raised and rejected in an equitable and public manner. After the uncritical brainstorming, participants should eliminate redundant ideas, and then use preliminary screening criteria to reduce the number of alternatives. The remaining alternatives can then be organized if that serves a purpose. The use of 8«"x 11" paper rather than flip charts allows participants to group ideas before having to agree on category names.
Warning #1. Brainstorming can be used to assemble a collective response better than the best ideas of any participant. But if none of the participants know much about a subject, the collective answer will also be uninformed. Unfortunately, it has become much more common to see brainstorming used in this way.
Warning #2. Brainstorming with agency staff alone is not sufficient to identify stakeholders' needs. Especially during the first step of the planning process, brainstorming with stakeholders is a valuable supplement to review of previous reports on water resources problems in the basin.
Warning #3. Brainstorming with stakeholders alone will not guarantee solutions that are technically adequate. Stakeholders should be encouraged to express their ideas for alternatives, but the preliminary screening process should allow experts to use their knowledge to explain why some ideas should not be studied further.
A Delphi process can accomplish some of the same purposes over a longer period of time, but without a physical meeting. In a Delphi process, experts are asked to respond to a series of questionnaires about problems or solutions. A central analyst reviews their answers, then develops another questionnaire if needed to clarify or resolve disputes among the experts, or to address new issues suggested by the previous round of responses.