Brainstorming Alone

A tool for personal innovation
By Gregg Fraley © 2008

When I think of brainstorming my earliest memory is the old TV show, Bewitched. Darrin Stephens, the long-suffering husband of the nose-twitching witch “Sam” was an old-fashioned ad man. Every now and then Darrin and his boss Larry Tate kicked ideas around for one of their accounts – Hollywood style brainstorming. Still, I got a sense of the freewheeling, wacky, anything goes part of brainstorming, and the image stuck with me. Brainstorming, my earliest imprint says, is a group thing, and subsequent real life experiences reinforced this. When ideas start to flow and one person’s ideas trigger ideas in you, it’s powerful, and it feels like the group think is better than what one person could create on their own.

The group image of brainstorming is pervasive. Clearly, most people don’t think they “brainstorm alone” when dealing with a complex situation. You might say you are “trying to come up with something” or that you are “mulling it over.” It’s usually an invisible process, it’s all in your head. Simply reflecting, thinking, often works – solutions occur to us, and we get right into action. Other times it’s not so easy. It’s one of the toughest challenges in life. That is, coping with the endless and unsolvable problems running around in your head.

You can probably guess that I’m all for doing more than just mulling it over. Most of the time, our thinking in our head is circular. We rehash the situation, and go over it again and again, and we have a hard time getting into idea mode. You may think of one, but then you immediately analyze it to death, and your circle back and do another re-hash. The image that comes to mind is beating your head against the wall. The situation calls for new ideas. Sometimes you need ideas!

And you’re alone.

Maybe it’s a situation or challenge that requires your personal touch. Maybe it’s a problem that you “own” in a very personal way, like a relationship with a business partner or loved one. For whatever reason you need to think things through on your own.

This is where many times I personally feel very lonely, and to be honest fearful. It’s up to me! Even a minimal amount of fear and anxiety is a bad start for generative thinking. You hit the wall of “no ideas” sooner and faster than you would if you had a playful mindset.

Time for a personal brainstorming session, yes, brainstorming alone. And it can work as effectively as working with a group. Brainstorming alone is a powerful tool for what I call personal innovation.

Okay, how do you go about Brainstorming Alone?

  1. For starters, take a deep breath, smile, and believe you can come up with great ideas. Be optimistic. Re-read Norman Vincent Peale and Dale Carnegie. Your brain responds well to positivity.
  2. Then, get prepared. Get comfortable. Dress casually so nothing is pinching or confining. Start when you are reasonably fresh and if you’re tired, take a walk, or do some stretching, and then begin.
  3. Get yourself a good notebook to write in. Personally, I like sketch books with no lines, but this is a matter of taste. Get one it feels good to write in.
    1. Have a smooth flowing pen, one that feels good in your hand. Pens are usually taken for granted aren’t they? You can subtly change your thinking by simply getting a pen you enjoy using.
    2. Yes, you can use a computer to brainstorm alone, if that floats your boat, but have the decency to get away from your typical work desk so you start with a fresh environment.
    3. Believe me, all this little stuff adds up. Brainstorming alone is almost like prayer, and a positive ritual of preparation can make a difference.
  4. Start writing. Write your challenge at the top of the page, and frame it with words like, “How Might I….or In what ways might I…then finish the sentence.
  5. Start listing ideas. Just list them and don’t even think about them, don’t edit them, don’t edit yourself, don’t analyze, just list, list, list. Keep the pen moving – even when it seems like garbage.
    1. When you hit a block, take a deep breath and try to become another person. That’s right, put yourself in the shoes of Lincoln, or Ghandi, or Thomas Edison, or that fourth grade teacher you so admired…and list.
    2. List even bad ideas, stupid ideas, expensive ideas, ideas that patently “won’t work”, ideas that have failed before. Just list any idea that comes to you. Brainstorming alone is a flow experience and getting into the flow is key to getting results.
    3. Getting into flow can be tough, but if you keep writing, it will happen, and the list of ideas will grow.
    4. Do not stop when you hit a really good idea. Keep going. Don’t settle for a B plus when an A plus is right around the corner.
  6. When you simply can’t do anymore, take a rest. A rest might be for ten minutes or a week. Then list again. Brainstorming alone is not a one-time thing, it’s an on-going thing.
  7. Stop when you have about 5 times more ideas then you think is reasonable. Set a goal – 20 ideas, 50 ideas, 100 ideas — it depends on your challenge and its complexity. Your brain will fill the list to meet your goal, it’s amazing how it rises to the test.
  8. When you’ve met your quota, then review your list. Really consider even the nutty ideas and try to shape them into something that might really work. See if you can combine a couple and make something really powerful.

If you do this you will come up with some amazing solutions and people will be wondering if you have a wife named Sam with a magic nose. Try brainstorming alone, it’s a powerful tool for personal innovation.