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By Jack Ganssle

Brainstorming

Published 2/27/2006

According to http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/02/19/AR2006021900820.html Willard Boyle and George Smith felt pressured by their boss to come up with an important new invention. So, they scheduled a one-hour brainstorming session and came up with the CCD. I can imagine the meeting's agenda:

- Conference room: 2
- Attendees: Smith and Boyle
- Goal: Convince corporate to keep funding us
- Time scheduled: 60 minutes.
- Result: Completely revolutionized imaging
- Likely outcomes: Elimination of multi-billion dollar chemical photography industry, and cameras will be everywhere - even in phones. Smith and Boyle agreed that the phone comment was just a joke as no one can conceive of a need for such a device.

Linus Pauling said: "The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas." That's the magic of brainstorming. A couple of smart people toss out dozens of ideas, showering the meeting with different approaches to solving a problem. One thought sparks another. Some inspirations follow linearly while others seem to come from nowhere, yet are usually catalyzed by other participants' suggestions.

While informal brainstorming sessions are very effective and the most fun, some people prefer a more disciplined process, such as the one spelled out in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brainstorming) and many other places. Regardless, the basic rules for any session must include the following:

  • All ideas are equally good. Criticism is not allowed.
  • Stick to the subject
  • Every participant and his or her notions are treated with respect
  • Have fun! Be inventive and playful.

Brainstorming sessions work best with small groups. Sir Barnett Cocks nailed the problem with big meetings back in 1907: "A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled." Large groups resemble Usenet: lots of people lurk, contributing nothing. Like a long Usenet thread, any large group gathered for too long degenerates into acrimony, though I've yet to see such a scene fall so apart that Godwin's Law (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin%27s_law) is invoked.

I've found brainstorming to be about the best idea generator around. Every one has created at least a handful of new ideas, though it's not unusual to find that none have value. Yet even those seemingly failed meetings tend to generate a seed of inspiration that eventually yields a truly worthwhile scheme.

I have learned, though, that when brainstorming with non-engineers (e.g., my wife) one must be clear that the ideas are just thoughts tossed out without much consideration. Very likely none of them have any merit. Otherwise she's likely to get emotional about a glibly uttered idea that, after a microsecond of reflection, is one that solves the problem but will result in hurt feelings.

Last night we brainstormed a tax problem one of our college kids has unknowingly created for himself. Like the best such sessions we came up with an idea that fixes both that issue, and another unrelated one: his car that's been sitting in our driveway unused for two years.