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How to run a "brainstorm by analogy" session

John Drever | 25 Sep 2014 | Comments

A few months ago, I was approached by our marketing team to generate creative ideas for potential business services and solutions to support a “smart city”. A smart city is one that taps into technology so that we can make better use of the resources available to us to create a more enjoyable and sustainable place for people to live, work and visit.

Given the scope of this topic, my first thought was, “wow, that’s a wide remit!” We could potentially be looking across a wide range of possibilities. What were the constraints or areas of focus we wanted to address?

We managed to narrow this down to a workable area of focus, specifically a small cosmopolitan UK city that is primarily interested in generating economic wealth as well as improving the environment and living conditions of its inhabitants.

With this brief, I found some communications, software, control systems and data analytics staff to join-in the session with our marketing department. We now had the right mix of people, knowledge and skills, but how best to draw all of that out during the session?

Idea creation

As I wanted to get the left and right brain elements talking together, I decided upon a “brainstorming by analogy” idea creation strategy with a bit of something called “brain-writing” thrown-in for good measure.

Left/Right brain

I first presented this cartoon of the brain to the participants and then explained the context of the problem, clearly outlining our brief and our area of focus for the day.

The scene was now set for the discussion, but what were the questions that we wanted to address?

Choosing the right questions and the right analogy

In Atkins’ communications division we deal with data and its generation, communication, analysis and usage. As such, it seemed like a good idea for us to think about the problem as a giant control room with any information available that we wanted.

The questions therefore became easy to identify:

  • What information would be required for the control room’s dashboard?
  • Why would that information be required?
  • What benefit would be gained from having that information?

To make this come to life, I struck on the idea of using The Numskulls from the Beano comic. These were tiny characters living inside a human’s head and which controlled their every move.

In order to help drive divergent thinking, I asked each of the session participants to imagine that they were one of the Numskulls. I then gave everyone two minutes to write a list of what “real-time” data they would want in order to effectively control their human and another minute to list the “long term” planning data they would need. This is the “brain-writing” part.

Going around the table, we asked each person to give me one idea from their list and allowed them to add more if they thought of something else.

We transformed this list of “human control” data to “city control” data and started to look at its benefits and utility. Then the creative juices started to flow.

Our minds were now in the right state to start to innovate so when we talked about the data, and particularly the benefits, other completely new ideas sprang into existence.

As Paul Daniels used to say: “And that’s magic!”

The key steps to brainstorming by analogy

So here are my five key tips to get brainstorming participants to use the left and right sides of their brains in your session:

  • Narrow down the subject or brief to make sure you get what you want and need from the session
  • Ensure you invite people with different areas of experience, knowledge or skills to offer diversity of input
  • Clearly set the scene for your participants so everyone understands the context
  • Choose the right questions and the right analogy
  • Engage your participants’ imagination to drive creativity and innovation

Brain cartoon by Cartoon a Day (Source).