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Brainstorming Session

If you have ever had a brainstorming session where people sat around hesitating to contribute, you can understand how important the right frame of mind is. You need the members of the group to feel free to throw their ideas out there no matter how crazy they may seem. You also need them to be open to new ideas and thinking creatively. Here's a little warm up exercise that will help.

A Brainstorming Exercise

Before you formally start the brainstorming session, and start addressing the problems and projects you need new ideas for, do the following. You may have done something similar to this in the past. My wife and I most recently participated in this brainstorming exercise at a financial seminar. In that case, a paper clip was the object used.

Essentially, you just choose an object and have everyone write down as many ways as they can think of to use it. First split the participants into smaller groups of two-to-five people each. Offering a prize for the group that comes up with the most uses will add some competitive incentive, but don't specify that the ideas have to be good or in any way judged - the prize goes strictly for quantity.

That last point is important, because this exercise is supposed to get everyone in a creative and open frame of mind. You want any and all ideas thrown out there without fear. Judging of ideas should always come at a later stage and - in the case of this exercise - never. Humor is helpful, so encourage everyone to be thinking crazy thoughts.

Set a time limit for this. Keep it short - perhaps ten minutes. You want to purposefully rush this exercise a bit in order to get everyone thinking fast and speaking before they have time to analyze their ideas. This helps get them out of the habit of self-censorship.

Some of the ideas that our group came up with at the seminar included using a paper clip to pick locks, to clean out ears and as a fishhook. In our five minutes, the four of us came up with just twenty ideas. The winning group had written down over thirty uses for a paper clip.

Once the exercise is over, you should feel some excitement in the air, and their really ought to be some laughter. A paper clip for an earring? You are now ready to start the brainstorming session with the important problems and projects - and in the right frame of mind.

To impress upon the group how crazy ideas can sometimes lead to valuable insights and plans, you might want to tell the following true story:

Canadian Kyle MacDonald used a paper clip to get a house. He started by trading it with someone online for a fish-shaped pen. The pen was traded for a hand-made ceramic doorknob. Fourteen trades and a year later, he made his last trade and moved into a new house with no mortgage. That's creativity applied to real life.

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