Thoughts: What is the ultimate brainstorming tool?

Lately, I’ve become interested in the concept and process of structured brainstorming. What makes “structured” brainstorming distinct from its passive cousin is that it has some sort of process and is organized at a specific time. I’d argue that the goal of a structured brainstorming session should be to go in with a loose set of big questions, brainstorm, and then come out with a set of refined questions, themes, and next steps. In our experience, the best way to mentally organize a brainstorm is to group things like ideas, questions, and links under “themes”, continually add to the them, and then sort and prune at the end. Unfortunately, we haven’t really found a software tool that makes this process awesome, let alone easy.

So using this framework, what would make the ultimate brainstorming tool?

Non-linear

One of the most powerful aspects of a brainstorming session is that its non-linear. You easily be able to add “first act” ideas at the same time as adding “late stage” themes without disrupting the flow. In addition to adding, being able to organize information in a non-linear fashion avoids introducing a rigid structure, before the data is really understood.

Organizing data in a non-linear format is one of the primary issues of using a regular text document for a brainstorm. It makes it difficult to add things “out of order” and immediately introduces a rigid structure, since everything is flowing top to bottom.

Collaborative

Successful collaboration is a key point in any team activity and brainstorming is no different. An effective tool should effectively involve all participants by making it easy for everyone to contribute. Since the goal is to eventually prune down anyway, capturing input from everyone involved strengthens the process since it gives a voice to viewpoints that might otherwise go unheard. In our experience, collaborating around a whiteboard works well until 4 people are involved and then it quickly degenerates. By 6 actors, including key stakeholders, some people are hesitant to contribute since they’re afraid of “looking dumb”.

An ideal tool would allow everyone to easily contribute without disrupting active conversations and also without fear of embarrassment.

Linking

Having a ton of great data is awesome but without any way to develop links between the nodes you’re really just left with a massive list. Linking as a feature would let you “chain” pieces of data together, similar to “a href”s in an HTML document, allowing you to develop richer connections within your data.

Current digital tools like Trello or Evernote support linking and I’d imagine an ideal tool supporting it in a similar fashion. The primary concern would be making it easy to visualize the connections between nodes to drive a better understanding of how things fit together.

Ok so we’ve laid out some features, now what does this thing look like? I think ideally this is a SaaS product with a mobile client that looks like a giant table top. The table top would let you add themes, elements within those themes, and also let you create links between anything you’ve added to the table. So does this tool exist? Unfortunately, I don’t think so – or at least I haven’t found it yet.

Anyway, I’d love to hear about your experiences with brainstorming, especially what tools you’ve used.

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