Thoughts on ideas, brainstorming, facilitation, and crowdsourcing

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Having an “idea” is a uniquely human thing.  It can be fun, beautiful, empowering, motivating, exciting, artistic, valuable. *

Through personal reflection, brainstorming, facilitation and crowdsourcing ideas can be leveraged and improved upon, to the point that the outcome is far better than the initial idea.

Ideas come from creative thinking, considering the previously unconsidered, often referred to as ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking or ‘strategic’ thinking (albeit strategy in many businesses seems, disappointingly, often not to be that creative).

I enjoy the creative process of originating and developing ideas, and so wanted to pull together some thoughts on this.


Ideas can suddenly come from nowhere (that wonderful moment of “OMG I must write that down”), at any time of day, regardless of the activity that you are engaged in at the time. Alternatively, they can gradually develop from other senses (what you sea/read, hear, smell, taste, touch, feel, etc.).

Ideas are intangible. Alone they achieve little more than a good feeling, unless ‘implemented’ or ‘executed’ (I find it funny that the concepts of executing ideas and executing people are so diametrically opposed …). Ideas can be forgotten, vague, or confused. Recording the idea somehow, effectively making it more tangible, can be important to maintain its lifespan, but also to free it to evolve into new, better ideas.

Computers cannot (currently) develop ideas – they can be used as tools to support the idea creation process, but they not yet ever actually have an idea (if Ray Kurzweil‘s view of a singularity moment arrives, where computers become ‘intelligent’, and able to have ideas, it will be very interesting to see what happens next).

Tools and frameworks exist (in particular in business) to help ensure one thinks sufficiently broadly to come up with new ideas, perhaps away from a central theme, or commonly considered topics (albeit one has to be careful that tools and frameworks don’t ultimately constrain thinking around pre-prepared topics).

Some find it helpful to have quiet time, to sit in silence, and reflect, contemplate, and generally think develop their thoughts on a topic. Some find it helpful to write things down, use mind maps, or structure their ideas.

One can position oneself to have better ideas, by reading/watching/listening other materials that can provoke idea generation (television shows, websites, podcasts, etc.), or by ‘brainstorming’ around a certain topic …


I love brainstorming. It amplifies the positive characteristics of ideas (see * above).

I love the initial messiness of it, and the subsequent job of then organizing, profiling, and prioritizing the results. I like the freedom to let creativity run wild, followed by the calm and controlled phase of harvesting the best bits.

‘Brainstorming for one’ can be fun, and creative – you have no-one else to interrupt your thoughts, no-one else to distract you from your developing mind map, allowing you to stray into new topics.


Participating in a facilitated brainstorming group/team is however much more fun, and can also be a lot more productive, especially if there is some ultimate goal, or purpose to the brainstorming. There is something exciting about watching ideas appear on a blank flip chart, as a group leverages the power of the team to create something likely beyond what any individual would alone have achieved, at least in the same time.

A heterogeneous group can create diverse ideas that any one might never have thought of  – while the ideas are incepted by someone in the group, they can act as sparks of creativity in a highly flammable creative environment.

Together the group can challenge, or develop the ideas further, or maybe ignoring the initial idea, come up with another connected/related idea, or even and idea which is largely unrelated to the first idea (other than that they would never have arrived at this point if not triggered by some thought that came out of the original idea)

The group can also stop individuals from going too far in the ‘wrong’ direction, where a certain goal exists. Brainstorming in a group can also give an element of validation to the idea generation, and can be motivational/empowering to all involved, through demonstrating that others are also passionate or engaged in the topic and/or creative process.


Unless you were a politician, radio station, or similar, crowdsourcing (leveraging the benefit of insight and creativity from a much wider population) has historically been somewhat difficult to achieve.

Recent technological developments, in particular ‘Web 2.0’, change all of that. Social networks, forums, online databases, etc. (either in wide area network/internet, or on some form of local network/intranet) create a collaborative discussion opportunity.

Individuals can engage in a dialogue on a 1-to-1 basis in an open environment, for others to see and potentially comment, or in a 1-to-many/any type basis. On a 1-to-many basis, one can engage with anyone from:

  • a specific, restricted group, such as Facebook “friends”, Twitter followers, or Quora followers
  • an open group of like-minded people, such as a LinkedIn ‘group’, a Quora ‘category’, or Twitter #hashtag
  • a truly global population, such as through a blog post, on a forum, or on Twitter (to the extent that these are searchable in Google or other search engines)

People generally aren’t used to crowdsourcing yet:

  • There is a fear that sharing an initial idea might allow others to take the idea, or develop better ideas for themselves (which they might not share, or share the benefit of)
  • There is a fear that others might have a negative reaction and build a negative impression (eg, perceive the initial idea to be seen as not very insightful, poorly structured, or even wrong)
  • There is a lack of ‘skills’ in how best to ‘crowdsource’ – what should one say/ask? what is the best platform to use? what is the most appropriate way to respond/engage with others?
  • Many of the technological resources that aid crowdsourcing are still the preserve of ‘geeks’ (through lack of awareness, familiarity or comfort of using those resources)
  • In many cases platforms are not yet implemented to allow crowdsourcing of ideas in a controlled, secure/confidential population (key to achieving crowdsourcing of ideas in many corporate organisations)

With regard to this latter point, one should consider also that ideas may not always need to be kept (fully) under wraps – sometimes it might be better to crowdsource ideas from a more public population, including customers, suppliers and other stakeholders, as well as a any other interested parties (a good example of this is ‘My Starbucks Idea‘).

In my view the fears set out above can aften be easily addressed/overcome, and there are numerous net benefits to engaging in crowdsourcing, for example in my personal case, whether it be through interactions initiated by people finding my blog, discussions I have on Twitter, answers to my questions on Quora (and other people’s questions).

7 Responses

  1. I love the idea of crowdsourcing problems or activities that could benefit from unexpected insights (from unexpected places!). I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how nonprofit organizations can be shaped through crowdsourcing issues and strategic planning. I agree that there is often a ‘fear factor’ on the part of organizations when they contemplate this form of opening up. Raising the comfort level of those within an organization is a growing responsibility of leadership, I think.

  2. Great article by Kate Cincotta in The Age (“Melbourne’s premier news organisation for breaking news online, on mobile and in print”) – “Ideas anyone? Anyone?”:

  3. Like London busses – two interesting perspectives come along in a short space of time …

    An interesting perspective, by Michael Bauwens on P2P Foundation, on crowdsourcing:

    While the headline appears to indicate a dislike of crowdsourcing, the rest of the article seems to suggest that the writer actually likes crowdsourcing, and its future persona ‘open value networks’ …

  4. The underlying post, by Tiberius Brastaviceanu of the Multitude Project, which Michael Bauwens commented on:

  5. An interesting article from McKinsey on brainstorming (which they consider to be too often “fast, furious, and ultimately shallow”, and ‘brainsteering’ (which they seem to describe as a high-quality, facilitated brainstorming session):

  6. […] courtesy of © I recently wrote a post titled “Thoughts on ideas, brainstorming, facilitation, and crowdsourcing“.  In that I wrote “I love brainstorming”. And I still do (for the reasons given […]

  7. […] it’s a great example of collaboration / crowdsourcing (see “Thoughts on ideas, brainstorming, facilitation, and crowdsourcing“) […]

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