Professional Practice Skills

PPS 3: Creativity/Brainstorming

(Adapted from MPS 7, Don Woods 1998)


Pre-class assignment

  1. Read sections What is It?, New Concepts, Why Do It?, How to Do It, and Learning Objectives
  2. Establish your Baseline on this skill on the Brainstorming Feedback Form.
  3. Be able to define the concept of creativity when asked in class.


What is It?

Creativity is a divergent thinking skill in which we postpone judgement and try to see a situation from as many different perspectives as possible.  Brainstorming is a term used for the creative generation of many ideas.


New Concepts

Creativity, Brainstorming, Triggers, Postponing Judgement,


Why Do It?

Creativity and brainstorming can be applied in many situations.  Certainly important at the beginning of the design process, it can also be applied to any form of problem solving.  It is particularly helpful in getting “unstuck” when your problem solving bogs down.  It is also applied in trouble-shooting and failure analysis to develop the possible hypotheses that will make up your differential diagnosis.


How to Do It

Divergent or creative thinking comes more naturally to some folks than others, but all of us can learn to be better.  The two primary techniques we use in this unit are to postpone judgement and apply triggers.   


To view how these techniques might work, consider your thought processes as a car shuttling about in your brain.  To be efficient, our brains tend to run in the same patterns long enough to make ruts.  For example, when you hear the term “dog food” you probably flashed on the big bags of brown pellets at the grocery store.  You probably didn’t think of the campus geese or squirrels, though they may be equally good in that capacity.


Why not?  First, your brain wants to do things the easy way, which is to go to Kroger and get the Alpo®.  Second, eating the campus geese isn’t socially acceptable or practical, so your brain doesn’t naturally want to head (bad pun intended) down that path.


Postponing judgement switches off the “socially unacceptable” and “impractical” filters that your brain uses to get rid of dumb ideas.  We’re going to not only tolerate, but embrace dumb ideas, since they are indicators that we’ve jumped the ruts and are wandering in new territory.  Note that we say postponing rather than eliminating, because later (after the brainstorming process) the convergent parts of are brain will be back in charge.  Then we will pan the few flakes of gold from our big bucket of bad ideas.


Triggers are specific tools to actively bump your brain out of its ruts.  They are designed to get you thinking from a different perspective.  Many triggers are available (crazy, creative people are always thinking up more), and some are listed below.

·         Other’s Shoes – Reconsider the problem from the perspective of a plumber, civil engineer, physician, child, attorney, basketball player, etc.  You can keep this close to your personal comfort level by picking roles you know something about, like plumber perhaps, and then expand to more fanciful ones, like princess.

·         Nature – How does nature deal with this issue, or how would you do it if you were Mother Nature?

·         Opposite – How would you solve the opposite problem (from “cut down a tree” to “grow a tree”)? Or, consider the opposite of some of your ideas (from “cut with a saw” to join with “hot glue”).

·         Random – Use random words, pictures, movie titles, professor names to generate more ideas.

·         Analogy – Consider what has similar function but different appearance (automatic clothes washer to washboard), what has similar appearance but different function (washboard to cheese grater), or what has a similar name and different use (bottle cap to baseball cap)? 

·         Craziest Idea – take the craziest idea and try use the kernel to get to a practical solution (“Cut down a tree with scissors” to “cut with large hydraulic shears”).

·         Boundaries/Constraints – Remove, adjust, or explore the boundaries of the problem.  (If the problem is a better way to wash clothes, what about recycling the old shirt into a new shirt instead of washing?  Does it have to be “wash” or can it be “clean” or “deodorize”?)

·         Anthropomorphize – Consider yourself to be the piece of equipment or process.  Or consider yourself a molecule flowing through the system.  (For “Why is this part failing?” think-  “Am I getting hot anywhere, where do I feel the stress?”)

·         Combine – Take different ideas and see what happens if you add them together, or combine them in some other way (Problem: “wash clothes” – combine “spray with a hose” and “pound on a rock” to “spray with wet rocks”)

·         Other – Brainstorm your own trigger or find a trigger in a reference.



Learning Objectives

You should be able to:

  1. Define and give examples of terms listed in New Concepts
  2. Given an object or situation, generate at least 25 ideas in 5 minutes (in a group or as an individual)
  3. Given a silent period in a brainstorming session, be able to use a trigger to generate more ideas
  4. Evaluate triggers and select triggers that work for you
  5. Encourage other ideas and refrain from passing judgement on their value during the brainstorming session
  6. Refrain from long elaborations on specific ideas
  7. Use others ideas as a stepping stone for generating new ideas







Exercise 1 (5 min.): As part of a small group, generate as many uses for a particular object as you can. 

·         Record ideas on a piece of plain white or engineering problems paper.

·         Record names of participants

·         Person with largest shoe size is recorder.

·         No criticizing of people or ideas

·         Keep ideas short, no long elaborations


Exercise 2 (8 min.): As part of a small group, generate as many ideas as you can for problem posed by instructor.

·         Record ideas on a piece of plain white or engineering problems paper.

·         Record names of participants

·         Person with smallest shoe size is recorder.

·         Instructor will introduce trigger


Exercise 3 (5 min): As part of a small group, brainstorm solutions to the following problem.  Someone is hitting on you at a party and you want to make it stop.  (Assume you are single.  You can even assume you are amazingly desirable if that works for you.)


Exercise 4 (6 min): As part of a small group, brainstorm solutions to the following problem.  You are loaded with work and your boss asks you to take on another job with significant work and a short deadline.  How do you respond?


Exercise 5 (6 min): As part of a small group, brainstorm possible causes (brief statements of causes, not solutions, not redesigns) for the following problem.  You get a call that two rooms in the south wing of Jones retirement home are too warm in the summer.  Your company designed and installed the HVAC system.  (Picture with forced air system and duct work)


Brainstorming Feedback Form


Name _______________________                     


1.       At the outset of this unit, place a “B” in each category to indicate your self assessment of your initial, or baseline skill level.

2.       At the end of the unit place an “A” in each category to indicate your self assessment of your skill level after practicing the skill.  Be prepared to provide documentation for your assessment.



(less successful)


(shows few expert behaviors)



Good Start

(some expert behavior)


Getting There

(many   expert behaviors)


Almost There

(mostly expert behavior)



(shows all expert behavior)




(more successful)

Rejects “bad” ideas, makes negative comments






Suspends judgment, encourages others ideas

Unaware of triggers






Applies triggers to generate more ideas when stuck.

Generate only about 5 ideas in 5 min.






Can generate 25 ideas in 5 min



Reflection of the Listener

What did I learn from this?




Which of the skills do I do pretty well?  (List Evidence)




Which skills could use some work? (List Evidence)



PPS-3  Creativity/Brainstorming

Assignment 1


As part of a small group, brainstorm solutions to some problem in your design.


  1. Record as video plus audio or as audio only (video tape, audio tape, .wav file, CD, are acceptable)
  2. On a piece of plain white or engineering problems paper, record the course name, the date, and the list of participants.
  3. Record the problem with a clear problem definition
  4. Record the ideas on the paper, using lines to indicate occurrence of triggers
  5. Record the trigger by type.
  6. Following the session total and record:
    1. the number of ideas,
    2. the number of triggers
    3. the type of each trigger
    4. the number of ideas generated for each trigger
  7. Following the session, evaluate group performance for topics 3-7 listed in the Evaluation section below.




1. Generated many ideas

Excellent (10)  - >25 different ideas in 5 minutes

Mediocre (5)  - < 15 different ideas in 5 minutes

Weak (0) -  5 ideas in 5 minutes

2. Applied Triggers

Excellent (10) – Four or more triggers with > five ideas per trigger

Mediocre (5)  - 2 triggers, fewer than five ideas per trigger

Weak (0) – no triggers


For topics 3-5 evaluate your own group’s performance using the following 10 point scale.

            Completely              Mostly                  Some                Rarely                        Never

                  10                          8                         5                         2                               0


3. Postponed judgement                     ______

4. Refrained from long explanations   ______

5. Refrained from criticism                 ______


For topics 6-7 evaluate your group’s performance using the following 10 point scale

            Very well                  Well                     Some                Rarely                        Never

                  10                          8                         5                         2                               0


6. Encouraged participation of all       ______

7. Built on other’s ideas                      ______




Note that the audio or video recording will be evaluated by an independent observer to confirm or modify self performance score.

PPS-3   Creativity

Assignment 2: Personal Brainstorming



Individually brainstorm possible solutions for problem, “Preventing oil leaks from a gear box”.  (Note: A gearbox is assumed to contain a gear train of some type.  Rotating input and output shafts are at opposite ends of the gearbox.) 



  1. At the top of a page of plain white or engineering problems paper write down your name, the name of the course, and the date
  2. Record the time that you begin
  3. Record as many different ideas as you can for a time of 5 minutes
  4. When you get stuck (or at the end of 5 min.):
    1. Draw a line under your ideas so far
    2. Write down a trigger
    3. Record as many different ideas as you can
  5. Repeat step 3 for at least 6 types of triggers


In the Table shown, record the number of ideas generated during each part of the session, the type of trigger used, and the time spent during each part of the session.



Type of Trigger

Number of Ideas

Time Spent

From start to first trigger




First Trigger




Second Trigger




Third Trigger




Fourth Trigger




Fifth Trigger




Sixth Trigger





Turn in:

The page (or copy) on which you generated ideas

The table above (or a copy or a transcription)

Answers to the questions, Which triggers




·         Excellent (10 pts) –  At least 25 different ideas, table filled out completely, questions answered

·         Mediocre (5 pts) – Fewer than 25 different ideas, fewer than six triggers, incomplete table, some questions not answered

·         Weak (0 pts) - fewer than 10 different ideas,  one or two triggers,    missing table or questions