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Brain meet storm: Quick tips to think outside the box

Whether you are in a one-on-one meeting to come up with new column ideas for the newsletter or advising a group of excited volunteers on how to advertise Vacation Bible School, brainstorming works best within a structure. Use these exercises to keep minds swirling, while the conversation is fruitful and focused:

Mind mapping.
Mind mapping works well if your challenge is to come up with fresh ideas for a frequent task—such as writing sermons—or to address a difficult problem.

You will need a whiteboard or chalkboard to draw the mind map, which mimics a tree. Your central idea is the trunk, and the branches are related ideas and concepts. Tree or no tree, mind mapping allows you to follow the pattern of a system that has a core with many connected and connecting pathways (heart/circulatory system, river/tributaries, stem/petals). Mind mapping creates a visual representation of related concepts so participants can connect the dots–even when they did not realize there were dots to connect! Here are two visual examples.

If you prefer to use software, many products are available. Some are free. This article discusses five mind-mapping software programs that are free or cost no more than $400.

Dilip Abayasekara, Ph.D., a public speaking and communications trainer, uses mind mapping in his course “Preaching with Power,” which the former Central Pennsylvania Annual Conference offered to its clergy. Objectives included helping clergy connect with creative possibilities and enjoy the art and privilege of teaching.

Decision trees.
Outcome trees are good to use when you need to make a decision. They display the probable consequences of different actions.

Let’s say a member gives the church a donation and specifies that it be used for capital improvements. The amount could cover the costs of one of two projects identified in your long-term plan: Resurfacing the parking lot or upgrading the roof.

On a whiteboard or chalkboard, write the words “parking lot” and “roof upgrades” so they are connected by a small square but far apart enough to allow you to write a few words off each choice. Next, write the result of each decision. If the result requires an additional decision, draw a square connecting the result to the choice. If the result is uncertain, draw a circle. Keep going; then review and challenge each uncertainty to make sure it is not really a decision. Your finished tree might have this pattern:

Parking lot—potholes gone—safer for all who attend—less chance of someone falling and being injured.

Roof upgrades—older parts of roof replaced with new shingles and flashing—prevent future leaks and costs of repairs.

You probably will decide to resurface the parking lot. 

This is a good technique for coming up with a catch phrase, a campaign theme or an event name.

Write the following on a whiteboard or chalkboard:

___________is/was/are/were like__________.

In the first blank, write the concept you are addressing; then list as many similes (comparisons) as possible in the second blank. Maybe your church is starting a coffee house on Saturday evenings aimed at young adults. You want to come up with a name for the coffee house. So you try:

Coffee houses are like clubs, cafes, hangouts, art museums, meeting places, salons.

The word “salon” intrigues the group, and you decide to name the weekly event “Saturday Salon.”  

If you use these and other brainstorming techniques regularly, you will be surprised at the ease of thinking creatively.  The more you use it, the more effective you become with this skill.