Program for Some Brainstorming

Richard O'Reilly designs microcomputer applications for The Times

Thirty years ago, brainstorming sessions were much in vogue. A group of people would gather in a room to create solutions to problems by throwing out their ideas willy-nilly, feeding off each other's thoughts.

It remains a useful technique today and is no doubt still widely used. Now, with the help of your personal computer, you can hold a one-person brainstorming session. It's done with a program called the Idea Generator ($195), published by Experience in Software Inc., 2039 Shattuck Ave., Suite 401, Berkeley, Calif. 94704, telephone (415) 644-0694.

The software costs $195 and runs on IBM PC and compatible computers with 256 kilobytes of random access memory (RAM) and either two floppy disk drives or a hard disk. It is the work of author and attorney Gerard I. Nierenberg and is based on his book, "The Art of Creative Thinking."

Nierenberg's approach is to stimulate creative problem solving by forcing one to think in new ways and from new perspectives.

By using the computer, Nierenberg makes it easy for users to follow his step-by-step methods. The program does this by asking the user questions, the answers to which generate new questions.

Three Stages

There are three stages to the process: (1) describing the problem or situation, (2) finding possible solutions, and (3) evaluating the solutions. It's not necessarily a simple, straightforward process, however, since you may find in your evaluations that the problem was not adequately defined or that possible solutions were overlooked.

A useful feature allows you to transfer your ideas back and forth from either of two outlining programs, ThinkTank or Ready!, or a word processing program.

You begin by describing the situation you want to solve. Let's say you want a substantially higher income in 1986, so you type in: "I want to earn more money this year."

Next you have to list your goals, one per line on the screen, such as:

- Avoid loss of present fringe and retirement benefits.

- Avoid taking a second job.

- Avoid relocating.

- Be able to take more exotic vacations.

Then it's time to list the people involved in the situation, which includes those who will be affected by the change, those who can help bring it about and those whose approval must be obtained. In this case, the list would include yourself, family members, your boss, business contacts and so on.

Now you have to generate ideas that may solve your problem. Here, the program forces you to look at things from various points of view. It asks you to list similar situations and then to find a metaphor for your situation and think of different ways to approach that metaphorical problem. The program gives you some examples of how to do this.

You are asked then to apply those metaphorical approaches to your own situation and list any new ideas that are generated. Another technique is to ask you to look at the situation from the perspective of someone else--perhaps someone involved whom you listed earlier or some other person, real or imagined.

For instance, you might want to look at your situation the way you imagine a rich uncle would approach it.

Yet another technique used by the program is to ask you for ideas based on satisfying each of your goals singly, as if each were your only goal. That prevents you from discarding ideas just because they don't meet all of your goals.

A more exotic technique employed in the program is called double reversal. First you list the direct opposite of each of your goals and then think of ways to reach those reversed goals. Then you reverse those ideas, and the final result should be a new approach to a familiar situation.

The opposite of not taking a second job, for instance, could be starting a new business of your own on the side. One way to start would be to take a community college course in small business. The reverse of that idea could be to teach a course using your expertise in your present field of endeavor.

Focusing on the people involved in your situation is another way the program forces you to look at the problem, listing the positive and negative factors associated with both those who seem to be blocking your way and those who can help you attain your goals.

Ultimately you will end up with a list of ideas. Then it is time to summarize and finally evaluate them.

You decide whether to evaluate the single best idea, several ideas or even all of your ideas, giving each a rating between 1 and 9, corresponding to lowest and highest on the rating scale. The criteria upon which you base such ratings is how well the idea meets each of your listed goals.

Assessing Ideas

A final evaluation method remains, and that is to assess your ideas in terms of their costs, benefits and effects on people.

As you can probably guess from the description of the idea-generation process, it is not simple and straightforward. You should expect to work backward and forward through the various elements of the program as discoveries in one section cause you to refine previous goals and idea descriptions. You may even have to revise your original statement of the problem.

What the Idea Generator really does is force you to think systematically. The ideas that result are yours, not the computer's.

As with any computerized system, however, what you get out of it can be no better that what you put into it. You may conclude, for instance, that the best way to make more money in 1986, within the confines of the goals that you have set for yourself, is to play the Lottery more often. Good luck.

If you like the Idea Generator, you may also like its predecessor program, the Art of Negotiating, also by Nierenberg, which sells for $495 and is based on his book of the same title.

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