7 Brainstorming Secrets from a Whiteboard Master

IdeaPaint literally reinvented the whiteboard. Morgen Newman, one of the company's chief architects, shares his best practices for effective collaboration.
Editor-at-Large, OPEN Forum, American Express OPEN
April 24, 2013

The "idea" began on the campus of Babson College in 2002. A group of entrepreneurship students were brainstorming future business ventures and had a pizza-fueled, late-night epiphany: "Wouldn't it be great if we could turn that whole wall into a whiteboard?”

And thus, the idea for whiteboard paint that could do just that was born. Fast-forward a few years, devoted to R&D and fundraising, and IdeaPaint has become a favorite of startups and Fortune 500 companies alike in more than 40 countries—with clients ranging from Apple to Google to General Electric. Even NASA has used it. The Ashland, Mass.-based company recently introduced a clear version, allowing you to turn literally any wall into a brainstorming canvas without having to whitewash it.

IdeaPaint's success, refreshingly, seems to indicate that in this decidedly digital world, there's still room for the most analog of solutions. For entrepreneurs, nothing replaces a good old-fashioned brainstorming session. As Morgen Newman, IdeaPaint's vice president of international sales and one of its chief architects says, "You’re not a startup with a cool space if you don’t have IdeaPaint."

With that in mind, here’s Newman’s best brainstorming tips he’s picked up from IdeaPaint’s tens of thousands of users around the world:

1. Open the floor. "Some defined rules or guideposts like, ‘No idea is a bad idea’ and ‘Everyone's ideas are valued’ really help to set the expectations and create a democratic environment."

2. Make your brainstorms stormy. "Standard meeting spaces have a scribe standing at an easel or whiteboard, while everyone else shouts. The scribe most often begins to filter ideas and apply their personal opinions to limit or guide the teams' direction, which does not lead to breakthroughs and great ideas. To the contrary, a room with large writing space gives everyone the ability to be 'heard' and often conflicting or divergent information or ideas lead to the best breakthroughs and new direction."

3. Save your work. "Everyone has a smartphone today. Snap a few pictures of your wall after a brainstorm, and then process and send to your team. If you're extra savvy, consider using Evernote so you can save, share, and search the content of the wall anytime, anywhere."

4. Set creativity free. "Some brainstorming and collaboration works when planned like, say, your weekly Wednesday morning meeting. That said, it most naturally occurs at unscheduled times—think stopping at your colleague's desk on your way to refill your coffee mug. Your physical space should allow for this to happen, and have tools available to let you elevate the conversation to the next level, anywhere in your space."

5. Remember, sometimes the best brainstorms are boring. "The sexy use of IdeaPaint is surely mind-mapping or product design done by the people at companies like IDEO or HUGE, or writing out endless A Beautiful Mind-style equations at an MIT astrophysics lab. But I personally don't use my walls that way. More than 50 percent of my IdeaPaint writing is for organization—writing lists, prioritizing activities, and ‘thinking’ visually. About 25 percent is to share ideas or solve problems with teammates, and another 25 percent is to communicate concepts or brainstorm with a larger group or team."

6. You can't digitize everything. "Sharing ideas and communicating via multiple methods isn't new, and that isn't going to change anytime soon. I love technology as much as everyone else, but we still live in a tactile world that involves real-life interaction with other people. Something like IdeaPaint isn’t meant to replace the next big tech toy—rather, it’s a catalyst for ideas and bringing those ideas to life. Every great company, even the techiest among them, was at some point a sketch in a notebook, a doodle on a napkin, or an idea on a wall."

7. Stop trying to be Picasso. "Here's the thing: Everyone who knows me would tell you I have horrendous handwriting and can't draw. But you don't need to be an artist to use pictures and words to share ideas, generate new ones, and solve problems. A whiteboard is just a starting point and one of the ways we can communicate, so I know that I don't have to deliver a perfect diagram or mind map—rather, just a connection of simple words and pictures to effectively communicate my message."

Photos: Courtesy of Morgen Newman/IdeaPaint