The CIA published its understanding of brainstorming as an analytic technique in the white paper, A Tradecraft Primer: Structured Analytic Techniques for Improving Intelligence Analysis. The document provides a run-down of diagnostic, contrarian, and imaginative thinking techniques used and recommended by the CIA for its analysts. Brainstorming falls under the imaginative thinking techniques section, along with outside-in thinking, red team analysis, and alternative futures analysis.
According to the primer, brainstorming is an unconstrained group process designed to generate new ideas and concepts. The technique should be used in the beginning of the the process or at critical points among a group of analysts in order to take advantage of a variety of perspectives to help structure a problem. Although an individual may act alone to produce a wider array of ideas, he or she may have difficulty breaking free of his or her cognitive biases without the benefit of a diverse group.
The brainstorming process should be very structured, in order to break down mind-sets and produce new insights. There are two phases: a divergent thinking phase to generate and collect new ideas and insights, and a convergent phase in which new ideas are grouped and organized around key concepts. During the session, which should take over an hour, ideas should never be censored, no matter how unconventional they may seem. The conventional wisdom concerning the topic or project should be exhausted in order to develop new ideas or important connections between the topic and unstated assumptions. The ideal group should incorporate at least one 'outsider who does not share the same background, culture, or technical knowledge as the core group. A mix of junior and senior analysts are also important, as less experienced analysts may not carry the same biases and prejudices about the topic. The recommended technique is as follows:
Divergent Thinking Phase:
• Distribute “Post-It” notes and pens or markers to all participants. Typically, 10-12 people works best.
• Pose the problem in terms of a “focal question.” Display it in one sentence on a large easel or whiteboard.
• Ask the group to write down responses to the question, using key words that will fit on the small “Post-It” note.
• Stick all the notes on a wall for all to see—treat all ideas the same.
• When a pause follows the initial flow of ideas, the group is reaching the end of their conventional thinking and the new divergent ideas are then likely to emerge.
• End the “collection stage” of the brainstorming after two or three pauses.
Convergent Thinking Phase:
• Ask the participants as a group to rearrange the notes on the wall according to their commonalities or similar concepts. No talking is permitted. Some notes may be moved several times as notes begin to cluster. Copying some notes is permitted to allow ideas to be included in more than one group.
• Select a word or phrase that characterizes each grouping or cluster once all the notes have been arranged.
• Identify any notes that do not easily fit with others and consider them either useless noise or the beginning of an idea that deserves further attention.
• Assess what the group has accomplished in terms of new ideas or concepts identified or new areas
that need more work or further brainstorming.
• Instruct each participant to select one or two areas that deserve the most attention. Tabulate the votes.
• Set the brainstorming group’s priorities based on the voting and decide on the next steps for analysis.
U.S. Government (2009). A Tradecraft Primer: Structured Analytic Techniques for Improving Intelligence Analysis. Retrieved from: https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/books-and-monographs/Tradecraft%20Primer-apr09.pdf