The Brainstorming Guide

Updated on: 23 September 2023 | 20 min read
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Introduction to Brainstorming

Have you ever encountered a challenge that felt impossible to overcome, dreamt of starting a business from the ground up, wanted to create a solid plan, launch a product, or hoped to write a memorable story? And the good news is that within you, right now, lies the key to unlocking solutions, innovations, and narratives that can transcend boundaries.

Your secret weapon? Brainstorming.

Brainstorming can help you solve problems, start businesses, make plans, or create stories successfully. But here’s the issue: many people don’t know how to brainstorm effectively, whether they’re doing it alone or with others.

Sometimes, people waste a lot of time thinking of repeated and uninteresting ideas that won’t actually work. They believe they’re brainstorming, but they’re not doing it effectively.

What if you could learn the best way to brainstorm and start coming up with really powerful and profitable ideas quickly?

Keep reading to find out how to make the most of brainstorming.

Definition of Brainstorming

We’ll start off with the basics.

Brainstorming is a creative problem-solving technique that involves generating a large number of ideas or solutions to a particular issue or challenge.

It typically takes place in a group setting, although it can also be done individually. The primary goal of brainstorming is to encourage free thinking and idea generation without immediate criticism or evaluation.

Brainstorming is a valuable tool for generating creative solutions, fostering teamwork, and encouraging innovative thinking. It can be applied to a wide range of contexts, from business strategy and product development to creative writing and problem-solving in everyday life.

Brief History of Brainstorming

If you are interested in learning how brainstorming came to be, here’s a brief history of brainstorming.

Brainstorming was first developed by advertising executive Alex Osborn in the late 1930s. Osborn was seeking ways to improve the creative thinking and idea generation process within his advertising agency, and he formalized the brainstorming method in his book titled “Applied Imagination” in 1953.

Origins in Advertising

Alex Osborn coined the term “brainstorming” to describe a structured approach to idea generation. He believed that traditional meetings often stifled creativity, so he introduced brainstorming as a way to encourage free thinking and open collaboration.

Modern Approaches

In response to some of the limitations of traditional brainstorming, modern variations and techniques have emerged. These include techniques such as mind mapping, brainwriting, and online brainstorming tools, which aim to boost creativity and idea generation in different ways.

Four Rules of Brainstorming

Osborn also established four fundamental rules to guide effective brainstorming sessions. These rules are designed to pave the way for a creative and open-minded atmosphere favorable for idea generation. The four rules of brainstorming are:

  1. No criticism: During a brainstorming session, participants are explicitly instructed to withhold criticism, judgment, or negative feedback of any kind. The aim is to create a safe and non-threatening environment where everyone feels comfortable sharing their ideas, no matter how unconventional or seemingly impractical they may be.
  2. Quantity over quality: Participants are encouraged to generate as many ideas as possible within the allotted time frame. The emphasis is on quantity rather than quality in the initial stages of brainstorming. This rule encourages participants to think freely and prevents them from censoring themselves or holding back potentially valuable ideas.
  3. Build on ideas: Brainstorming sessions thrive on collaboration and the interplay of ideas. Participants are encouraged to build on one another’s suggestions. This means that when someone presents an idea, others should try to expand, modify, or combine it with their own contributions to create new and improved concepts.
  4. Encourage wild ideas: “Wild” or unconventional ideas are actively welcomed and encouraged in brainstorming. These unusual or seemingly far-fetched ideas can often serve as catalysts for innovative thinking. They may inspire more practical solutions or lead to unique insights.

What are the Benefits of Brainstorming?

Brainstorming offers a range of benefits in various personal, professional, and creative contexts. Some of the key advantages of brainstorming include:

  • Idea generation: Brainstorming is a structured approach to generating a large number of ideas in a relatively short time. This is especially valuable when you need creative solutions, innovative concepts, or fresh perspectives.
  • Promote creativity: It promotes creative thinking by encouraging participants to think outside the box, explore unconventional ideas, and break free from mental constraints and self-censorship.
  • Explore multiple perspectives: Brainstorming sessions often involve multiple participants with different backgrounds, expertise, and viewpoints. This diversity can lead to a broader range of ideas and solutions.
  • Foster collaboration: Brainstorming sessions often involve group participation, fostering collaboration and teamwork. Participants can build on each other’s ideas, leading to the development of more refined concepts.
  • Identify effective solutions: It is an effective tool for problem-solving. Brainstorming can help identify potential solutions to challenges, enabling better decision-making.
  • Inspire innovation: Brainstorming often leads to the generation of innovative and novel ideas, which can be valuable in fields such as product development, marketing, and research.
  • Effective meetings: When conducted efficiently, brainstorming can lead to more productive and focused meetings, reducing the likelihood of unproductive discussions and tangents.
  • Time efficiency: Brainstorming can lead to quicker problem-solving and idea generation compared to individual or unstructured approaches.
  • Adaptability: It can be applied to a wide range of situations, from brainstorming in business to personal decision-making.

Important Brainstorming Factors to Keep in Mind

Despite its benefits, it’s important to note that brainstorming may not always be the most effective method in every scenario. It works best when guided by established principles and adapted to suit the specific needs and goals of a particular project or challenge.

  • Group dynamics: Brainstorming may not work well in groups where there is a lack of trust, or where dominant personalities overshadow others. In such cases, alternative methods like individual ideation followed by group evaluation might be more effective.
  • Time constraints: If time is limited, traditional brainstorming sessions can be lengthy. In such cases, rapid brainstorming techniques like “brainwriting” may be more time-efficient.
  • Complex problems: For highly complex issues, brainstorming alone may not be enough. It might need to be supplemented with other problem-solving techniques, research, or expert consultation.
  • Sensitive topics: Some topics may be too sensitive or controversial for traditional brainstorming, as the “no criticism” rule can hinder necessary discussions. In such cases, a more structured and moderated approach may be better.
  • Overused technique: If a group frequently relies on brainstorming without variation, it can become less effective due to repetitive thinking. Mixing in different creative techniques can help maintain its effectiveness.
  • Large groups: With too many participants, managing a brainstorming session can become unwieldy. Smaller breakout groups or online collaboration tools may be needed to facilitate effective idea generation.
  • Clear goals: Brainstorming should always have a clear objective. If the purpose is ill-defined or ambiguous, it can lead to unfocused sessions and ineffective outcomes.

Different Types of Brainstorming

Based on the participants' involvement and the approach used to generate ideas, brainstorming can be divided into different types.

Individual Brainstorming

This involves a single person generating ideas on their own, often in a quiet and reflective setting. It’s suitable for personal projects, introspective thinking, or when group collaboration is impractical.

Group Brainstorming

Group brainstorming involves a team of people coming together to collectively generate ideas. It’s a collaborative approach that benefits from diverse perspectives and is often used in professional settings. Learn more about group brainstorming with our guide to effective group brainstorming strategies.

Analytical Brainstorming

In analytical brainstorming, participants focus on critically evaluating and analyzing existing ideas or problems. The aim is to break down complex issues and generate solutions through systematic analysis.

Quiet Brainstorming

Quiet brainstorming emphasizes a calm and focused environment, ideal for introverted individuals or those who work best in solitude. It allows for deep thinking without the pressure of vocalizing ideas.

Role Play Brainstorming

Participants take on different roles or personas to approach a problem from various perspectives. This technique encourages empathy and creative thinking by viewing the issue through different lenses.

What to Do Before a Brainstorming Session

Preparing for a successful brainstorming session is the first crucial step toward unlocking creativity and innovative solutions. Whether you’re tackling a complex problem, generating fresh ideas, or planning your next project, careful preparation will set the stage for productive collaboration and meaningful outcomes.

Select the right participants

Choose participants carefully based on their expertise, knowledge, and relevance to the topic. Ensure diversity in perspectives if possible, as different viewpoints can lead to richer discussions.

Schedule and communicate

Set a date, time, and location for the session, and communicate this information to all participants well in advance. If it’s conducted online, make sure to send an email invitation with the meeting link prior to the session. Ensure that everyone knows the session’s purpose and what is expected of them.

Provide background information

Share relevant information, data, or research materials with participants ahead of time. This allows participants to come prepared and have a better understanding of the topic or problem.

Prepare materials

Make sure that you have all the necessary materials ready, such as whiteboards, flip charts, markers, sticky notes, or digital tools. This makes it easier to capture and organize ideas during the session.

Assign a facilitator or moderator

If possible, appoint a facilitator or moderator who can guide the session, keep it on track, and enforce the ground rules. This person can also help manage time and encourage participation.

Refreshments and comfort

Depending on the duration of the session, provide refreshments and ensure a comfortable environment. Hungry or uncomfortable participants may not be as engaged or creative.

Backup plan

Have a backup plan in case technical issues arise or if the brainstorming session encounters unexpected challenges. Being prepared for contingencies can prevent disruptions.

Review previous sessions

If this is not the first brainstorming session on the topic, review the outcomes of previous sessions to build on existing ideas and avoid duplication.

How to Run a Productive Brainstorming Session

Define clear objectives

Clearly articulate the purpose and goals of the brainstorming session. What specific problem are you trying to solve, or what ideas are you seeking to generate? Having a well-defined objective makes sure that the session remains focused.

Set the ground rules

Establish clear ground rules for the brainstorming session. Remind participants of the principles, such as no criticism during idea generation, encouraging wild ideas, and focusing on quantity over quality.

Set a time limit

Determine the duration of the brainstorming session and allocate specific time slots for each stage (ideation, discussion, evaluation, etc.). Adhering to a schedule helps maintain focus and productivity.

Warm-up activity

Consider starting the session with a warm-up activity or icebreaker to help participants get into a creative mindset and build rapport with each other.

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Decide on a brainstorming technique

If you prefer a more structured brainstorming approach, you can select a brainstorming technique such as mind mapping, 5 whys, reverse brainstorming, etc. to guide the idea generation process. You can also use sticky notes to write down ideas first and an affinity diagram to group them later based on themes.

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Generate ideas

Encourage participants (whether individual or group) to generate a wide range of ideas without self-censorship. Emphasize that all ideas are welcome, no matter how unconventional they may seem.

Capture ideas

Record and document all ideas as they are generated. Use tools like whiteboards, sticky notes, or digital platforms to display and organize the ideas.

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Build on ideas

After initial idea generation, invite participants to expand, refine, or combine each other’s ideas. This collaborative process can lead to innovative solutions.

Organize and prioritize

Categorize and group related ideas to identify common themes or patterns. Discuss and evaluate the ideas based on relevant criteria to prioritize the most promising ones.

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Idea Prioritization Grid

You can use a prioritization grid to visually evaluate the ideas based on relevant criteria such as feasibility, impact, and relevance to prioritize the most promising ones.

Select the best ideas

Choose the ideas or solutions that align best with your objectives or criteria. Encourage participants to vote on ideas they prefer and you can select ones with the most votes. These are the concepts you will further develop or implement.

Action planning

Create an action plan that outlines specific steps, responsibilities, and timelines for implementing or exploring the selected ideas.

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Document everything

Keep a comprehensive record of all generated ideas, even those not immediately selected. These can serve as a valuable resource for future brainstorming or reference.

Feedback and iteration

Seek feedback from others if applicable, and be open to refining and iterating on your ideas based on input and new insights.

Brainstorming Methods and Templates

Brainstorming methods are valuable tools for individuals and groups seeking to tap into their collective creativity and explore new possibilities. From structured processes like mind mapping and SWOT analysis to more unconventional methods like the 5 Whys and negative brainstorming, these techniques provide a structured framework to inspire fresh thinking and uncover innovative solutions.

  1. Mind mapping: Creating a visual representation of ideas by branching out from a central concept with related sub-ideas, helping to uncover connections and associations.
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  1. Brainwriting: Participants silently write down their ideas on paper or digital platforms, passing them to others for further development or evaluation.
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  1. Round Robin Brainstorming: In a group, each member takes turns suggesting one idea until everyone has contributed, often fostering more equitable participation.
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  1. Reverse Brainstorming: Identifying ways to create or exacerbate a problem, which can lead to innovative solutions when these negative scenarios are reversed.
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  1. SCAMPER: An acronym for Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to Another Use, Eliminate, and Reverse, used to prompt creative thinking by altering existing ideas.
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  1. Storyboarding: Creating a visual narrative of a process, idea, or concept using drawings, images, or sketches to aid in brainstorming and idea development.
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  1. Roles Storming: Participants take on different roles or personas to explore a problem or idea from various perspectives.

  2. SWOT Analysis: Evaluating strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats related to a topic to generate ideas for improvement or growth.

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  1. Random Word Association: Using randomly generated words or images as prompts to trigger creative thinking and idea generation.
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  1. Card Sorting: Organizing ideas or concepts on physical or digital cards, then rearranging and categorizing them to identify patterns or solutions.
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  1. Stepladder Technique: Introducing new members to an ongoing brainstorming group one at a time, allowing fresh perspectives and ideas to emerge gradually.

  2. Six Thinking Hats: Participants wear metaphorical “hats” representing different thinking styles (e.g., creative, critical, optimistic) to explore a topic from multiple angles.

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  1. Lotus Blossom Technique: Expanding on a central idea by creating a diagram with multiple interconnected sub-ideas, allowing for in-depth exploration.
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  1. Starbursting: Ask and answer questions (who, what, where, when, why, how) about a central idea to gain insights and generate new ideas.
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  1. Rapid Ideation: Quickly generate a large quantity of ideas without overthinking, with the understanding that evaluation comes later.
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  1. Plus-Delta Method (Delta+): Assess past experiences by identifying positives (pluses) and areas for improvement (deltas) to learn and make future improvements.
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  1. Fishbone Diagram (Ishikawa): Visualize and analyze potential causes of a problem using a branching diagram.
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  1. Affinity Diagram: Organize large amounts of data or ideas into related categories or themes to identify patterns and insights.
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Common Brainstorming Mistakes to Avoid

Brainstorming is a valuable tool for generating creative ideas and solutions, but it can be less effective if certain common mistakes are not addressed. Here are some common brainstorming mistakes to avoid:

  • Criticism and evaluation: One of the cardinal rules of brainstorming is to defer criticism and judgment during the idea generation phase. Critiquing ideas as they are presented can stifle creativity and make participants hesitant to share. Avoid evaluating or criticizing ideas until the brainstorming session is over.
  • Dominance: Allowing one or a few individuals to dominate the discussion can lead to an imbalance of ideas. Ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute, and encourage quieter participants to speak up.
  • Groupthink: Groupthink occurs when participants conform to a consensus or the opinions of a dominant person within the group. It can limit the diversity of ideas. Encourage participants to think independently and express dissenting viewpoints.
  • Lack of structure: While brainstorming should be free-flowing, it still benefits from some structure. Without clear guidelines or a well-defined problem statement, brainstorming sessions can become disorganized and unfocused.
  • No follow-up: Brainstorming without follow-up actions can result in a lack of accountability and implementation. Ensure that ideas generated in the session are documented, evaluated, and assigned to responsible parties for further action.
  • Overthinking: Overthinking and overanalyzing ideas too early in the process can inhibit creativity. Encourage participants to let their thoughts flow freely without worrying about feasibility or practicality at the beginning.
  • Staying in the comfort zone: Participants may stick with familiar or safe ideas instead of exploring new or unconventional ones. Encourage thinking outside the box and exploring diverse perspectives.
  • Not mixing techniques: Relying solely on one brainstorming technique for all situations may not yield the best results. Experiment with different techniques and approaches depending on the goals and nature of the problem.
  • Skipping warm-up activities: Jumping straight into brainstorming without warm-up activities or icebreakers can hinder creativity. Warm-up exercises can help participants get into a creative mindset.

Brainstorming Tips

Whether you’re working individually or in a group, here are some effective brainstorming tips to help you create a conducive environment for creativity, encourage diverse perspectives, and improve the quality of ideas generated.

  • Set clear objectives: Clearly define the problem, challenge, or goal that the brainstorming session aims to address. A well-defined objective provides participants with a clear focus and purpose for generating ideas.
  • Create a comfortable environment: Ensure the physical environment is comfortable, with ample seating, appropriate lighting, and minimal distractions. Additionally, create a psychologically safe space where participants feel comfortable sharing their ideas without fear of criticism.
  • Defer judgment: Emphasize that during the initial idea generation phase, criticism and evaluation should be avoided. This encourages participants to freely express their thoughts without self-censorship.
  • Build upon ideas: Encourage participants to listen actively and build on each other’s ideas. Collaboration and idea development can lead to more refined and creative concepts.
  • Use visual aids: Utilize visual tools such as whiteboards, sticky notes, or digital collaboration platforms to help participants organize ideas visually and stimulate creative thinking.
  • Silent brainstorming: Incorporate silent brainstorming sessions where participants write down their ideas individually before sharing them with the group. This approach can be particularly helpful for introverted participants.
  • Change perspectives: Encourage participants to explore the problem or idea from different angles or viewpoints. This can trigger fresh insights and solutions.
  • Mindful listening: Promote active and attentive listening during idea sharing. This means allowing others to express their ideas without interruption and acknowledging their contributions.
  • Combine and modify ideas: Explore how combining or modifying ideas can lead to entirely new and innovative solutions. Encourage participants to think about how different concepts can complement each other.
  • Rotate facilitators: If conducting multiple brainstorming sessions, consider rotating the role of the facilitator. Different facilitators can bring diverse leadership styles and approaches to each session, leading to varied outcomes.
  • Celebrate successes: Recognize and celebrate the achievements resulting from successful brainstorming sessions. Acknowledging contributions and successes fosters a culture of innovation and encourages continued creative thinking.

Effective Tips and Tricks to Running Successful Brainstorming Workshops

You can use these tips to improve your brainstorming workshop’s creativity, engagement, and overall effectiveness.

  • Have a diverse facilitation team: Assign a co-facilitator or subject matter expert to help the primary facilitator. This allows for different perspectives and expertise to guide the workshop effectively.
  • Use idea generation techniques: Try different structured idea generation techniques beyond standard brainstorming, such as mind mapping, SWOT analysis, or the Six Thinking Hats method, to generate multiple ideas.
  • Rotate facilitators: If the workshop is lengthy, consider rotating the facilitator role during different phases. This helps to maintain participants' engagement and provide fresh perspectives.
  • Use breakout groups: Split participants into smaller breakout groups to work on specific aspects of the problem or to generate ideas independently. Afterward, bring these groups together to share and analyze what they brainstormed.
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  • Try cross-pollination: Encourage participants from different teams or departments to collaborate, fostering cross-functional thinking and innovation.
  • Use silent brainstorming: Silent brainstorming is a technique where participants write down their ideas independently before sharing. This minimizes groupthink and helps generate a wide range of ideas.
  • Try role play and simulation: Include role-playing or simulation exercises relevant to the workshop’s theme to encourage creativity and empathy in problem-solving.
  • Use physical props: Introduce physical props, visual aids, or prototypes related to the topic to stimulate ideas and inspire innovative solutions.
  • Form expert panels: Invite experts or guest speakers to share insights or provide different perspectives during the workshop, inspiring participants with fresh viewpoints.
  • Have storytelling sessions: Hold storytelling sessions where participants share personal or relevant stories related to the topic. This can evoke emotions and lead to more creative thinking.
  • Use gaming elements: Include gamification elements, such as team challenges or problem-solving games, to make the workshop more engaging and competitive. Here’s how to make virtual brainstorming fun and effective.
  • Have feedback loops: Build in periodic feedback loops where participants can reflect on the workshop’s progress and suggest adjustments to the process.
  • Use visual documentation: Use visual recording techniques (e.g. graphic facilitation or sketchnoting) to visually capture the workshop’s key points and ideas, creating a dynamic record.
  • End with a creative exercise: Wrap up the workshop with a creative exercise or activity that helps participants to unwind and reflect on the day’s accomplishments, reinforcing the creative mindset.

In this guide, we have covered everything about brainstorming, from what it is to how to do it well. We explored methods, gave tips, and pointed out common mistakes to avoid. Whether you’re a business leader, team member, or just interested in brainstorming, this guide has given you the knowledge and tools to succeed.

Remember, brainstorming is not just a process; it’s a way of thinking that encourages open discussion and creative problem-solving. By using the principles and practices mentioned here, you can tap into the full potential of brainstorming to generate creative ideas and find innovative solutions for your personal and professional challenges.

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Amanda Athuraliya Communications Specialist

Amanda Athuraliya is the communication specialist/content writer at Creately, online diagramming and collaboration tool. She is an avid reader, a budding writer and a passionate researcher who loves to write about all kinds of topics.

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