For The Love of Brainstorming

Brainstorming works

 Ideas matter more than ever.  Every organization is looking for them. Ideas on how to grow, better connect with customers, improve operations, engage employees, develop new marketing concepts, invent new products - the list is as endless as are the types of ideas that can be manifested. Ideas are the result of tapping into our inner creative ability (and we all have it, not just creatives, artists, right-brainers or other stereotypes of the kind of people that can come up with many good ideas). Ideas are the building blocks that help companies get to the next steps and develop innovative solutions and solve challenges.


Brainstorming is still one of the most effective ways to generate ideas.


Brainstorming has been the typical approach for how to generate ideas. Yet, it has been bashed and has flowed in and out of vogue ever since Osborn developed methods for creative problem solving in his classic book Applied Imagination (1953).


Most people don’t know how to brainstorm.


Don’t blame the concept of brainstorming; the issue with not getting the results you want out of a brainstorming session is often a lack of understanding on how to run an effective session. When done well, we can guarantee that you can generate hundreds of ideas in a few hours. Are they all good? Absolutely not. But when those hundreds of ideas are distilled into common themes and further stretched into what is not only possible, but can be commercialized, you’ll find the diamonds. 


It takes time and planning.


What is ineffective is gathering a random set of people (or your go-to favorites), hustle them into a room with a whiteboard and ask them to think of new ideas. Effective brainstorming needs a plan and the plan needs to have the following:

1.     A clear objective.

2.     A diverse set of individuals.

3.     Tools and exercises.

4.     Time to prepare, moderate and analyze the output from the session.


Creativity & The Brain

Recent studies by neuroscientists, suggest that the left brain/right brain distinction does not provide us with the full or real picture of how creativity is manifested in the brain (The structure of creative cognition in the human brain.  July 2013, Department of Neurosurgery, University of New Mexico). The entire creative process taps into a wide range of cognitive processes (including your conscious and unconscious) as well as your emotions. The process of creating ideas comes from your entire brain.


Include a diverse set of people to participate.


What this means is that when planning for a brainstorming session, it is important to plan ahead on who will be invited to join. Since we are all wired differently and have different life experiences, this rich diversity of thought is critical in helping generate diverse ideas. If you only include the same type of people in your sessions, you will just keep getting the same types of ideas. Diversity of thought and experience is very important. You want to include artists and engineers, millennials and older generation, introverts and extroverts, and varying tenure within the organization. 


Planning & Facilitating

 Now that you have your people, what will you do with them? Having a good plan with the right set of tools is just as important in generating ideas as are the people who will attend. 


Have a clear objective.


Do not make this a spontaneous event. Start by having a clear objective.  Everyone should know and understand what problem they are solving.  Construct your objective in the following manner:  “We are generating ideas to ____________.”  And the more specific the better.  For example, “We are generating ideas to increase revenue” will not be as effective as, “We are generating ideas to increase revenue from our new product line in the xyz segment.” The ideas generated will be sharper given the target is better defined.

 Define your objective days if not weeks in advance.  This is the foundational building block for your brainstorm.  Once you have your objective and you know who will be there, you can start planning the various types of exercises to generate the ideas.


Establish ground rules.


Review these ground rules at the beginning of the session and don’t hesitate to remind anyone during the session if they break them:

  • Encourage wild ideas.

  • Encourage building on each other’s ideas.

  • Don’t judge. Be aware of using language that shuts down other people, such as the use of the word, “but”, or phrases like, “we’ve tried that before”, etc.

  • Stay focused on the objective.

  • Have fun!


Quantity leads to quality.


With a diverse set of individuals, you will need to employ a variety of tools to help generate the ideas.  You can search on the internet and find all kinds of tools to use in the process.  Some of our favorites include spider charting and picture stimulus to help the brain make connections and new leaps of association.  Have all these tools and stimulus aids defined, printed or gathered, and set up in the room before the team arrives.

 Spider Chart:

  • Break out into groups of 3 to 4 people and have them stationed at a white-board or large easel pad.

  • Have one word written in the middle of the page. Everyone will build off this word by writing another word that they think of or associate with the main word. Everyone can continue this simultaneously either off the center word or any new words written. Every new word should spark new ideas and the chart keeps growing.

  • Finally have each person write out their best or favorite ideas on a separate sheet of paper that is turned into the facilitator.

Picture Stimulus:

  • Rip out dozens of pictures from magazines. Have a wide variety of pictures. What they are is not as important as the need to have a very diverse set of photos. The pictures don’t have to be related to the objective or the organization in any way. They are there simply for stimulus purposes.

  • Each person picks 2 to 3 pictures they love the best (whatever they want).

  • In groups of 3 to 5, everyone can share their photos and the teams can engage in free-association with words that come to mind when viewing each picture. Then the group talks about ideas that those words spark.

  • Ideas are written out by each person and shared with the facilitator.


Once you begin, the focus is on quantity, not perfection.  Each exercise should take about 15 to 20 minutes.  It’s a fast pace, and most people will complain that they didn’t have enough time.  That’s OK – keep them moving.  They will have more opportunities to get their ideas generated.  The important part is that after each exercise, have everyone take the time to actually write out, on their own, each of their ideas.  Give them another 5 to do this. Have them capture each idea as clearly as possible – one per page (large post it notes work great for this).  If you don’t do this, then you just wasted time trying to decipher the scribbles everyone puts on the sheet.


Bring it all together by converging the ideas and possibly building upon them.


Now it’s time to work with the ideas gathered and distill the data into the smaller set of really good ideas. Take all the ideas, then:

  • Discard the duplicates

  • Consolidate the ideas that are similar

  • Look for common themes and see if they can be further developed

  • See if two or more ideas can be brought together to form a bigger idea or concept

Depending on the objective, the ideas can then be elevated and better defined by filtering them through parameters such as time to develop, required financial or other resources to bring to life, or their perceived uniqueness. Again, these ideas are the building blocks to help form more well developed concepts through research and additional thinking.


It takes practice.


Effective brainstorming that leads to many high quality ideas takes a bit of work to do well. If you are new to developing and facilitating brainstorming efforts, like with any skill, the more you do it, the better you will get. Try not to facilitate and participate at the same time. Having someone assist you during the session can be very helpful. Start easy or have a practice run with friendly co-workers that are willing to play and learn along with you. Try out as many different exercises as you can. It will only get better and the results will amaze you. Have fun out there!