Brainstorming Techniques

See also: Innovation Skills

Our page on Creative Thinking Techniques explains that brainstorming is based on the idea that to have just one good idea, you need to have lots of ideas. Many of these ideas will not be very good—but there might just be one gem amongst the dross. The real question is how to go about generating all those ideas. There are many different ways to brainstorm, and also many ways to derail a brainstorming session.

This page discusses some of the possible brainstorming techniques that you might like to try. As with any creative thinking technique, the key with all of them is just to experiment with an open mind. You might get nothing—but you might just be surprised by the results.

Potential Problems in Brainstorming Sessions

It may be helpful to start by discussing some of the issues that can derail a brainstorming session. These include:

  • Lack of balance, with one or two people dominating the discussion;

  • ‘Early mover’ advantage, where groups focus on one or two of the first ideas mentioned, and don’t explore the issue more widely; and

  • Lack of engagement, where participants are unprepared or unwilling to engage and the meeting dries up.

The techniques described on this page are designed to avoid these problems. However, it is also important to have someone designated as facilitator of the session. They will focus on the process of the meeting (how it is running), rather than the subject matter.

There is more about this in our page on Facilitation Skills.

Starting on the same page

In any brainstorming session, it is important to be clear about the topic and purpose of the session.

Remember that not everyone will read papers or notes in advance. It is therefore worth spending a few minutes at the start of the session outlining the problem or issue that you are there to discuss, and making sure that everyone is clear.

Techniques for Brainstorming

1. Brainwriting

In this session, everyone starts by generating their own ideas, and each set of ideas is then built on by the rest of the group in turn.

Everyone is given a piece of paper and a pen. Without further discussion, they are asked to write down three ideas that relate to the topic of the brainstorm. This should take about five minutes.

Everyone then passes their paper to the person on their left (or right, whichever you choose). Again without further discussion, each person then builds on their neighbour’s ideas. They might break them down into sub-options, or add some implementation ideas.

Build up, don’t break down!

In this step, it is important to ask people to focus on building up the ideas, NOT breaking them down. This is NOT about criticising and saying what would make the idea hard to achieve. Instead, they have to think about how any difficulties could be overcome and the idea made to work.

This process goes on until the papers have made it right round the table and back to their originator. At this point, the group has all seen all the ideas, and they can then start to discuss them.

When to use this technique:

This is a very good option when you know that you have an unbalanced group, and it may be harder for some people to contribute effectively. This might happen where you have people from different levels of the hierarchy, or one person who tends to be very vocal, especially if they are critical of other people’s ideas. It allows everyone to contribute ideas, although you do still have to be careful during the discussion session to ensure that one or two people don’t dominate.

One way to get round this is for the project leader to simply take all the papers away and look at all the ideas and annotations. They can then synthesise them, and bring the most workable back for further discussion at a later date. This gives a bit more control to the project leader, which may or may not be desirable.

Brainwriting vs brainwalking

An alternative to brainwriting is brainwalking. Here, all the pieces of paper are stuck on the wall, and the people rotate around them, rather than passing the paper. The two techniques work in very similar ways.

Brainwalking may be particularly useful when your session is just after lunch, or if your participants seem a bit sleepy. Moving around will wake everyone up a bit, and is likely to get them thinking more.

2. Rapid-fire idea generation

In this session, the group is given a set time to generate as many ideas as possible.

It is important to keep the time short to provide a sense of urgency, and stop people thinking too much about the ideas before they mention them.

You can either ask people to shout out ideas and scribble them down on a whiteboard or flipchart, or you can give everyone a piece of paper to write down their own ideas. Both have advantages and disadvantages:

  • Shouting out allows one or two people to dominate. However, you often find that once people get the hang of the session, everyone starts to join in. It may therefore be a good idea to do this in several rounds, or have a ‘practice round’ first, about something silly.

  • Writing things down means that everyone generates ideas, but it also allows people to discard their ideas and not mention them to the group. You therefore need a way to gather the ideas that does not allow anyone to filter the ideas.

There are two essentials for this session.

First, you must make clear that there is ‘no idea too stupid’. Every idea should be mentioned, if only because ‘to have one good idea, you need to have lots of ideas’.

Second, there should be no discussion of the ideas as you go. Only new ideas should be provided, although some may build on previous suggestions.

When to use this approach:

This is the ideal option when you have a group that tends to be overly critical and get stuck on the first idea. However, you may have to be very firm about the ‘no discussion’ rule, especially in a big group where one or two people may start to critique ideas amongst themselves. It can also be a helpful way of making sure that everyone contributes, especially if you use the written option. This technique also prevents people from rejecting their own idea before anyone else has a chance to consider it.

3. Figure storming

In this session, the group considers how a famous person would approach this problem by asking “What would X do?”.

You can do this once or several times, with different famous people. The people you (or the group) choose can be living or dead, and may well have no connection with you or the problem. However, it may work best if you use someone who is an expert in the field, or who has a particular point of view.

The point is to put yourselves in someone else’s shoes, and think how they might approach the issue.

This sounds a bit mad. However, it works in two ways. First, it is a bit like role-play in that it is very liberating to be able to put ideas forward as if they were from someone else. Second, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes means that you tend to approach the problem differently, because you are thinking about their perspective, not yours.

When to use this approach:

This approach works best when you are getting a bit stuck in your thinking, and you want people to approach the issue from a different angle. However, it also works well if people may be embarrassed to put forward their ideas, because it may be easier to propose them as ‘I think X might suggest this…’.

4. Building images

In this session, you use people’s ‘mind pictures’ to generate ideas for new and enhanced products or services.

Start by asking everyone to set the intention for the session in their minds: for example, to improve a particular product. They should then visualise the current product.

Once everyone is holding a clear picture of it in their mind (and if necessary, you can show a picture of the product), then ask them to improve it (also in their minds), on the image. They should visualise new features, colours or styles, and develop a picture of their ‘ideal’ product.

Next, ask one person chosen at random to describe their new ‘ideal’ product. Write down the embellishments. Alternatively, if you are good at drawing, draw the new product on a flipchart or amend the picture on screen.

Everyone then takes that new product and adds more new ideas, features and styles.

Over time, this will give you lots of ideas for new features and styles—and should also give you a feel for what people like and don’t like in the product.

When to use this approach:

This works best when you want to innovate incrementally: to improve on what you have already got, rather than to start again with something completely new.

5. Online brainstorming

In this session, the idea generation is done online, using shared documents and collaboration software. It is best if it takes place over several days, to allow some thinking time in between contributions.

For this session, you should use collaboration software like Slack, or even something as simple as a shared Google document. You put the issue at the top (or centre) of the document, and allow everyone to contribute ideas and comments over a period of a few days or a week. Again, focus on building up ideas, rather than breaking them down, and encourage everyone to be as creative as possible.

When to use this approach:

This is the ideal option when you have a team that is largely remote, or working in different time zones. It can also be helpful when you have people who tend to dominate a discussion, because everyone can write or add ideas. It therefore allows everyone to contribute over time, including seeing each other’s contributions and adding to them. You can even make the discussion anonymous if the group is a bit unbalanced.

6. Going round the room

In this session, you go round the room with everyone contributing an idea in turn.

There are two main rules:

  • Nobody can say ‘X already gave my idea’. Everyone has to come up with something new; and
  • You have to go round the room at least once before anyone is allowed a ‘second go’, or to critique or discuss any of the ideas.

When to use this approach:

This approach is best ONLY used when the group is comfortable with each other, everyone has plenty of time to prepare, and nobody will be embarrassed speaking out in front of the whole group. It is one way to ensure that everyone’s ideas are heard, but it can feel a bit like you are putting people on the spot. It may therefore backfire if the group is not comfortable with it. It is a good idea to tell people what you have planned in advance so that they can prepare several ideas, and will also know what to expect when they arrive.

7. Starbursting

In this session, the group focuses on six specific questions related to the challenge.

Generally speaking, starbursting is used when the group has already generated a potential idea, and needs to think through some of the issues around it. Starting with the idea, the group discusses six questions in turn: who, what, where, when, why and how?

This is a structured way to think through implementation issues. Its main advantage is that the group is thinking together, rather than one person being responsible for how the idea will be delivered.

When to use this approach:

This approach is best used when the group has generated a potential solution, and needs to think about how it might be implemented.

8. Quadrant storming

This approach takes several of the previous ideas and brings them together. It can therefore be quite a long process, but valuable.

On a piece of paper or a flipchart, write the challenge in the centre. Around it, in four quadrants, write the headings: Solution, Role, Nutshell and Assumption.

  • Solution is all the possible ideas that might solve your problem.

  • Role is the answer to the question ‘what would X do?’, based on figure storming.

  • Nutshell is one word that would describe your problem or issue (hint: different people may come up with different one-word answers).

  • Assumption is the assumptions that may underlie your thinking.

Populate all these boxes using some of the techniques described on this page. Now the fun really starts. Take one item from one quadrant, and pair it with an item from another—and then generate some new ideas based on this combination. How might the two together change your thinking and provide a solution?

A variation: Idea combinations

You don’t have to use the four quadrants to use the idea of combining.

You can, for example, start by simply brainstorming ideas using one or more of the techniques on this page. Once you have a long list, you can then combine them, two at a time, and see where that takes you. A grid structure will help you to ensure that you have considered all the possible combinations—but this will probably not be necessary if all you want is to get some creative thinking going.

When to use this approach:

This approach is best used when you have plenty of time to explore a problem in depth. It is most likely to be useful as a guide across a whole day of brainstorming, rather than a half-hour meeting.

9. Bubble brainstorming

This approach builds on ideas in a structured and visual way.

Bubble brainstorm example.

Start by drawing nine ‘bubbles’ on a piece of paper: one in the middle and eight around it. Put your challenge in the central bubble.

Now brainstorm eight ideas around it (if you have eight or less people in the room, this could be a good time to try the ‘round the room’ technique, to ensure that everyone has the chance to contribute an idea).

Next, take one of your eight ideas, and place it in the centre of a new set of nine bubbles. Generate another eight ideas around that new idea. Keep going, until you have explored all your eight ideas, and then some of the subsequent ideas that seem worth pursuing.

When to use this approach:

This approach is particularly good when you have a group that tends to jump on the first idea, and not expand it any further. It forces the group to take its thinking further on each idea, recognising that the first thought is very seldom the best. However, it also takes quite a long time to do it thoroughly, so it is best used in a longer session.

10. Five Whys

This approach has emerged from root cause analysis as a way of thinking more deeply about a problem.

From a statement of the problem, ask ‘Why?’. As a group, get a clear answer to that first ‘why’, and then ask ‘Why?’ again. Repeat this until you have asked ‘why?’ five times, by which time, you should have a strong understanding of the root cause of your problem.

This will then enable you to start identifying possible solutions from a much stronger viewpoint.

When to use this approach:

This approach is a powerful way to get to the bottom of a problem. It can be a helpful start to thinking about big intractable problems, because it encourages you not to take any statement at face value.

One Final Tip for Brainstorming Sessions

Finally, what should you do if your brainstorming sessions all feel a bit tired and same-y, despite using different techniques?

Answer: Mix it up in lots of different ways.

Change the personnel. Invite some new people to get involved. Bring in people from other parts of your organisation. Get your customers or your suppliers involved. This will bring in new ideas from elsewhere, and shake up your thinking a bit.

Second, go somewhere else. There is a reason why executives go on awaydays—and it’s not just to have a jolly in a nice hotel. It’s because when you’re in a different environment, your thinking changes. However, you don’t need to go off to a smart hotel for the day. Instead, go to the park or a local café. Go for a bus or train ride together, or just go to a different room in the same building, with a different view. Have your meeting at a different time of day (though make sure it’s convenient for everyone first).

Third, try doing something new and different before brainstorming. Go out for a walk together, or, if you’re feeling ambitious, a scavenger hunt. Challenge each other to get to the venue in the most imaginative way, or have a race using different forms of transport. This will help to jolt your brains out of any ruts in your thinking.

It is much harder to think in new and creative ways if you are surrounded by routine and constancy. Adding new elements will give you a headstart.