Brainstorming is a popular tool that helps you generate creative solutions to a problem.
It is particularly useful when you want to break out of stale, established patterns of thinking, so that you can develop new ways of looking at things. It also helps you overcome many of the issues that can make group problem-solving a sterile and unsatisfactory process.
Used with your team, it helps you bring the diverse experience of all team members into play during problem solving. This increases the richness of ideas explored, meaning that you can find better solutions to the problems you face.
It can also help you get buy in from team members for the solution chosen – after all, they were involved in developing it. What’s more, because brainstorming is fun, it helps team members bond with one-another as they solve problems in a positive, rewarding environment.
Why Use Brainstorming?
Conventional group problem-solving can be fraught with problems.
Confident, "big-ego" participants can drown out and intimidate
quieter group members. Less confident participants can be too scared
of ridicule to share their ideas freely. Others may feel pressurized to
conform with the group view, or are held back by an excessive respect
for authority. As such, group problem-solving is often ineffective and
By contrast, brainstorming provides a freewheeling environment in
which everyone is encouraged to participate. Quirky ideas are welcomed,
and many of the issues of group problem-solving are overcome.
All participants are asked to contribute fully and fairly, liberating people
to develop a rich array of creative solutions to the problems they're facing.
What Is Brainstorming?
Brainstorming combines a relaxed, informal approach to problem-solving with lateral thinking. It asks that people come up with ideas and thoughts that can at first seem to be a bit crazy. The idea here is that some of these ideas can be crafted into original, creative solutions to the problem you're trying to solve, while others can spark still more ideas. This approach aims to get people unstuck, by "jolting" them out of their normal ways of thinking.
During brainstorming sessions there should therefore be no criticism of ideas: You are trying to open up possibilities and break down wrong assumptions about the limits of the problem. Judgments and analysis at this stage stunt idea generation. Ideas should only be evaluated at the end of the brainstorming session – this is the time to explore solutions further using conventional approaches.
While group brainstorming is often more effective at generating ideas than normal group problem-solving, study after study has shown that when individuals brainstorm on their own, they come up with more ideas (and often better quality ideas) than groups of people who brainstorm together.
Partly this occurs because, in groups, people aren’t always strict in following the rules of brainstorming, and bad group behaviors creep in. Mostly, though, this occurs because people are paying so much attention to other people’s ideas that they're not generating ideas of their own – or they're forgetting these ideas while they wait for their turn to speak. This is called "blocking".
When you brainstorm on your own, you'll tend to produce a wider range of ideas than with group brainstorming – you do not have to worry about other people's egos or opinions, and can therefore be more freely creative. For example, you might find that an idea you’d be hesitant to bring up in a group session develops into something quite special when you explore it with individual brainstorming. Nor do you have to wait for others to stop speaking before you contribute your own ideas.
You may not, however, develop ideas as fully when you brainstorm on your own, as you do not have the wider experience of other members of a group to help you.
When it works, group brainstorming can be very effective for bringing the full experience and creativity of all members of the group to bear on an issue. When individual group members get stuck with an idea, another member's creativity and experience can take the idea to the next stage. Group brainstorming can therefore develop ideas in more depth than individual brainstorming.
Another advantage of group brainstorming is that it helps everyone involved to feel that they’ve contributed to the end solution, and it reminds people that other people have creative ideas to offer. What’s more, brainstorming is fun, and it can be great for team-building!
Brainstorming in a group can be risky for individuals. Valuable but strange suggestions may appear stupid at first sight. Because of this, you need to chair sessions tightly so that ideas are not crushed, and so that the usual issues with group problem-solving don’t stifle creativity.
How to Use the Tool:
You can often get the best results by combining individual and group brainstorming, and by managing the process carefully and according to the "rules" below. That way, you get people to focus on the issue without interruption (this comes from having everyone in a dedicated group meeting), you maximize the number of ideas you can generate, and you get that great feeling of team bonding that comes with a well-run brainstorming session!
To run a group brainstorming session effectively, do the following:
Find a comfortable meeting environment, and set it up ready for the session.
Appoint one person to record the ideas that come from the session. These should be noted in a format than everyone can see and refer to. Depending on the approach you want to use, you may want to record ideas on flip charts, whiteboards, or computers with data projectors.
If people aren’t already used to working together, consider using an appropriate warm-up exercise or ice-breaker.
Define the problem you want solved clearly, and lay out any criteria to be met. Make it clear that that the objective of the meeting is to generate as many ideas as possible.
Give people plenty of time on their own at the start of the session to generate as many ideas as possible.
Ask people to give their ideas, making sure that you give everyone a fair opportunity to contribute.
Encourage people to develop other people's ideas, or to use other ideas to create new ones.
Encourage an enthusiastic, uncritical attitude among members of the group. Try to get everyone to contribute and develop ideas, including the quietest members of the group.
Ensure that no one criticizes or evaluates ideas during the session. Criticism introduces an element of risk for group members when putting forward an idea. This stifles creativity and cripples the free running nature of a good brainstorming session.
Let people have fun brainstorming. Encourage them to come up with as many ideas as possible, from solidly practical ones to wildly impractical ones. Welcome creativity!
Ensure that no train of thought is followed for too long. Make sure that you generate a sufficient number of different ideas, as well as exploring individual ideas in detail.
In a long session, take plenty of breaks so that people can continue to concentrate.
Where possible, participants in the brainstorming process should come from as wide a range of disciplines as possible. This brings a broad range of experience to the session and helps to make it more creative. However, don’t make the group too big – as with other types of teamwork, groups of between 5 and 7 people are often most effective.
Brainstorming is a useful way of generating radical solutions to problems, just as long as it's managed well. During the brainstorming process there is no criticism of ideas, and free rein is given to people's creativity (criticism and judgment cramp creativity.)
This tends to make group brainstorming sessions enjoyable experiences, which are great for bringing team members together. Using brainstorming also helps people commit to solutions, because they have participated in the development of these solutions.
The best approach to brainstorming combines individual and group brainstorming. Group brainstorming needs formal rules for it to work smoothly.