Brainstorming is the rapid non-judgmental documentation of connected ideas about a particular topic. It’s a powerful productivity tool that can help individuals or team members develop and plan new ideas and projects.
I use brainstorming to expand on ideas for blog posts, articles, fiction stories and work projects. I’ve also witnessed marketing and advertising teams use brainstorming with varying degrees of success.
In this blog post, I explain what brainstorming is, and I offer nine tips for individuals and groups who want to get more from this popular creative technique.
How to Brainstorm
Brainstorming is a simple skill to learn. All you need is a topic, a pen and paper and an inclination to rapidly capture information. The basics steps of a brainstorm are:
Step 1. Write down the main idea or problem
Step 2. Write the goals of the brainstorm
Step 3. Record possible solutions or related ideas
Step 4. Record each idea that emerges even if they are seemingly unrelated – use free-association where possible, the goal is quantity and not quality
Step 5. Use key words and not full sentences
Step 6. Add facts, figures and other useful information
Step 7. Stop after a pre-defined period
Step 8. Review
Now that you’ve to the basics down, here are nine tips to get more from brainstorming sessions.
Before a brainstorm, it’s essential to prepare. Identify the topic and objective of the brainstorm and let others know where and when the session will be held.
This gives people time to consider, research and form their initial ideas. This is particularly important for introverts who need more time to develop an idea in their heads before expressing it in front of others.
2. Consider Your Technique
A mind map is a great brainstorming technique for creative professionals, and it is my preferred method. Tony Buzan gives an engaging insight into how individuals and team members can use mind maps to brainstorm.
In short, complete the brainstorming steps listed in the previous section making sure to use:
- A central image to represent the subject of the brainstorm
- Curved lines to branch secondary ideas out of the primary idea
- One key word per line instead of sentences (I have trouble with this one)
- Pictures and doodles
- Lots of colours
The Ishikawa or fishbone diagram is a useful alternative. It’s a great way of brainstorming problems, and cause and effect.
I use this method when I really want to focus on a particular topic. I also find this method helps me memorise and recall information on a particular topic.
3. There’s No Such Thing as a Bad Idea
The idea of brainstorming is to generate lots of ideas which spark off each other. It doesn’t matter if these ideas are good or bad even downright crazy.
During brainstorming, every idea should be recorded without judgement.
It usually takes a few bad ideas to warm up to a good one. And in group brainstorming sessions, a bad idea may spark a good idea from someone else or draw quieter group members out of their bubble.
4. Use the Right Media
Typically, an individual records a brainstorming session on a large piece of paper, whereas a team records their session on a large whiteboard.
I’ve found A4 to be the best size for brainstorming by myself. Anything smaller feels too restrictive and anything larger isn’t portable enough.
Team brainstorming sessions are rather different, and a whiteboard allows everyone to see their ideas unfold. During a team brainstorming session, one person should record the group’s ideas while others speak.
It’s possible to capture more ideas if individual team members stand up, while someone is talking, and annotate the whiteboard. They can scribble ideas on the whiteboard, use different coloured pens or even affix stickies or Post-its.
This way nothing is lost.
5. Keep it Short
There’s nothing more draining than a brainstorming session that lasts too long. Ideally a brainstorming session shouldn’t last longer than 30 minutes and never more than 60.
Short snappy brainstorming sessions don’t get in the way of actually acting on said ideas.
6. Leave Rank and Status Outside
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos famously said, if you can’t feed a team with two large pizzas, the team is too big.
Team brainstorming sessions shouldn’t involve much more than ten people. And when a team is brainstorming, role, rank and position within an organisation belong outside.
If a manager starts making executive decisions during a brainstorming session, this will dissuade others from opening up.
Similarly, it’s not helpful for one person to dominate a brainstorming session. This inevitably happens in group discussions.
There are some ways to avoid these potential problems:
- Pass around a conch: The idea is that only the person holding the conch can speak; it doesn’t have to be an actual conch, you can use any object.
- Appoint a facilitator: their role is to encourage equal contributions and they don’t necessarily have to be the manager.
- Rotate roles: if you brainstorm a lot, it’s useful to rotate the role of facilitator and recorder so everyone contributes.
7. Use Digital Tools if Needed
There are a number of digital apps that support brainstorming. The better ones include:
If you want to create a digital fishbone diagram, this video shows how:
Personally, I prefer using pen and paper or a large whiteboard to brainstorm. Digital tools slow down the process and they can cause distractions (e.g. email, Twitter etc.).
That said, it’s sometimes necessary to present a brainstorm, and the above tools are good for this.
8. Take a Photo
At the end of a brainstorm, it’s a good idea to take a snapshot of the board with a smartphone and upload it to Evernote or some other archive for future reference.
Alternatively, one person can record the notes using apps like Simplenote or OneNote.
9. Beware the Post-mortem
After a brainstorming session, let the bad ideas fade away. There is no need for an overly negative post-mortem. Finish up by letting everyone go away so suggested ideas can marinate.
If an idea or topic stand outs the following day, expand on this idea, either as an individual or as part of a team, and see if it can be acted upon.
This doesn’t mean keeping and sending around minutes that everyone signs off on. It simply means that quality ideas are acted upon.
Other suggested tips include: having a beer beforehand (unless you’re working!) and taking the brainstorming session off-site.