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What is brainstorming? Methods and best practices

Last updated

27 April 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Eliz Ayaydin

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Sometimes, a great idea for a new product, service, process, or system just occurs to us. It may suddenly pop into our heads at work or after hours. Or it may be triggered by a conversation we have with a colleague, a news article we've read, or a video we've just seen.

Businesses rely on great ideas to develop products and improve the user experience (UX). But not every idea is a winner. Some ideas that seem great at first glance simply aren't feasible the more you think about them. 

Moreover, spontaneous ideas occur inconsistently and are not always captured and shared with decision-makers. A great idea could come to you in the middle of the night, but if you forget to jot it down, you could forget it by morning. Or you might pitch your idea at the wrong time, and financial, market, or internal dynamics might stop your company from pursuing it.

Business leaders can't wait for inspiration to drive new product development or system improvements. Nor can they afford to spend time reviewing every sliver of an idea that someone brings up in a meeting. To make the best use of their time and resources, companies engage in formal brainstorming sessions to generate ideas for new products and improve processes.

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What is brainstorming?

In its simplest form, brainstorming is simply a method used to generate ideas or solve problems. You may remember being introduced to the term as a child in grade school when teachers taught composition. 

In a business context, brainstorming generally involves exercises performed as a group. They can be as straightforward as a group discussion or fairly complex, involving software applications, research, and outside facilitators. 

Group brainstorming sessions often include members from different departments to offer diverse perspectives. In some cases, they may also involve outside stakeholders, such as prospective customers.

Additionally, business brainstorming is often focused on a particular topic or challenge. For example, a team may be tasked with brainstorming ideas for a new product within a certain segment. Or they may be asked to brainstorm ideas about eliminating a bottleneck in a particular production process. Further, such directed brainstorming is time-limited, as group members have other work priorities. 

What are best practices for brainstorming effectively?

Brainstorming is not as simple as it may seem. When you have multiple individuals involved, it's critical to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to participate, that everyone is, in fact, participating, and that everyone is sticking to the central topic. 

It's easy for one or two individuals to monopolize brainstorming sessions, derailing conversations by going on tangents. Depending on the topic or personalities involved, brainstorming sessions can become contentious. Therefore, sessions should be structured to minimize the potential for conflict and ensure that any that arises is handled respectfully.

No matter what brainstorming topic or tactic you choose, you should follow these best practices to increase the likelihood of a productive and fruitful session.

Set clear expectations

If you're pulling together a brainstorming session, you should have a desired outcome in mind. It might be a solution to a design challenge on a new product, or a process improvement that increases productivity in a particular area. Or it could be a more general attempt to generate ideas for possible new products. Whatever your intent, you must be clear about the session's intent at the outset to keep group members on task.

Doing so can be a bit tricky. You want to provide parameters for the discussion in a way that does not constrain ideas. For example, suppose you sell containers and are looking for new products to introduce. In that case, indicating that you're looking for ideas on new containers to sell at a specific price point in a specific region will limit innovative ideas from the start. 

Instead, provide the group with an open-ended problem statement that is light on details. Or share an end goal and the methods you'll use to generate ideas. Also, set a time limit to help your group members stay focused on the task at hand. And make clear to the group members that the purpose is to generate ideas, not assess them.

Prioritize quantity

The best brainstorming sessions leave the group with many possible ideas and solutions that can be explored, tested, and validated later. You want to facilitate a discussion and use techniques that generate the most ideas possible, prioritizing quantity over quality. 

To that end, you'll need to encourage participation from all group members by selecting techniques most likely to stimulate discussion. Keep the personalities and interests of your group members in mind when choosing different tactics. And if people are slow to raise a hand, don't be afraid to call on them.

Discourage criticism

Avoid criticizing ideas that seem farfetched, and keep group members from doing so as well. When you or another group member starts to dissect an idea during a brainstorming session, you'll get fewer ideas because you're limiting potential discussion areas. 

For example, say a person shares a seemingly dubious idea about flying, which triggers a great idea from another person. But if you raise your hand first and shoot down the first person's idea, chances are you'll never hear the great idea the second person was about to raise. Worse yet, other group members may be more hesitant to participate because they don't want their ideas criticized. 

As a group facilitator, cut off criticism of ideas unless such criticism is intrinsically connected to another idea. Remind participants that there will be time devoted to idea screening later and continue to encourage participants to get involved in the conversation. If it continues to be an issue, try having participants write ideas anonymously first so they don’t feel pressured to have the best ideas attached to their names.

Minimize distraction

Today, many professionals struggle to concentrate on one thing at a time. In fact, we're expected to multi-task, juggling competing priorities every minute of every workday. So, if you don't set the stage appropriately for your brainstorming session, you could easily find yourself with lackluster discussion, a shortage of ideas, and a lot of wasted time. 

Be mindful of how long you set up a brainstorming session for because distraction is more likely to creep in the longer the session is.

Establish from the outset that you expect no one to be on their phones or checking their devices during the session. Make sure the room is comfortable, with adequate seating for everyone. Encourage participants to use the bathroom before you start. And discourage other managers and colleagues from interrupting the session by letting them know in advance you need the participants' full attention.

Even tiny distractions can derail everyone's focus. Make sure you create an environment for the session that is as distraction-free as possible.

Encourage creativity

In fact, rather than discouraging far-fetched ideas by criticizing them in session, you want to encourage weird, unlikely, and creative ideas. That's where innovation comes from. This form of creative brainstorming is called blue sky thinking, where there are absolutely no limits, no judgments, and no consequences to where your imagination can take you. 

As you'll see below, there are many great techniques to encourage creative thinking, from freewriting to using visual tools to unique discussion approaches. The best sessions offer participants as much latitude to think creatively as possible within the stated parameters and entourage freewheeling idea generation.

As the facilitator, you should determine your role from the outset. Will you also be generating ideas or just transcribing them on a whiteboard? Sometimes, it's best to refrain from engaging in the idea-generating process. As the facilitator, some group members may see you as an authority figure even if you're all at the same level of employment. And that perceived authority may influence the direction of the conversation in ways that may not be helpful.

But participating can have benefits, especially if you're helping to build connections between the generated ideas. Combining ideas can help facilitate discussion further and help create higher-quality ideas. And if the conversation starts to wane, throwing out an idea or two of your own can help get the discussion going again. 

Is individual brainstorming better than group brainstorming?

Group brainstorming can help you generate a good number of ideas. But sessions can be difficult to manage. No matter how clearly you set expectations, tangents and conflicts can occur. Some people think more creatively alone. And the inherent dynamics of the people you assemble may stifle creativity to some degree.

There are times when individual brainstorming may yield higher-quality results. And you can encourage folks to brainstorm individually to prepare for a group brainstorming session. But when you're engaged in team projects, you'll likely need to indulge in group brainstorming sessions to some degree. And the more group brainstorming you do, the more comfortable your team members will feel doing it, yielding better results over time.

You can incorporate individual brainstorming activities during group brainstorming sessions and then build upon those individual ideas generated in a group format.

What are some common brainstorming approaches?

There are many, many ways to facilitate idea generation in group discussions. What follows is not an exhaustive list but some of the most common approaches businesses use to get their proverbial creative juices flowing.

Brainwriting

You may be familiar with freewriting, an individual brainstorming technique in which you spend a finite amount of time writing freely about a specific topic. During the exercise, you're not looking to craft coherent writing about the topic. Instead, you're writing the first thoughts that pop into your head without regard to convention or structure.

Brainwriting is a similar exercise, though it's designed for groups. Write down the central idea or topic and then pass it around to the team. Give each group member a finite amount of time to write down their thoughts and questions about the topic. When everyone is finished, reflect on the finished product and use it to facilitate discussion about the central topic.

Cubing

A cube has six sides. Accordingly, cubing encourages group members to think about things from six different perspectives. Share the topic with the group and then encourage them to approach it from six different angles. Ask group members to:

  • Analyze the topic

  • Argue for or against it

  • Compare it to other ideas or topics

  • Describe in detail

  • Discuss applications of it in real life

  • Engage in free association about it, where you allow whatever thoughts, words, or images to freely come to your mind

Share the results with group participants and discuss them further to capture additional insights.

Five whys

Here, you'll repeatedly ask the assembled group the question, "Why?" to have an in-depth discussion about the cause of a topic. 

Pose your topic or idea to the group, and ask them a question about it that begins with, "Why." For example, you might ask why consumers want a particular product or why a specific outcome occurred. 

Once you've solicited a good bit of feedback, ask "Why" again. By repeating the ask, you're hoping to get participants involved in a more detailed discussion about the topic, eventually getting to a core purpose or root cause. Solicit feedback again and then repeat the exercise three more times.

Forced relationships

The forced relationships technique encourages participants to make connections between disparate topics. In this relatively straightforward exercise, you'll take two radically different topics and ask the group to share how they’re related. Visually map out these connections on a whiteboard for everyone to see and to help connections become more apparent.

Gap filling

In gap filling, you brainstorm ways to reach the ultimate goal. Start by identifying a current state (or a problem) and the goal of where you want to be (or an ideal outcome). Then ask participants to help you fill in the gap between them, brainstorming possible solutions or actions to get closer to reaching the goal

Group sketching

Using a whiteboard or a large piece of paper you pass around, encourage every group member to sketch ideas related to your topic. Encourage them if the inspiration strikes to add to each other's drawings. 

When everyone has had a turn, pass the finished product around to everyone and start a discussion about what everyone sees. You may find yourself with design ideas you never thought of.

Journalistic questions

In this exercise, your team is asked to consider the standard questions a journalist must incorporate into their article about a topic: who, what, where, when, why, and how. Kick off the discussion by posing a topic, then ask the participants to share their thoughts on each question as it relates to the topic. 

For example, if the topic is about a possible brand refresh, ask the participants questions like:

  • Why would a brand refresh make sense (or not)?

  • Where (locally, regionally, or nationally) might refreshing it make sense?

  • What aspects of the brand should we refresh?

Use the insights gained from their answers to guide your discussion.

Mind mapping

Also known as webbing, this exercise is similar to brainwriting. However, you'll start by listing the key topic in the center of the page and ask people to write their thoughts along lines that extend outward from the center. The diagram may visually resemble a sun. Use different colors, sticky notes, or different types of lines to distinguish the connected ideas from each other.

Similes

Similes are both a figure of speech and a brainstorming technique involving that figure of speech. Challenge group participants to describe their topic in terms of similes. You can also ask them to use similes to describe aspects of your topic. For example, if you're brainstorming about a concept car, you could ask them to finish the statement, "The interior is like…."

FAQs

What are three effective brainstorming techniques?

There are many brainstorming techniques that groups and individuals find effective. The most effective technique for your purposes depends on the specific end goal for your project. However, some of the most common include freewriting, mind mapping, and journalistic questions.

What are the rules of effective brainstorming?

To brainstorm effectively, you'll want to work in a distraction-free environment, set expectations and a time limit at the start of the session, prioritize creativity, and foster a non-judgemental environment where participants don’t criticize the ideas generated during the session.

What are common applications of brainstorming?

Brainstorming techniques are used extensively in new product development and process improvement efforts. Professionals also use brainstorming exercises for other business-related projects, such as writing and brand development. While there are common applications where brainstorming is more regularly used, you can apply it to anything you’d like to generate more ideas around.

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