Brainstorming has gained a foothold across a wide array of disciplines, industries, and work setups. (It’s remote friendly, too!) However, many people have a limited view of the process, not realizing there’s more than one way to do it.
Broadly, brainstorming tasks an individual, or more commonly a group, with working toward a conclusion or solution for a problem by tossing different ideas into the ring. More succinctly, brainstorming is a creative idea-generating process.
Curious to learn how to elevate your next brainstorming session? Continue reading to discover the origins of this idea-generating method, plus techniques on how to more effectively lead or participate in a brainstorming session.
The origin story of brainstorming
The concept of brainstorming dates back to 1953, when Alex F. Osborn (an ad executive now referred to as the “father of brainstorming”) published a book called Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Thinking. In it, Osborn outlined his brainstorming process along with illustrations and success stories pulled from his hugely successful advertising agency. Osborn’s brainstorming technique emphasizes quantity over quality, the encouragement of unconventional ideas, the safety of a judgment-free zone, and the ability to build on each other’s ideas.
Ever since, brainstorming has taken hold in the corporate zeitgeist with the introduction of new guidelines and techniques.
The many benefits of brainstorming
The advantages of brainstorming go beyond just finding a solution to a problem. Structured yet spontaneous group collaboration can benefit workers in a variety of ways.
- It inspires creativity.
Brainstorming can spark creativity when team members riff on and help shape each other’s ideas. In fact, research suggests that when two not-so-creative individuals work together on a creative problem, their cooperation with one another enhances creative performance.
- It can be used as a teaching-learning tool.
Research shows that brainstorming is an effective teaching—and learning—tool. Participants in one study found that brainstorming was a helpful technique for postgraduate medical biochemistry students to understand new concepts, even combatting the “drawbacks of traditional teaching.”
- It fosters team building.
According to a 2017 study, team members report higher levels of satisfaction not just in the act of brainstorming itself, but in the convergence stage (when they narrow down a large number of ideas to a handful of the best ones).
- It provides a judgment-free environment for idea generation.
Remember those aforementioned brainstorming guidelines Osborn presented in his book? He believed that for successful brainstorming to occur, the session had to be void of evaluation or judgment, with the knowledge that quantity outweighs quality—at least in the beginning. In fact, research suggests brainstorming session ideas tend to improve once everyone gets warmed up. Plus, working as a team can help employees feel more secure, supported, and willing to take more risks.
Helpful guidelines for successful brainstorming sessions
One of the keys to an effective brainstorming session is to get everyone involved. But there’s plenty of other components that contribute to great idea generation as well.
Before you host your next ideation session, take note of these helpful suggestions.
- Send out the problem(s) and expectations beforehand.
Before you meet, consider sending everyone a brief description of the problem they’ll be brainstorming solutions for. On that same note, you can also prep everyone for a productive session by refreshing them on the goals of the brainstorm, plus the type of brainstorming the meeting will entail.
- Bring together a diverse group.
We all have different perspectives and lived experiences. So why not take advantage of varying viewpoints and backgrounds? As dictated by your end goal, that can mean assembling individuals of differing ages, genders, or nationalities. Or, depending on what you brainstorm, it may be a good idea to invite colleagues from different departments, too. Once you have your team assembled, remind everyone to remain open to different experiences and ideas.
- Give people time to develop ideas alone.
Some people prefer when they get to ideate on their own first. By making space for individual and group ideation, you can help participants focus, flesh out several completely different trains of thought, and benefit from getting all hands on deck once you come together as a group to build on the initial ideas.
- Provide a place to draw or sketch.
If you conduct an in-person brainstorming session, you may want to use a communal smartboard or dry-erase board so team members can sketch out ideas and have the flexibility to erase them. Alternatively, you can take a more old-school approach with a large easel pad.
- Allow everyone to chime in.
Encourage everyone to voice their ideas—even if an idea isn’t fully developed yet. Equally as important, remind everyone to stay positive and supportive. Rather than knock down or dismiss an idea, treat every thought with equal respect.
- Record every idea.
In the same vein, jotting down every idea demonstrates to the team that all viewpoints are welcome and valuable. Plus, you never know which ideas will make their way past the cutting room floor when it’s time to evaluate.
Proven brainstorming techniques
To spark creativity and enter your next brainstorming session with a plan, consider trying one of these proven idea-generating techniques.
- The 6-3-5 method
This brainstorming technique requires a team of six people. Each team member receives a sheet of paper with a three-by-six table and writes down three ideas across the top row. After three minutes, the participants pass the sheets of paper clockwise before writing down three more new ideas inspired by the existing row of ideas. The passing of the idea sheets continues five times until all the rows contain ideas.
- Mind mapping
Though there are several distinct methods under the mind-mapping umbrella, this technique always starts with a graphical representation of information. Brainstormers organize ideas with a central image (a title or main idea) with subsequent ideas branching off and even more ideas stemming from the branches.
This brainstorming method is built on the premise of identity swapping. The goal is for team members to feel more comfortable and creative by stepping into someone else’s shoes and brainstorming as if they were the person assigned to them. Often, taking new roles and responsibilities (even hypothetically) can spur new ideas.
- Round robin
Though brainstorming was founded on teamwork, taking a round-robin approach allows people to come up with ideas without being directly influenced by another person in the room. To start, each team member writes down initial ideas on a card without discussing them with the group. And then, just like the 6-3-5 method (but minus the three-by-six table), everyone passes their idea card to the person next to them who will use those ideas as inspiration. At the end, a facilitator will eliminate any duplicate ideas before discussing and narrowing down the top contenders.
- Reverse brainstorming
Reverse brainstorming flips the traditional brainstorm on its head. Rather than ideate solutions to a problem out of the gate, team members ideate ways they could cause or exacerbate that problem. Once the team brainstorms all the ways they could create the posed problem, they work together to reverse the ideas into potential solutions.
Tips for executing brainstorming sessions remotely
Your brainstorm doesn’t have to—and shouldn’t!—go the way of the dodo just because your team members work remotely. In fact, with a few simple considerations, you can conduct successful brainstorms without congregating in the same conference room. Keep these tips in mind before scheduling your next remote brainstorming session.
- Turn cameras off when you’re coming up with ideas.
A 2021 study suggests that videoconferencing—or, more specifically, staring at faces on a screen—narrows people’s focus and curbs their creativity during the brainstorming process. So once everyone joins a virtual brainstorming session and you’ve ironed out the details, it may be a good idea to ask everyone to turn off their cameras.
- Turn cameras on when evaluating the ideas.
The researchers who conducted the study mentioned above found that while seeing other faces on a screen can hinder focus and creativity while coming up with initial ideas, staring at team members’ faces can actually help people focus when deciding which solutions to pursue. For that reason, it may be best to turn cameras back on when it comes time to assess everyone’s ideas.
- Use digital tools that make brainstorming easier.
When brainstorming from all over the country or globe, a simple shared document—like a Google Doc or Google Sheet—can help remote team members collaborate more effectively. Being able to make edits or contribute new ideas in real time removes any hindrance physical distance may initially present.
Brainstorming is not only a creative way to break up the workday, but it’s also an important strategic tool for companies to conjure up novel ideas and new approaches for conducting business. Keep these guidelines and techniques in mind to find what works best for you and your team. Just remember that each problem you bring to a brainstorming session may benefit from a different process.