How To Brainstorm: 12 Effective Strategies for Success

Updated February 3, 2023

A person sits pensively at a desk.

Knowing how to brainstorm is a useful skill that helps teams collaborate and develop original ideas in the workplace. Doing this successfully involves preparation, creativity and confidence from everyone involved in the session. Understanding common strategies for idea generation can provide you with the tools to lead productive group brainstorming sessions and come up with great ideas on your own.

In this article, we define brainstorming, explain why it's important and list 12 strategies for effective brainstorming in the workplace.

What is brainstorming?

Brainstorming is a method for thinking of ideas and creating plans through open discussion, usually in a group setting. It encourages free-thinking among participants with the goal of generating as many ideas as possible. Then, the group can build upon and refine these ideas. It often involves multiple methods of sharing thoughts, including drawing, writing and conversation. You can organize a brainstorming session however you want, but here's a list of four basic guidelines to consider:

  • Encourage positive feedback only. Eliminating criticism creates an environment to share thoughts and ideas without fear of judgment or being wrong.

  • Focus on the quantity of ideas. Instead of thinking of one big idea, work toward quantity to come up with as many ideas as possible. The more ideas you share, the higher the chance of finding an idea that's great.

  • Use others' ideas as inspiration. Combining concepts can create new solutions. Evaluate each idea to determine which are workable, innovative and best suited to find the best solution to the goal or problem.

  • Encourage unconventional thinking. Welcoming unconventionality to a brainstorming session promotes an open space for creativity and adds to the number of ideas shared.

Related: 6 Steps for Running an Effective Brainstorming Session

Why is brainstorming important?

Brainstorming encourages people to consider all possibilities and be creative in the workplace. The process lets team members develop the best solution for a problem by listing all options and reviewing their pros and cons. Some of the major benefits of brainstorming include:

  • Improving communication within a team

  • Gathering ideas from multiple perspectives

  • Increasing creativity

  • Building enthusiasm about a project

  • Documenting the planning process

  • Introducing innovative methods

Related: 77 Brainstorming Questions To Generate Team Ideas

How to brainstorm using 12 effective strategies

Follow these strategies to brainstorm effectively:

1. Start with a warm-up exercise

To begin a brainstorming session productively, start with a warm-up exercise. Warming up alone or in a group can help you adjust your mindset to be creative, making it easier for you to think of ideas. By practicing your brainstorming skills in a fun, hypothetical situation for a few minutes, you can be more comfortable sharing actual ideas for a work project.

Warm-ups before a brainstorming session provide you with the opportunity to improvise and generate ideas in a low-stakes context. Word association and improv games can be especially helpful when getting ready to brainstorm. Some warm-up examples include:

  • Coming up with synonyms and antonyms for random words

  • Thinking of alternative uses for objects in the office

  • Telling a run-on story with each person adding a single word or phrase

Related: 18 Creativity Exercises To Improve Creative Thinking at Work

2. Visualize your goal

Stay on topic during your brainstorming session by having a visual representation of your goal. Think about your ideal outcome or purpose, then write it down in a central location, like the center of a whiteboard.

Visualizing the main topic can inspire you and give you ideas to achieve your goal. Your visualization can also remind you of the original point of the conversation, allowing you and others to adjust your focus and remain productive.

Related: How To Run an Online Brainstorming Session in 5 Steps

3. Document the discussion

Documentation is one of the most essential strategies for successful brainstorming. Because brainstorming involves quickly generating multiple ideas, documentation can help you reference them later and analyze the full scope of the discussion.

You can document your brainstorming session by using an audio recorder, taking detailed notes or photographing any visual brainstorming aids, like mind maps or sticky note boards. Write or record every idea during brainstorming, regardless of which ones you ultimately select.

Related: 11 Brainstorming Rules To Ensure a Successful Session

4. Think aloud

Saying your thoughts aloud makes the brainstorming process feel natural and conversational. Thinking aloud can help you feel more comfortable sharing your thoughts before they become fully developed ideas.

Talking out your thoughts with colleagues as you have them can inspire productive conversation and naturally enable others to build on your ideas. Even if you're brainstorming independently, verbalizing your thoughts can make it easier to recognize good ideas and talk through any challenges.

Related: 6 Steps Your Team Can Take for an Effective Brainstorming Process

5. Emphasize variety

During a brainstorming session, focus on listing as many thoughts and ideas as you can. Instead of thinking of a few in-depth ideas, try to produce a variety of simple ideas that you can work on later. Having many ideas from a brainstorming session can provide you with a useful outline for future projects and allow you to recognize which ideas have the most potential.

You can encourage variety by setting a goal for how many ideas you want each person to contribute, then compiling them together. Another strategy you can use is setting a timer and saying or writing as many ideas as you can before the timer goes off. You could also put people together into teams to compete to see which team can generate the most ideas.

Related: 10 Steps for Brainstorming Facilitation

6. Encourage every idea

To encourage creativity and openness while brainstorming, try to find positive aspects of every idea you and your team generate. Even if an idea isn't perfect for a project, look for its potential benefits and other positive attributes.

Being supportive and encouraging to yourself and others can make everyone feel more comfortable sharing their ideas, which is critical for brainstorming success. When brainstorming with a group, give positive affirmations to your team members when they share an idea to encourage additional contributions.

Related: What Is a Brainstorming Exercise? (Plus 15 Exercises To Try)

7. Collaborate instead of criticizing

An important aspect of brainstorming as a group is adding to ideas and working together to improve them. Instead of critiquing ideas, think about ways you can add to them or use them to inspire your own thinking.

Collaborate positively by stating what you liked about the idea. By focusing on collaborating with your coworkers when they share thoughts, you can encourage a creative atmosphere while improving the quality of ideas in the brainstorming session.

8. Ask questions

If you're having trouble thinking of ideas organically, try asking questions to get inspiration. You can ask general questions about the overall goal of the brainstorming session, inquire about specific situations or even use brainstorming prompts to get started.

Another strategy is to ask about why similar projects were successful or how other companies approached related issues. By asking questions, you can encourage open-ended discussion and consider the brainstorming topic from multiple angles.

Related: 5 Steps To Asking Better Questions (Plus Communication Tips)

9. Organize your thoughts

Once you have several ideas, organize and combine them to add structure to the brainstorming session. Charts and color-coding are useful tools for grouping ideas into categories or make connections between different ideas. Organizing your thoughts at the end of a brainstorm can also make it easier to review your notes later and understand the intention behind each idea.

Related: 4 Steps To Organize Meeting Notes (With Tips)

10. Encourage brainwriting

The first ideas people share in a brainstorming session may affect the entire discussion. Brainwriting is a process that plays with your first thoughts and impressions. Participants write their ideas before or at the very beginning of the meeting and then come together to talk about them. Ideally, ideas are anonymous. Ask team members to jot their ideas on sticky notes, put them on a wall and then have everyone vote on their favorites.

Related: 18 Idea Generation Techniques That Don't Include Brainstorming

11. Share inspiration

To foster a constant stream of ideas, create a shared file where everyone can store their random thoughts and inspiration. Ask team members to consider a specific prompt like “promote brand awareness.” A brainstorming file gives members time to think and to find inspiration from others' ideas.

12. Schedule multiple sessions

You can get the most out of your brainstorming efforts by scheduling multiple brainstorming sessions. This gives you time between meetings to do additional research and planning.

The additional time may give you ideas for future sessions, making them more productive. Scheduling multiple brainstorming sessions can also prevent creative burnout and allow you to return to your ideas with a fresh perspective.

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