What is brainstorming?
Brainstorming is an informal way to generate new ideas for a specific problem. Participants share thoughts as they have them in an uninterrupted session without worrying about whether or not the idea is practical. You share everything that comes to mind. When the session is over, you look at the ideas and decide which ones are best to pursue.
Benefits of brainstorming
The success of brainstorming can vary depending on who’s involved and what you’re trying to solve. But brainstorming offers some general benefits, including:
- Different viewpoints: With multiple people involved, you hear many different viewpoints instead of just one.
- Inspiration: Sharing in a group lets employees build upon each other’s ideas. Hearing different viewpoints can inspire new thoughts.
- Teamwork: Another benefit of brainstorming together is encouraging teamwork. This can transfer to other activities and projects.
- Change in routines: Brainstorming breaks the team out of their normal work activities, which can encourage more creative thinking and help motivate your employees.
- Free thinking: Since brainstorming encourages people to share anything that comes to mind, these sessions inspire free thinking and creativity. Learning to think in this way can be beneficial in future projects.
- Fast idea generation: When you brainstorm, you come up with a large number of ideas very quickly. Having multiple people involved and building off each other helps with this.
- Sense of involvement: Inviting employees to participate in brainstorming can help them feel like valuable team members, and it can encourage them to buy into the idea when you carry it out.
When to use a brainstorming session
A brainstorming session isn’t ideal for every situation, but there are many times when generating lots of ideas is beneficial. Use brainstorming when you want an engaging, actionable meeting that’s efficient and effective.
Times to use brainstorming include:
- You’re stuck and can’t think of any viable solutions.
- It’s time for fresh ideas.
- There isn’t one clear solution for a problem.
- You want a creative solution.
- A wide range of options is ideal.
- You want the entire team involved in the solution.
- You have some ideas, but you think they could be better developed with input from others.
- You’re starting a new project.
Brainstorming ideas for your team
If your current brainstorming sessions are coming up short, try new brainstorming ideas to help motivate your team to get creative. The following brainstorming strategies and tips go beyond simply sharing your ideas in a group setting. They use unique formats to spark creative thinking and inspire enthusiasm for working together.
Focus on questions instead of answers
A brainstorm session often focuses on answers or solutions for a single question. Switch the focus initially to brainstorming questions about the problem to look at the issue from different angles. It can put less pressure on participants since they’re not taxed with solving an entire problem during the session. As your team generates these questions, it can inspire creativity and different thought processes.
During the question brainstorming session, keep the discussion on questions. If someone tries to give a suggestion or answer someone else’s question, redirect them to asking questions during this session.
Go back through the questions after the session to find common threads. Look for queries that stand out as helpful in finding a solution. Once you choose a few questions to pursue, create an action plan to dig deeper into those paths.
Try a new location
Moving to a new location for your brainstorming session can inspire creativity. If you hold brainstorming sessions in the conference room or the same environment you’re used to having team meetings, you can get stuck in the same thought patterns.
Look for a new location in the office for brainstorming sessions. If the conference room is the only option, try rearranging the seats or standing instead of sitting. Move outdoors, or choose an off-site location, such as a coffee shop with a room you can reserve.
Write it down
If participants are hesitant to share aloud initially or you’re short on time, have everyone write as many ideas as possible in a set amount of time. Encourage them to write down anything that comes to mind. Then, give them another minute or two to evaluate their ideas and choose the two best ideas. Each person shares those top two ideas to add to the group whiteboard. Collect the original papers as well in case someone had a good solution they didn’t share.
A different writing activity starts with everyone writing whatever comes to mind for a few minutes. When the timer rings, each person passes their paper to a different participant. Everyone reads the previous person’s thoughts and adds their own, building off what is already written. Continue passing the papers and adding to them until everyone adds to each piece of paper. Then, share the ideas that come from them. You can use the same concept with drawings instead of written text if visual brainstorming is a better fit.
Think from a new perspective
If you’re looking for out-of-the-box ideas, encourage people to think from a famous person’s perspective. It could be someone highly creative, a leader in your industry or a person who’s decisive. You can even choose a fictional character with or without superpowers to add a fun twist and encourage creativity.
Have participants think about the situation as if they were that person. Think of it as a “What would X do?” activity. If participants are nervous to share their ideas, this can make it less about them, which can make them feel more comfortable.
Instead of coming up with solutions for your end goal, think of ways to sabotage your success. Challenge the participants to think of things they’d do to stop the team from achieving the goal. This might seem counterproductive, but it can help you spot roadblocks that are keeping you from succeeding. It can clarify what you need to do to achieve the goal.
This popular brainstorming technique helps you dig deeper to find the root of a problem. You start with your problem or issue and ask why it’s a problem. When you come up with an answer, ask why to that statement. Continue asking why five times to figure out what’s holding you back with the situation.
Draw a road map visual with the starting point as your current state or the problem you’re addressing. The end destination is your goal. Think about the steps it takes to get to that goal. It’s sometimes easier to start at the goal and work back from there. Consider what the step just before achieving the goal is. Then, contemplate what comes right before that. Continue working back to create a step-by-step road map, and branch off from there to brainstorm how you can achieve those steps.
If you want to have your team think creatively about the situation, try a “what if” brainstorming session. You start with your actual situation or problem, but you add different “what if” modifiers that change the situation. You can make the “what ifs” as practical or as wacky as you want.
Here are some examples:
- What if kids were solving this problem?
- What if we had to work with a competitor on this problem?
- What if we couldn’t use any digital tools for this situation?
- What if this problem happened 50 years ago?
- What if we had $10 million to put toward this problem?
These “what if” scenarios can help your team break out of their usual thought processes. Being stuck in those run-of-the-mill solutions can get in the way of coming up with more creative responses that could work. You might not have $10 million to use on this problem, but it eliminates the constraints of money that might be keeping employees from sharing an idea they think is too expensive.
Round robin session
Arrange the participants in a circle and start the session as you normally would. Instead of letting everyone share their ideas randomly, start with one person, who shares a single idea. Move around the circle, allowing each person to share one idea. This ensures everyone has a chance to speak up, not just the ones with the loudest voices.
When everyone shares in one large session, you can fall into the group-think trap, or people might be afraid to speak up because someone else has already mentioned a similar idea. With the stepladder approach, you bring in one new person at a time and give them a chance to share their ideas before you have a group discussion.
Start by explaining the situation to the entire group. Then, everyone leaves the room except two people. They brainstorm on the situation for a set amount of time. One more person enters the room and shares their thoughts before the first two participants say anything, and then they can share their ideas. This continues with one more person joining each time and sharing thoughts before the whole team convenes.
FAQs about brainstorming sessions
How do you start a brainstorming session?
Have a clear meeting agenda for the brainstorming session. Let the participants know the plan before they arrive so they’re in the right mindset to brainstorm. Set the ground rules for the brainstorming session. This includes uninterrupted sharing, no criticizing of ideas, coming up with as many ideas as possible and staying focused. Once you set the expectations, present the problem simply. If you’re using a specific brainstorming strategy, explain how it works. Set a time limit and start brainstorming.
How do you evaluate brainstorming ideas?
During the brainstorming session, the goal is to generate as many ideas as possible without worrying about how good they are. At the end of the session, eliminate the suggestions that clearly won’t work and duplicate or similar ideas. Create a shortlist of the remaining solutions with the most potential. Consider factors such as feasibility, best match for the problem, cost, time to complete and chances of success.
How do you run a brainstorming session remotely?
Use a videoconferencing platform that your team knows how to use. This allows you to see all participants and talk in real time just as you would in a conference room. Assign key roles, including the facilitator, timekeeper and recorder. Just like you do with an in-person brainstorming session, set the ground rules and briefly explain the problem before starting the virtual session. Using online whiteboards and other collaboration tools can help you visually share and organize ideas. You can also find digital brainstorming tools, such as online mind mapping sites, that everyone can use to collect ideas.