What is Brainstorming?

What is Brainstorming?

Brainstorming is a term used to describe the process or technique of finding solutions to problems, often by gathering ideas and lists within a group environment and in a spontaneous manner. ‘Brainstorming’ as a term was coined by an American advertising executive and author Alex Faickney Osborn in his 1942 book How to Think Up. In an in depth analysis of this creative technique, he claims that the two most important principles for ideative efficacy are:

  • Deferral of judgement
  • Quantity of ideas

These two components are a great starting point, and essentially most of the lessons we talk about in this article can be traced back to either one of these fundamental pieces.

Because brainstorming is basically coming up with ideas to find solutions, it is a process we do everyday. We are always solving problems and moving between conflict and resolution - often without even thinking about it. When it’s used more consciously, and curated into a workshop scenario, it becomes part of the ideation process or can be labelled part of design thinking. Brainstorming often takes an informal approach to idea generation, through a relaxed atmosphere and a non-linear way of framing or thinking. Wild ideas should not only be welcomed, but encouraged, as this helps to re-jig ingrained patterns of thinking, as well as inspire others to think up new ideas they might not have had otherwise.

The purpose is to create a free-thinking environment, and there are many ways to manage and construct this kind of setting for the best possible results. There is often a facilitator to keep things on track and focused, which allows the participants to freely move as laterally as possible in their heads. As Brendan Boyle notes in the video below, the creative process consists of divergent thinking (how wide you go to find insight and new ideas) and convergent thinking (how narrow you go to refine ideas and find an answer). While we are taught in every form of education to hone our skills in convergent thinking, it is actually divergent thinking which leads to the best, most radical ideas.

This focus on divergent thinking also relates to a methodology developed by MIT’s Hal Gregerson which proposes that we should, “focus on questions, not answers, for breakthrough insights.” Gregerson came to this conclusion after testing the approach with hundreds of organizations where he set up small groups, set the clock for four minutes and asked that only questions be contributed. He found that this approach helped to combat the stifling of voices, and reframe the initial problem being explored in the first place. This way of thinking is essentially ‘a process for recasting problems in valuable new ways’ and opens up new avenues to push through any blockage a team might be experiencing. He also noted that organizations who regularly used this method were able to create a stronger work culture of truth seeking and problem solving within the collective team.

Why Brainstorm?

The purpose of brainstorming is to generate ideas and become more innovative in the process. Because innovation is one of the most important components of running a healthy and successful business, it is vital that the ideation process isn’t rushed or overlooked.

The very definition of innovation is coming up with something ‘new.’ Idea generation can be a daunting task if you spend too much time thinking about it, that’s why brainstorming is such a useful tool for getting things flowing. Moving out of our comfort zones and into unchartered territory can be scary, but it's wholly necessary to achieving great heights. Aiming for quantity, not quality, will lead to an abundance of choice and a freedom to contribute without becoming overly precious about one idea.

Like anything, brainstorming takes practice and gets stronger the more the muscle is worked. But the benefits are worth the effort; doing it regularly will help the ideation process by generating ideas quickly and in large amounts, this will then help everyone involved to feel less stuck and envision/expand portfolio alternatives for the company. It will also greatly affect your teams collaboration and communication, and this in turn will foster enthusiasm within the organization. As MIT Health Care Technology innovator Rober Langer once said, “When you’re a student, you’re judged by how well you answer questions. But in life, you’re judged by how good your questions are.”

Tips and Steps for Group Brainstorming

Group brainstorming sessions (vs singular) are the most common, because ideas often need to be bounced off a metaphorical wall in order to make sense or be received. It also widens the pool of ideas being generated. Group sessions can take place face-to-face, as well as online which is the most common experience right now. Pondr’s anonymity feature also eliminates bias in the ideation process, which can be a powerful tool for making sure every voice is being heard and utilised.

When curating a brainstorm session, keep these three steps in mind:

Step 1 - Preparations for the Brainstorm Session

  • Choose the amount of people wisely; don’t go too large, instead bring together around 5-7 people.
  • Have a diverse team; consider who to invite - having participants from a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds will offer a wider cross-section of lived experience and knowledge to add to the table. Too many like-minded people will only foster a mon-vision.
  • Appoint a facilitator; there must be a leader who can not only record the ideas during the session, but keep everyone focused and on track. Recording ideas could mean post-it notes on a drawing board, whiteboards or writing on a projector where everyone can see. These visual tactics help keep participants engaged.
  • Set a time limit; before you begin, set a time constraint. This totally depends on the person running the session, but it is generally normal to go from 15 minutes to 1 hour.

Step 2 - Staying in Control of the Brainstorm Session

  • Begin with outlining the brief; this is the most important part, so everyone knows what they are brainstorming about and keeps everyone on the same page. Lay out the criteria and what you hope to achieve out of the session.
  • Be aware of the synergy of the group; in any group scenario, there will be the introverts and extroverts, those that shy away from wanting to contribute and those that dominate the conversation. Make sure there is a facilitator who is responsible for making sure everyone is being heard.
  • Stick to the topic/problem; it is important to make space for divergent thinking, but straying too far from the nucleus defeats the purpose. Allow ideas to flow freely in any direction, but find time to keep circling back to your core. You can do this by sticking to one conversation, or refocusing the conversation when things get sidetracked.
  • Ensure there is a judgement free atmosphere; participants will be much more likely to contribute, no matter how rough or wild the idea, if they feel free from judgement. All ideas can be refined later, so don’t crush any ideas as it will stifle the atmosphere. The point is to generate as many ideas as possible.
  • Expand the idea pool; once everyone has shared their ideas or questions, get participants to generate new thoughts and questions based on the new contributions. This building block method will create more abundance of thought.
  • Foster a ‘fun’ environment; creativity will flourish if you remove heavy tones. Keep things light and non-expectant!
  • Take breaks; if the session is a lengthy one, make sure you are taking regular breaks so as to avoid burnout.

Step 3 - Reflecting on the Brainstorm Session

  • Looking at the pool; this is where the sifting and sorting process takes place, where you can decide which ideas have legs or not. This is where the judgement and practical thinking can come into play. This is where you can use more conventional approaches to exploring solutions.

Tips for Individual Brainstorming

While group brainstorming sessions are the most common, individual brainstorming can be just as powerful. Many find it a positive to be on their own, free from others opinions or egos, or their own self conscious doubt. You do run the risk of allowing your mind to run in circles without having someone else to test ideas out on, but there are a few ways to combat this, or rather mimic what a group session can offer.

  • Word storming; this is where you begin with a word, and then write down as many words that come to mind when you think of that word. You can then look at all the words as whole, and this grouping effect can reveal if an idea is trying to come through.
  • Word associations; similar to the above, however the words do not have to relate to one another. This is where you really get to ‘sketch’ and turn off the analytical side of your brain, and feel free with your unconscious meanderings. This can also be done with images instead of words, and is called visual association.
  • The what-if game; ask yourself a simple question: what if, and filling in the blank with anything that comes to mind. This is a common literary technique writers use when mapping out a story from a blank canvas.
  • Mind mapping; this is a more organizational technique, but it always helps to have everything visually laid out around a central theme. Allow yourself to explore every and any branch that may be related to the core.
  • Questions; as we’ve covered up above, ask questions. Don’t attempt to find answers, but rather raise more questions to an already existing question. You will be surprised what will be revealed to you through this technique.
  • Limitations; strike a balance between freedom and constraint. This goes for both individual and group sessions. It is a strange phenomenon, but one that really works: boundaries help creativity flourish.

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