Brainstorming techniques, ideas & rules for group brainstorming

A comprehensive resource to help you become a strong brainstorming session facilitator. Includes brainstorming techniques, ideas, and rules to go by.

Brainstorming techniques, ideas, cases cover

Brainstorming is one of the most popular ideation techniques. In this guide, we will learn why brainstorming is important, how to run an effective brainstorming session, and when not to use brainstorming. We will also learn how this method can be used in remote and collocated product development teams. Read on if you want to become a skilled brainstorming facilitator and set the stage for creative and bold projects to get started.

Quick navigation:

  1. Definitions
  2. Rules
  3. Techniques, activities, and templates
  4. Cases
  5. FAQs


Anna has written about experience design, product development, and workshop facilitation. She has been working in distributed teams for three years, and she is passionate about helping these teams to succeed.

1

Definitions

What is brainstorming?

Brainstorming is a creative problem solving technique where you gather a group to generate a list of spontaneous ideas to find a solution for a specific issue. Though individual brainstorming is possible, a brainstorming with groups of people is far more effective. It’s a team activity where people are able to think more freely and suggest as many spontaneous new ideas as possible.

Brainstorming is ubiquitous, especially in product teams. It is an essential part of kicking off a project. One brainstorm synonym is “ideating,” and in Spotify’s methodology, this stage is called “Think It” (followed by “Build It”, “Ship It”, and “Tweak It”).

Who invented brainstorming?

It’s hard to know who exactly invented the technique, but the term was popularized by advertising executive and BBDO co-founder Alex Faickney Osborn in the 1953 book Applied Imagination. He advocated for free-form group brainstorming, saying, “It is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one.”

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2

Rules

In this section, we’ll go over the rules of brainstorming, and talk about some best practices for helping groups develop ideas.

How do you get ready for a brainstorming session?

Invite people with different mindsets and personalities. When you are planning to run a brainstorming session, this is a great way to ensure you’re avoiding groupthink and having far more productive and effective conversations. Jennifer Martin, Founder of Zest Business Consulting, says to invite into the brainstorming group, “people from other departments, and varying levels, completely unrelated to the problem at hand. Someone who doesn’t always understand the problem or what isn’t possible can suggest something that everyone else wrote off as impossible or stupid.”

Define the timeframe and send out the supporting materials and expectations in advance. Think of it like a race. Sure, all the action happens between the starting pistol and the finish line. But it’s the prep work that can make all the difference.

Adam Schnitzler, Chief Creative Officer of The S3 Agency, suggests: “Give the team the brief at least a day before your brainstorm. Most problem solving is done by the unconscious mind, which needs sleep and time to do its thing.” When participants arrive with ideas already percolating, you get more out of the meeting and see engagement rise.

Assign a leading role. The value that a good facilitator brings to the table for a brainstorming session cannot be underestimated. A good facilitator should be able to help brainstorming participants express their ideas, so attentiveness and good listening skills are a must. The facilitator also should give quieter people a chance to contribute and prevent participants from interrupting each other. So, try giving one of your colleagues with strong facilitator skills the opportunity to lead the meeting.

How to facilitate a brainstorming session?

Use an icebreaker. If you are the one facilitating the session, start by making sure everyone feels ready for a creative exercise. An icebreaker is an exercise or game designed to casually introduce members of a team to each other and warm up the group for the session. Ice breakers are especially beneficial for remote teams, when team members don’t know each other well or haven’t met in person.

Prepare a shared space. What is the biggest benefit of brainstorming? It is face-to-face interaction. To make sure the session runs smoothly, prepare stickies, pens, nametags, etc for each participant.

Time-box everything. In order to keep the session to the allotted time, it’s important to time-box all activities. If you’ve done the prep work to create all the workspaces and prep them for the activities the team would be doing, it is really easy to say, “Here’s the challenge, here’s the format. Let’s brainstorm—I’m turning on the timer.”

3

Techniques, activities, and templates

What are some successful brainstorming methods? We gathered some of the most popular and effective brainstorming techniques that have worked well for facilitators.

Mind mapping

Mind mapping is one of the best ways to organize your thoughts and allows categorical idea generation. A mind map is a diagram that connects information around a central subject. For product development or problem-solving, the teams will rely on charts or a branch-like structure to plug in and categorize their ideas.

If you work on a remote team, try using an online mind mapping tool from Miro. Everyone on the team can contribute, make changes, and see any updates. All the changes are saved in real time. No need to take pictures of your office whiteboard and send them via email or search for a sticky note somewhere on the floor!


Brainwriting

The main advantage of brainwriting is to ensure that even the quietest participants share their ideas. This exercise can be easily adapted to online brainstorming: all you need is a team of 5-6 people, a facilitator, and a collaborative online tool. You can use this Google spreadsheet template or an online whiteboard template.

Each participant should have their own virtual piece of paper and write down three ideas in five minutes on the topic you’re brainstorming. Once the five minutes are up, each participant should go to the next participant’s piece of paper and build on the three ideas created by that participant, or to create three new ideas. For this exercise it’s important to keep writing.

This process is repeated until you come back to your original piece of virtual paper. Then, the ideas need to be gathered and discussed to choose the best one. And don’t forget to write down the actions that need to be done in order to implement these ideas.

Why? What is stopping you? (Five Whys)

You can use this approach when you need to identify the root cause of a problem. This method is similar to the more commonly known five whys method, and you can even use the “five whys” template for this technique.

The methodology is simple:

  • Add a goal, wish or challenge, to your template
  • Ask: “Why do you want this?”
  • To the response, ask again
  • When you feel you found the root of the problem, ask, “What is stopping you?”

Repeating this process to its logical end can help with more concise goal settings.

Lotus diagram

Similar to mind mapping, a lotus diagram is intended to help a brainstorming group unlock new ideas related to a central concept. You place that concept in the center of the “lotus,” and then branch out, iterating by adding “petals” of additional thoughts.

So, when do you use a lotus diagram? Groups that want to break down a large idea and understand it find this technique helpful. Also, teachers who want to encourage their students to expand how they think often turn to the lotus diagram, since the number of petals you can add is infinite.

Random words

Random words is a form of free association that breaks down barriers. Gather your brainstorming team on an online whiteboard, put your question or problem in the center of a template and add the first random word as the initial stimuli. When the first word is added, ask the contributors to come up with ideas linking the word with a problem or question.

They can use online sticky notes to write down as many ideas as come to mind in a short amount of time: one minute is ideal. To generate words, you can use a random word generator or tweets, books, etc. Finally, compile the results. Common words may point to something important and outliers may trigger new ideas.

Visual association

In the random words technique, the written word is the driver. In a visual association, on the other hand, an image drives your creativity. Download an image of something that may or may not apply to the current problem. For one minute, let everyone write down any words that they associate with the image. Change several other images. Is there a “sister” word that keeps coming up? Then ask participants to make a connection between the words they’ve written and the problem indicated. Let this run a little loose and wild. Creativity is king in this technique.

Here’s an interesting alternative technique: try a subtraction exercise. For example, imagine a zoo without the animals … what else could you do with that now-empty space? Or be inspired by the founder of Nike, who saw a waffle iron and put a similar sole on sneakers (the pairing exercise puts together two unlikely things) — the key is to always tie it back to the business.

Figuring Storming

If you feel unqualified for solving a specific problem, imagine how someone like your manager, a well-known thought leader, or even a famous politician can cope with a situation. Figuring storming can help you if you are trying to tackle a problem that feels too new or complicated for you. Think of your role model or personal hero to help!

Ask yourself: What would Albert Einstein (or Mahatma Gandhi, Iron Man, or anyone you like) do? This simple change of perspective can help you think outside the box and borrow new approaches from the toolset of someone who you admire.

Negative brainstorming

The idea of this technique is to start with finding the worst solutions to a brainstorming topic. Then the team should convert the worst ideas into relevant, workable solutions. It also helps mitigate concerns about criticism of ideas. To start your brainstorming session in an unusual manner can be fun!

Adam Schnitzler, Chief Creative Officer of The S3 Agency also suggests to try this technique, “Mix it up. After the first round of ideas slows to a trickle, start another round where everyone tries to think of the worst possible solution to the problem. Collect the bad ideas, have a few laughs, and then see if the group can spin any of the bad ideas into good ones.”

Round Robin brainstorming

To get the ideas flowing, Jack Mannion, Account Manager at Terakeet, recommends this technique: “Once you’ve set your pre-session goals, start the brainstorm off by having every member go around in a circle and rapid-fire share ideas. A brainstorm ‘referee,’ or leader, should be recording these ideas. This is a great way to get everyone to start sharing right away, and to spark creativity.”

Curious how to use a circle when everyone isn’t sitting around a boardroom? When using an online whiteboard, all the participants can move in a virtual circle on the whiteboard and announce their ideas.

Get into your six-year-old

This technique of starting your brainstorming session was shared by Jennifer Martin, Founder of Zest Business Consulting: “I generally start a brainstorming session by asking everyone to take off their shoes and any restrictive clothing. Then I bring out coloring books, crayons, and blank paper along with other small toys and I ask the group to play with (or explore) the toys for 5 minutes to help them remember what it felt like to be a kid before they had to be responsible for a lot of decision making. We might even play a game of tag or duck goose to get people moving around like a kid. Then, when they’re really in that kid mind space, I ask them to come up with suggestions and possibilities from the perspective of a 5- to 10-year-old (no judgement, just creative solutions)”.

This exercise can be easily adopted for a remote team. Simply replace physical activity by watching a short episode of a well-known cartoon or prepare an icebreakier game encouraging everybody to share the game they loved to play most when they were a child.

Affinity Diagram

Affinity diagrams aren’t focused specifically on helping groups generate ideas, but they provide a way to help organize your ideas after a brainstorming session is done. Created in the 1960s by Kawakita Jiro, it’s also known as the KJ method and is aimed at helping groups use brainstorming to solve complex problems.

Here’s how it works: Using an affinity diagram template, you first clearly state the problem you’re trying to solve at the top. Then, you brainstorm ideas for solving that problem, recording each idea on a sticky note. Once you have a mass of sticky notes with different ideas (in a room or on a virtual whiteboard), it’s time for the group to sort them into common themes on the diagram. These themes shouldn’t be pre-defined; they’ll emerge organically as part of the process.

Mapping the results of a brainstorming session with an affinity diagram and analyzing the results will help large groups understand common themes, prioritize, and move forward.


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4

Examples & Cases

Infinite Red is a mobile and web development studio in San Francisco and Portland. It specializes in mobile design and development. They work with companies to develop an entire app, an MVP, or on rescuing a struggling project.

The team has spent a lot of time figuring out how to make brainstorming work. As a fully remote team of 25 designers and engineers, they’ve created a process to use brainstorming when launching the Infinite Red Academy. Here are their main learnings:

  • Start with a goal statement. The team kept it as simple as possible: “We would like to start offering training for companies and individuals that’s based on our experience creating web and mobile apps.” Their goal statement was specific enough to start the conversation, but not so detailed that it put a limit on brainstorming ideas.
  • Choose your moderator wisely! The team generally tries to keep moderators as neutral parties in the process. They don’t want key decision-makers being in charge, because it can sometimes influence the results in favor of their personal bias or direction.
  • Begin with a high-level perspective. A few common goals began to emerge from our kick-off meeting for the academy. For example, the team knew that it had to reflect one of their strongest values as a company: providing high personal support. To launch a successful training program for students, Infinite Red wanted them to feel like they’re getting help in a way that’s personalized to them.
  • Open each block with “How might we…” The ideas started flowing almost immediately. Some were more open-ended: “Be genuine in our communication.” Others were more specific: “Make it possible for students to have access to instructors.” There were no bad ideas in this phase. It’s all about generating ideas, then refining them later.
  • Group by common themes. The company’s team finds it most helpful to actually end the meeting and have the moderator take responsibility for reviewing all the sticky notes and assigning broad categories. Don’t spend a ton of time sorting all the ideas into separate groups. There’s no formula to getting this right.
  • Assign next steps to everyone on the call. For the academy, the team’s React Native engineers started putting together some curriculum that was supportive and hands-on. Their design and marketing team got to work on creating a landing page that would start capturing potential leads.

To learn more, check out a full case study.

5

FAQs

Which factors are important while brainstorming?

Brainstorming is an amazing technique that works well in groups. Get as many different perspectives as you can and make sure everyone feels encouraged to share their ideas — the resulting mix of solutions proposed by people with different perspectives is a key to a successful brainstorming section.

Another key factor is a transparent voting process — having a lot of ideas is important, but the outcome should look like a clear prioritized list of solutions to a given problem. Once you have a winning idea of your brainstorming session, you can come with an action plan and execute a successful idea.

What is the main purpose of brainstorming?

The main purpose of brainstorming is tackling complex or complicated problems that don’t have an obvious solution and require an unusual approach. Brainstorming, when done well, allows you to explore a wide variety of ideas and perspectives and surface solutions that can’t easily be found if the problem is approached by one person or a team who has a set number of conventional tactics.

What is the difference between mind mapping and brainstorming?

Mind mapping is one of many brainstorming techniques. Mind mapping is a bit more organized and encourages you to think about the way different ideas relate to each other. It works better if you have some categories in mind, so you can put your ideas into them. If you don’t have a structure or don’t want to create any hierarchy yet, try using other techniques.

How can one prevent idea theft in a brainstorming session?

To avoid a situation when the loudest person in the room gets all the credit for collective work, we recommend using color-coding or tags (if you are brainstorming online). If you are in the same room, ask each participant to use different color stickies, so it’s clear who came up with a specific idea.

If you are brainstorming remotely, use Miro to create tags with each participant’s name on it. It’s an easy way to claim stickies and make sure everyone’s input is seen and valued.

Does group brainstorming really work?

Group brainstorming works really well if you have a thoughtful and skilled facilitator. If you are running a brainstorming session, make sure you:

  • Invite people with different backgrounds
  • Schedule it in advance
  • Have a shared space to work together
  • Have clear expectations about the problems you want to address and the amount of time your can spend (we recommend using a timer)
  • Have a transparent voting system
  • Come up with an action plan after the session.

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