What’s the best way to brainstorm? While there are basic rules that make the process meaningful and effective, there are literally dozens of ways to actually inspire creative ideas. Many facilitators use more than one technique in a single brainstorming session in order to keep the creative juices flowing while supporting different styles of thought and expression.
Depending upon your situation, you may want to start with one of the unique approaches described below. Or… you may want to start with “basic brainstorming,” and then switch things up as needed to ensure you generate a good quantity of really useful, creative ideas.
Basic brainstorming is not complex—though there are important techniques for ensuring success. Here, in a nutshell, is how basic brainstorming works:
- Get a group of people together to address a problem, challenge, or opportunity
- Ask your group to generate as many ideas as possible—no matter how “off the wall” they may seem. During this period, no criticism is allowed.
- Review the ideas, select the most interesting, and then lead a discussion about how to combine, improve, and/or implement the ideas.
While this process may be simple in theory, however, it’s not always easy to generate new ideas out of nowhere. And that’s why so many interesting and inspirational brainstorming techniques have been developed.
Discover which techniques are the best fit for your next brainstorming session.
When brainstorming focuses on problem solving, it can be useful to analyze the problem with tools that lead to creative solutions. Analytic brainstorming is relatively easy for most people because it draws on idea generation skills they’ve already built in school and in the workplace. No one gets embarrassed when asked to analyze a situation!
1. Mind Mapping
Mind mapping is a visual tool for enhancing the brainstorming process. In essence, you’re drawing a picture of the relationships among and between ideas.
Start by writing down your goal or challenge, and ask participants to think of related issues. Layer by layer, add content to your map so that you can visually see how, for example, a problem with the telephone system is contributing to issues with quarterly income. Because it has become so popular, it's easy to find mind mapping software online. The reality, though, is that a large piece of paper and a few markers can also do the job.
2. Reverse Brainstorming
Ordinary brainstorming asks participants to solve problems. Reverse brainstorming asks participants to come up with great ways to cause a problem. Start with the problem and ask “how could we cause this?” Once you have a list of great ways to create problems, you’re ready to start solving them! Learn about how to run a reverse brainstorming session:
3. Gap Filling
Start with a statement of where you are. Then write a statement of where you’d like to be. How can you fill in the gap to get to your goal? Your participants will respond with a wide range of answers from the general to the particular. Collect them all, and then organize them to develop a vision for action.
4. Drivers Analysis
Work with your group to discover the drivers behind the problem you’re addressing. What’s driving client loyalty down? What’s driving the competition? What’s driving a trend toward lower productivity? As you uncover the drivers, you begin to catch a glimpse of possible solutions.
5. SWOT Analysis
SWOT Analysis identifies organization strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Usually, it’s used to decide whether a potential project or venture is worth undertaking. In brainstorming, it’s used to stimulate collaborative analysis. What are our real strengths? Do we have weaknesses that we rarely discuss? New ideas can come out of this tried-and-true technique.
6. The Five Whys
Another tool that’s often used outside of brainstorming, the Five Whys can also be effective for getting thought processes moving forward. Simply start with a problem you’re addressing and ask “why is this happening?” Once you have some answers, ask “why does this happen?” Continue the process five times (or more), digging deeper each time until you’ve come to the root of the issue. Dig into the details of this process:
Create a six pointed star. At the center of the star, write the challenge or opportunity you’re facing. At each point of the star, write one of the following words: who, what, where, when, why, and how. Use these words to generate questions. Who are our happiest clients? What do our clients say they want? Use the questions to generate discussion. Learn more about Starbursting in this Envato Tuts+ tutorial, which includes a helpful worksheet:
In some situations, individuals are so cramped for time that a brainstorming session would be impossible to schedule. In other situations, team members are unwilling to speak up in a group or to express ideas that others might not approve of. When that’s the case, you might be well served with brainstorming techniques that allow participants to generate ideas without meeting or without the need for public participation.
8. Brain-Netting (Online Brainstorming)
Perhaps not surprisingly, brain netting involves brainstorming on the Internet. This requires someone to set up a system whereby individuals can share their ideas privately, but then collaborate publicly. There are software companies that specialize in just such types of systems, like Slack or Google Docs.
Once ideas have been generated, it may be a good idea to come together in person, but it’s also possible that online idea generation and discussion will be successful on its own. This is an especially helpful approach for remote teams to utilize, though any team can make use of it. Learn more about this brainstorming technique:
9. Brainwriting (or Slip Writing)
The brain writing process involves having each participant anonymously write down ideas on index cards. The ideas can then be randomly shared with other participants who add to or critique the ideas. Alternatively, the ideas can be collected and sifted by the management team. This approach is also called “Crawford Slip Writing,” as the basic concept was invented in the 1920’s by a professor named Crawford.
10. Collaborative Brainwriting
Write your question or concern on a large piece of paper, and post it in a public place. Ask team members to write or post their ideas when they are able, over the course of a week. Collate ideas on your own or with your group's involvement.
Learn more about brainwriting methods:
Role Play Brainstorming
What do customers/clients/managers really want? What are the challenges we face internally or externally? Very often, those questions are best answered by internal and external clients. Role play allows your team to “become” their own clients, which often provides surprisingly potent insights into challenges and solutions. Another plus of role play is that, in some cases, it lowers participants’ inhibitions. Variants of role play include Rolestorming, Reverse Thinking, and Figure Storming.
11. Role Storming
Ask your participants to imagine themselves in the role of a person whose experience relates to your brainstorming goal (a client, upper management, a service provider). Act out a scene, with participants pretending to take the other’s point of view. Why might they be dissatisfied? What would it take for them to to feel better about their experience or outcomes? Learn more about this innovative way to come up with ideas as a team:
12. Reverse Thinking
This creative approach asks, “what would someone else do in our situation?” Then imagine doing the opposite. Would it work? Why or why not? Does the “usual” approach really work well, or are there better options?
13. Figure Storming
Choose a figure from history or fiction with whom everyone is familiar—Teddy Roosevelt, for example, or Mother Theresa. What would that individual do to manage the challenge or opportunity you’re discussing? How might that figure’s approach work well or poorly?
Brainstorming With Support
For groups that are not intrinsically creative or communicative, or are likely to get stuck once the most obvious ideas have been suggested, help is in order. You can provide that help up front by setting up the brainstorming process to include everyone in a structured, supportive manner. A few techniques for this type of brainstorming include Step Ladder Brainstorming, Round Robin Brainstorming, Rapid Ideation, and Trigger Storming.
14. Step Ladder Brainstorming
Start by sharing the brainstorming challenge with everyone in the room. Then send everyone out of the room to think about the challenge—except two people.
Allow the two people in the room to come up with ideas for a short period of time, and then allow just one more person to enter the room. Ask the new person to share their ideas with the first two before discussing the ideas already generated.
After a few minutes ask another person to come in, and then another. In the long run, everyone will be back in the room—and everyone will have had a chance to share his or her ideas with colleagues.
15. Round Robin Brainstorming
A “round robin” is a game in which everyone gets a chance to participate. In the case of brainstorming that means everyone (1) must share an idea and (2) wait until everyone else has shared before suggesting a second idea or critiquing ideas. This is a great way to encourage shy (or uninterested) individuals to speak up while keeping dominant personalities from taking over the brainstorming session.
16. Rapid Ideation
This simple technique can be surprising fruitful. Ask the individuals in your group to write down as many ideas as they can in a given period of time. Then either have them share the ideas aloud or collect responses. Often, you’ll find certain ideas popping up over and over again; in some cases these are the obvious ideas, but in some cases they may provide some revelations.
17. Trigger Storming
This variant on the round robin approach starts with a “trigger” to help people come up with thoughts and ideas. Possible triggers include open ended sentences or provocative statements. For example, “Client issues always seem to come up when ____,” or “The best way to solve client problems is to pass the problem along to someone else.”
Radically Creative Brainstorming
If your team seems to be stuck on conventional answers to brainstorming challenges, you may need to stir the pot to help them generate creative ideas by using techniques that require out-of-the-box thinking. These may include the Charrette approach and "what if" challenges.
Imagine a brainstorming session in which 35 people from six different departments are all struggling to come up with viable ideas. The process is time consuming, boring, and—all too often—unfruitful. The Charrette method breaks up the problem into smaller chunks, with small groups discussing each element of the problem for a set period of time. Once each group has discussed one issue, their ideas are passed on to the next group who builds on them. By the end of the Charrette, each idea may have been discussed five or six times—and the ideas discussed have been refined.
19. "What If" Brainstorming
What if this problem came up 100 years ago? How would it be solved? What if Superman were facing this problem? How would he manage it? What if the problem were 50 times worse—or much less serious than it really is? What would we do? These are all different types of “what if” scenarios that can spur radically creative thinking—or at least get people laughing and working together!
Brainstorming is a terrific technique for idea generation, coming up with alternatives and possibilities, discovering fatal flaws, and developing creative approaches. But it’s only as good as its participants and facilitator. The better you are at selecting participants, setting the stage, and encouraging discussion, the better your outcomes are likely to be.
Learn more about running an effective brainstorming session:
No matter how well you’ve prepared, however, there’s always the chance that distractions, personality clashes, anxiety, or ordinary boredom can get in the way of effective brainstorming. When that happens, you’ll be glad to have a collection of great ideas for moving the process forward!