If you're more than just curious about what the definition of brainstorming is, but also need to start brainstorming right away, then this guide is a quick, yet thorough starting point to work from. Learn about the purpose of brainstorming and how to follow an effective, creative process for coming up with problem-solving ideas.
What Is Brainstorming?
First, let's give a working definition for brainstorming.
Simply put, brainstorming is a method for inspiring creative problem solving by encouraging group members to toss out ideas while withholding criticism or judgment. Brainstorming, in its many forms, has become a standard tool for ideation (development of new ideas). Perhaps this is because of its versatility:
- While business people are most likely to actually use the term “brainstorm,” the process is used in a very wide range of settings, from universities to non-profits to performing arts venues.
- Brainstorming can be accomplished by a large group, a small group, or even an individual.
- There is no limit to the type of problem or question that can be addressed through brainstorming.
While the term "brainstorming" is relatively new, the concept is as old as human creativity. The idea of harnessing the process for business, however, was developed by Alex Osborn in 1941. An advertising executive, Osborn understood the importance of creativity for success; in his 1952 book Your Creative Power: How to Use Imagination, he wrote: “Not only in business but in every line, the quality of leadership depends on creative power.”
Osborn believed that creativity was often squelched in the business world because (1) too few ideas were generated by too few people and (2) those people involved in the creative process were far too quick to criticize and judge innovative ideas.
He also believed that everyone had the potential for creativity, and to learn creative skills. Thus, Osborn’s four rules of brainstorming were designed to overcome limitations and increase employees’ creative abilities. They were (and are):
- No criticism of ideas
- Go for large quantities of ideas
- Build on each other’s ideas
- Encourage wild and exaggerated ideas
How Brainstorming Fits into the Bigger Picture
While it’s common to talk about or even use brainstorming as a tool in its own right, Osborn saw it as part of a larger process. Coming up with ideas, as he saw it, was only useful if the ideas solved real problems.
The larger process that Osborn developed was called Creative Problem Solving or CPS. CPS includes four steps as described by the Creative Education Foundation:
- Clarify – Explore the vision by identifying the goal, wish or challenge; gather data to better understand the challenge, and create challenge questions that invite solutions
- Ideate – Explore ideas through the brainstorming process.
- Develop – Formulate solutions by evaluating ideas generated in the ideation process and then select the best solutions.
- Implement – Formulate a plan after exploring resources and actions required to put the solution into action.
This process has been used by thousands of individuals, businesses, and groups over the years, based on four core principles developed not only by Osborn but also by many others at the Foundation. The core principles are:
- Divergent and Convergent Thinking Must be Balanced – The keys to creativity are learning ways to identify and balance expanding and contracting your thinking (done separately). It's also important to know when to practice these thinking modes.
- Ask Problems as Questions – Solutions are more readily invited and developed when challenges and problems are restated as open-ended questions with multiple possibilities. Such questions generate lots of rich information, while closed-ended questions tend to elicit confirmation or denial. Statements tend to generate limited or no response at all.
- Defer or Suspend Judgment – As Osborn learned in his early work on brainstorming, the instantaneous judgment in response to an idea shuts down idea generation. There is an appropriate and necessary time to apply judgment when converging.
- Focus on “Yes, and” rather than “No, but” – When generating information and ideas, language matters. “Yes, and” allows continuation and expansion, which is necessary in certain stages of CPS. Be careful: the use of the word “but” – preceded by “yes” or “no” – closes down the conversation, negating everything that has come before it.
How Is Brainstorming Done?
Brainstorming itself is a fairly simple process, but it requires skilled facilitation and careful planning for optimal outcomes. Individuals, of course, can brainstorm at any time and in any location. For groups, however, there are many different “varieties” of brainstorming. All follow this basic procedure:
Step 1. Plan Your Brainstorming Session
- Clarify the focus of the brainstorming session by formulating directed, open-ended questions that will invite solutions. For example, “How shall we improve customer service” is a better brainstorming question than “What’s wrong with our customer service.”
- Select the appropriate group for brainstorming. This group may be large or small but should include those individuals who will, in the long run, be involved in the implementation of change or a new project.
- Select the appropriate time and place for brainstorming. In some cases, brainstorming sessions are held outside of the workplace in order to avoid work-related conflicts. Brainstorming may take place during a work day, or during a weekend or evening.
- Select a skilled facilitator who is capable of formulating questions, managing personalities, recording ideas, supporting the evaluation process, and creating a feasible and appropriate plan of action with the input of the group.
- Plan the brainstorming process so that a clear schedule can be provided to the group ahead of time. Plans should include meals, transportation, and any other critical items.
Step 2. Select a Brainstorming Process
Brainstorming can be a simple matter of asking a question, collecting answers, and then evaluating them. In some cases, this results in a good selection of possible solutions and is sufficient. Very often, however, more creative encouragement is required.
Based on knowledge of the group’s members and dynamics, therefore, the facilitator and planner may choose to implement one of a variety of brainstorming procedures. For example:
- Brainwriting - This brainstorming process allows group members to write, share, and comment on one another’s ideas without being asked to stand and speak up. When certain individuals are likely to dominate the group (or choose not to engage with the group) this approach may be useful.
- Role Storming - Is a very creative process that involves group members in improvisational acting based on roles they select or are assigned. These roles can range from the realistic (an irate customer, for example) to the fantastic (Superman, or Aladdin’s Genie).
- Reverse Brainstorming - This approach to brainstorming asks group members to come up with ideas to do exactly the opposite of what is being proposed. For example, instead of asking “how can we attract more users for our app,” the facilitator might ask “how can we ensure that as few people as possible use our app?” This approach is helpful for situations in which creativity seems to be drying up; it can often result in funny but meaningful responses that lead to positive and useful solutions.
- Round Robin Brainstorming - Involves the facilitator asking each individual, in turn, for their ideas. This makes it more difficult for any group members to dominate the discussion or “disappear” into the background.
Learn more about these brainstorming processes:
- IdeationHow to Use Brainwriting for Rapid Idea GenerationLisa Jo Rudy
- BrainstormingWhat Is Rolestorming? A Useful (+Playful) Group Brainstorming MethodLisa Jo Rudy
- BrainstormingHow to Use Reverse Brainstorming to Develop Innovative IdeasLisa Jo Rudy
Step 3. Set Your Brainstorming Ground Rules
The process of brainstorming usually begins with a general introduction to the process, the ground rules, the schedule, and any critical details (such as the location of the bathroom!). Many facilitators set rules regarding the use of cell phones and/or laptops during the brainstorming process.
Most facilitators start with an icebreaking session that sets the tone and clarifies the relationship among the brainstormers. It's important that all members of the group understand that, for the purposes of brainstorming, they are peers. Even a member of upper management is, today, just a member of the group.
Discover more brainstorming rules that help lead to a successful session:
Step 4. Implement the Brainstorming Process
Brainstorming is a facilitator-led process. The facilitator presents a question and asks for responses. If you're the facilitator, then you'll be the one leading the group through the process.
The rules of brainstorming (no criticism, no judgments) are important to enforce so that everyone feels comfortable contributing. Also, make sure that all ideas are written on a whiteboard or chart, either by you or by your aide.
As necessary, you may implement additional forms of brainstorming to limit or encourage participation in your group, spark creativity, or manage other issues.
Step 5. Concluding the Brainstorming Process
Once you feel that enough ideas have been generated, it is time to evaluate the ideas to determine which are the most useful. As the facilitator, you may choose to invite group members to write notes on the chart to comment on ideas, or you may simply facilitate a conversation with your team.
After the group has selected a few ideas to explore, work with your team to develop task-oriented groups to explore those ideas further within a timeline. For example, an idea related to improving technology might be assigned to a group that includes an IT expert and an individual who uses the software on a daily basis.
The result is a clear, actionable timeline to implement your new ideas from, and be sure to set a a date for a follow-up meeting.
Learn more about how to plan and run your brainstorming session right:
Why Does Brainstorming Work So Well?
According to Osborn's Creative Education Foundation, the secret lies in separating critical thinking from creative thinking. "This means generating lots and lots of options before you consider evaluating them." The result of brainstorming is ideas that are not just practical but also truly innovative. They are the ideas that are likely to help an organization shift from "business as usual" to "out of the box" thinking.
According to brainstorming theory, everyone is creative—and that creativity can be increased and harnessed. This means that brainstorming may result in ideas from “non-creatives”—people in jobs such as finance, office administration, or trafficking—who have never been asked to contribute to the ideation process.
The outcome, therefore, is likely to include ideas that take into account a wide range of perspectives and thought processes. This means that results of a well-run brainstorming session may be both surprising and innovative.
Why Brainstorming Is Only Part of a Larger Process
Brainstorming is a great way to generate unique, creative ideas, but of course, ideation in and of itself will not result in outcomes. Thus, brainstorming is separate from evaluation; evaluation is separate from implementation; implementation is only possible once an action step has been accepted and funded.
From Osborn’s point of view, the purpose of brainstorming is not simply to generate ideas. It's the moment at which the judging mind is separated from the imagination—and the imagination is allowed to run wild.
From this process, may come a huge range of ideas, some new to management, that have the potential to change a business for the better. Once the brainstorming process is complete, however, evaluation and implementation are the keys to success.
Brainstorming Helps Generate Creative, Actionable Ideas
Brainstorming, or ideation, is just one part of a larger process for expanding and building on business creativity. Developed by advertising executive Alex Osborn, brainstorming is a wonderful tool for engaging a broad range of employees in a radically creative problem-solving process.
Brainstorming is not an end in itself. Instead, it is preceded by clarification of the problem, challenge or question. It is also followed by the evaluation and development of ideas and, finally, by implementation of creative ideas found to be practical and useful.
Move Beyond the Definition of Brainstorming and Get Started
Learn more in our Ultimate Guide to Better Brainstorming Techniques or discover more creative idea generation techniques in this article:
Brainstorming by definition is part of a larger creative process. Use it to generate ideas on your own or as a group. Make sure you target a clear problem, follow a few ground rules to keep your group on track, and be sure to process your ideas on completion. That way, you can take action on the most innovative and relevant ideas you come up with.