How to Brainstorm Effectively

Most people suck at Brainstorming.  Most companies suck at Brainstorming.  Through experience and study I have collected a set of ideas/methods that will teach you how to Brainstorm Effectively.

Brainstorming is the process of thinking up new ideas for a challenging problem or question.  Usually, the problem has already been considered for some time, but the answer is not obvious, or is out of bounds of some constraints.

Effectiveness in Brainstorming means that the number of ideas generated were high, and that at least one idea was selected as a good one, and that when implemented, the idea worked to solve the problem/question.

Here’s my collection of ideas for how to Brainstorm effectively:

  1. Choose a Diverse group with as many Experts as possible to help you Brainstorm.  People with Diverse backgrounds, diverse life experiences, and from diverse cultures will bring more unique ideas. Experts are people with 10,000 hours of experience in their field.  In business, at least one person with Marketing Expertise, and at least one person with Engineering Expertise is ideal.
  2. Get in the right frame of mind: Have everyone on the team do something to try to get them into a creative frame of mind.  Stretch, go to a fun location, play a game, think like you are a kid… something.  BRAINSTORMING IS SUPPOSED TO BE FUN!!!  (Fun unleashes creativity).
  3. First ask everyone to Brainstorm Individually.  Have them write at least 3 ideas and send it to you.
  4. Now schedule a meeting (at least 2 hours, 3 hours is ideal; and have it span a lunch hour).  Plan to bring in food or go out as a group.  [this downtime is essential to the creative process]
  5. Open the meeting with “THE BRAINSTORMING RULES”… (write them on the wall)
    1. You MAY NOT Criticize ideas or even say “I like that”… save all comments till the end of the Brainstorming.  WRITE: “No Criticism”
    2. However, you CAN AND SHOULD build on ideas that others have put forth.  Write: “Build on Ideas”
    3. You SHOULD say many ideas, no matter how crazy.  Write: “Quantity and Crazy Desired”
    4. Keep it “light” and Fun!  Write: “Make it Fun”
  6. Start Phase 1 (out of two): 
    1. Write some of the ideas that people had individually on the board.
    2. For 30min to 1hr… ask the group to throw out ideas… and write them on the board.  If people get stuck, ask the question differently, or ask about a sub-part of the question… don’t give up after just a few minutes.. force the team to give ideas for the full time.
    3. Break for lunch…  [eat as a group]
    4. Resume the Brainstorm for an additional 30min to 1hr.  (because of the break, there is likely to be another burst of good ideas!).
    5. If the board gets filled… take a picture and clear some space and keep going.
  7. Finish now with Phase 2:
    1. Ask the team to vote for their favorite ideas…  let them pick three, put a * next to the idea for every vote cast.  During this phase, ENCOURAGE DISCUSSION about the ideas (but not about ‘who gave what idea’).  Remind the team that its not about ‘who’s idea is better’… only than that ‘we’ got to a good idea.
    2. Now look at the board… what is the best answer?  Is it feasible?  If not, why?  Either brainstorm on how to make it feasible, or see if the 2nd best idea is better in light of considering Feasibility.
I hope this helps in your Brainstorming!  Let me know if you try this and it works?  Also let me know what you do, if it’s different than my ideas here.
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2 thoughts on “How to Brainstorm Effectively

  1. At Key Ingredient, we've gone so far as to formalize this:

    1. Have a CLEAR goal for the brainstorm! And Schedule the Brainstorm for at least #People/4 * 1Hour (e.g. for 4 people, 1 hour, for 8ppl 2 hours, etc.).
    * Goals should be both an OUTCOME of the meeting and an OUTCOME of the outcome (e.g. business goal)

    2. Invite people to contribute at least 1-day before the meeting via:
    a.) email their ideas to you
    b.) use this tool:

    3.) Hold Meeting Part 1: The Brainstorm Blast
    * Time Box this section to 10-15 minutes.
    * Put on the Board all the ideas submitted via Pre-Meeting
    * BUILD on each others Ideas!
    * Get lots of ideas on the board, and encourage "DIVERSE THOUGHT"
    * PUT people in "a child's laughing frame of mind".

    4.) Meeting Part 2: Categorize & then Judge
    * Put common ideas together into categories
    * then VOTE on categories and then on sub-ideas in the category
    * Use this time to JUDGE and DEBATE! (focus on groups of ideas).
    * FEEL FREE to add more during this phase, and keep building on each others ideas

    5.) Create Hypothesized Conclusions and Debate the Conclusions
    * based on all the voting and discussion, now create a hypothesized "summary result"… e.g. put forward what you think is the synthesis of all the debate as "THE PROPOSED SOLUTION"
    Then debate the proposed solution to see if anyone wants to add or change thoughts about it…

    AND THEN SHIP IT! (write it all up and send it to everyone).

  2. A few things I've noticed while running these brainstorms:
    a.) You really need 1 person to be the facilitator.. ideally someone who can write and think fast!
    b.) Secondly, the facilitator may have to "switch gears" while running the brainstorm to solicit more ideas… a few switches: brainstorm the root of the problem.. brainstorm the customer/person who would fit best… brainstorm some current solutions, etc…

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