Basics of Brainstorming

Fred Schenkelberg
Mar 4 · 7 min read

Basics of Brainstorming

Did you know that best idea to solve a problem is often not the first one?

We all have plenty of bad ideas, hunches, guesses, and flawed ideas. That is ok. We also have great ideas and elegant solutions, too. The trick is exploring all those ideas to find the best ones.

One technique to draw out and capture many ideas is called brainstorming. You most likely have heard of and used this tool already. Let’s review a few key elements that make for excellent brainstorming results.

When to Use Brainstorming

The best time to use brainstorming is when you and your team are facing a problem that needs a solution.

Of course, there are many other situations when this tool is handy. For example, you may want to brainstorm ideas to:

Basically anytime you need an idea, instead of staring at a blank screen or piece of paper, rely on brainstorming to reveal plenty of good ideas (among the many less good ideas).

The 7 Rules of Brainstorming

This is a team activity. It might be just two people or your entire group, and you know everyone may approach idea creation differently. That is ok.

In order to get the most out any brainstorming session, it is worth following a few basic rules. These set boundaries and expectations for what is about to happen. Many times, just a quick reminder of the rules is all that is necessary. In some cases, having the rules on the wall (visually available) helps to coach individuals to stay within the rules for this technique to work.

1 Defer Judgment

This is hard to do. We almost instinctively evaluate a new piece of information and pass judgment.

Suspend that for this process. The best way to destroy the willingness of someone to offer an idea is the fear of ridicule or embarrassment. When brainstorming you want ideas, ideas from everyone. Make it safe for everyone to offer ideas and strictly protect all of those ideas from judgment during the creation and listing of ideas.

After creating ideas there is a step to evaluate, sort, and prioritize ideas. In doing so, focus on the best ideas and avoid personal attacks or slights. All ideas are good to have available to consider and some are going to help you solve a problem.

2 Encourage wild ideas

Yes, anything goes yet keep it civil and within professional decorum. If exploring how water is getting into your product when it shouldn’t, ideas may include:

Wait, lightning strike?

While it is likely that the device would be destroyed by a strike it would permit water to ingress. Even if you cannot fathom how the idea would lead to the problem, let it go. No judgment, remember the first rule.

The value of this rule is the mention of lightning strike may spark (no pun intended, really!) the idea of an electrostatic discharge damaging the material leading to a leak path. This idea may not have surfaced if someone didn’t toss out the wild idea of lightning strikes.

Not all wild ideas help lead to a great idea, yet is does seed a bit of humor and open thinking necessary to uncover more ideas and better ideas.

3 Build on the ideas of others

Just as the lightning strike may make you think of electricity or static discharge, any idea may induce a new way to combine or extend your own ideas.

The power of brainstorming is not to individually list a lot of ideas, it is to build on each others ideas (and energy) to create a list that each alone would not have created.

The hard part is to avoid judgment when considering another’s idea. A good tactic is to consider the ‘yes, and…’ approach.

When you hear a silly idea or a ‘out-there’ suggestion, just think, and say, ‘yes, and…’ and continue with another idea, another suggestion, or similar. Build on the idea, never strike it down or minimize any idea.

4 Stay focused on the topic or problem

Every now and then review the topic or problem under consideration. It is amazingly easy to get way off track. A good tactic is to reset the frame around the issue. Bring attention back to the main problem by saying, ‘now look at this from the vendor’s perspective’, or the customer’s view, or the repair tech’s point of view, and so on. This may help the group refocus on the main question and may provide a new way to find solutions.

5 One conversation at a time

Another difficult element of an active, vibrant brainstorming session. As much as possible, let others finish their thought or idea before jumping in.

A good technique is to encourage everyone to take notes on ideas so none are lost. Encourage everyone to speak and create space for those a bit more hesitant to speak up.

Respecting each other and our different styles of processing information and communicating is vital to include everyone’s ideas in the session.

6 Make it visual

Whiteboard, computer screen (if big enough to see everything at once), butcher paper, easel paper tacked to the walls. Think big, write big, get all the ideas on the wall.

While capturing ideas on a computer with a projection or big screen is seemingly efficient it generally means only one person can type at a time and if the font is large enough the screen may limit what is visible at any one time.

One way to capture ideas is to use stickie notes (postcard size is good) to have everyone available to capture ideas. Then stick them to the wall so all are visible. This avoids slowing down the process with only one person scribing.

7 Go for quantity

More is better and quality is not all that important during the listing ideas and suggestions. More is certainly better.

It may be the 7th or 17th idea that provides just the right insight to see a clear solution. Or that second to the last idea uncovers that ‘ah-ha’ feeling that the team is onto something.

Working with engineers it is all too easy to come up with a couple of quick ideas and run off to explore and experiment around those ideas. Meanwhile, the really good ideas are not exposed.

Two ideas are not enough, 200 is much better.

The Basic Concept of Brainstorming

The underlying premise of brainstorming is to permit open and free consideration of a topic or problem. The brainstorming session has to be safe to expose all ideas, good, bad, and weird ones. The rule to not criticize an idea is vital to make this happen.

The benefits derive from the ability to engage all members of the team and supporting each others ability to explore ideas, concepts, and solutions.

Two Basic Approaches to Brainstorming with a Team

There are two basic way to conduct a brainstorming session. Both involved gathering a team and describing the topic or problem that needs ideas during the session.

A structured approach as each person, in turn, provide one idea. Go around the team to each person until all ideas are exhausted.

The structured approach helps to bring out ideas from those less outgoing in a dynamic setting. It is also a slower process.

The unstructured approach is open to sharing any idea as they occur from anyone. Here the energy is open higher and the process quicker. Do take care to help everyone have a voice and opportunity to share ideas.

A Couple of Best Practices and Variations

Keep the session short and to the point.

Get into short bursts of idea generation along with frequent resets to frame the topic or problem, plus to alter the method of gathering ideas.

A variation to give everyone in the session ample time to generate ideas is after the problem is clear have each person write down one idea per stickie. Continue this in silence till everyone is done.

Once everyone has their ideas written share the ideas to the team either verbally or by placing them on the wall for all to consider.

Another variation is to start with pictures or drawings to engage the visual parts of thinking/memory. Continue by exciting other sensory ways to describe or experience the problem.

Another variation is to use unusually connections or points of view. “How would a squirrel view this item upon a chance encounter?” “If this problem was a part of a car, what would it be?”

Brainstorming is to Generate Ideas

The core idea of brainstorming is to find the best solution to a problem or best approach to a topic. Many ideas help to expose the best.

A few key elements of successful brainstorming are:

Brainstorming is a common tool. It is useful in many settings and situations. Bring it out often and encourage your entire team to respect each other’s ideas.

Brainstorming can be a quick way for your team to approach topics and problems every day.


Originally published at Accendo Reliability.

Fred Schenkelberg

Written by

Reliability Engineering and Management Consultant focused on improving product reliability and increasing equipment availability.