Brainstorming — Why It Doesn’t (Always) Work

There is an ongoing debate between die-hard believers in the power of brainstorming and those who think that it is a bunch of nonsense. After decades of brainstorming sessions in every conceivable setting, you’d think that there would be a consensus about the value of this approach to generating breakthrough ideas. But, there isn’t.

Why the discrepancy?

Brainstorming is NOT a tool, like a hammer or can opener. It is a skill like chess, baseball, or playing the piano. All of these endeavors have rules as well as strategies for success. And, it’s impossible to become a master without effective training and practice.

Just like chess or baseball, the rules of brainstorming are straightforward and relatively easy to remember. However they are really challenging to implement. For example, a key rule of brainstorming is to “defer judgment.” That is, don’t criticize others’ ideas. How hard it that?! In the same way, it’s easy to state that the goal of baseball is to hit a ball out of the park. It is nearly impossible to do so, but we don’t say that baseball doesn’t work.

It’s crazy to expect meaningful results from a brainstorming session when the group if filled with amateurs who haven’t been trained and haven’t mastered the skills. This would be like picking a random group of people and asking them to play professional basketball or to perform a ballet.

If you want to become a master brainstormer, able to generate really bold and innovative ideas, there are a few basic rules and many strategies that require practice. Below is a short tutorial:

Basic rules of brainstorming

Brainstorming was first popularized by Alex Faickney Osborn in his book Applied Imagination, published in 1953 after he had been using this approach for more than a dozen years. In his book, he outlines a series of rules for brainstorming sessions. The four core tenets are:

  1. Defer judgment
  2. Generate lots of ideas
  3. Encourage unusual ideas
  4. Combine ideas

Beyond these simple rules, there are lots of strategies that make these rules come to life. They begin long before you bring people together, starting with setting up the space, picking the participants, and framing the questions.

What does the room look like in advance?

Brainstorming is much like a dance, and similar to dancing you need the proper space to encourage a fluid brainstorming process. First, there has to be room for people to move around. In addition, just like dancing, brainstorming needs to be done standing up. This point is not trivial. By standing up instead of sitting, the group is much more energetic and engaged. Standing also allows for quick changes in the flow of people and ideas.

You also need space to capture all the ideas along the way. The most common approach is to use whiteboards or flip charts. Keep in mind that the larger the space for ideas, the more ideas you will get. In fact, when you run out of space, you often run out of ideas. So think about covering all the walls in the room with newsprint, so that the entire space can be used to capture your group’s ideas. Or you can use a bank of windows as a surface for sticky notes. By the time you are done, all the walls and windows should be covered with colorful pieces of paper.

Who should participate?

A brainstorming session is only as interesting as the brains in the room. Therefore, choosing brainstorm participants is critically important. It is not good enough to randomly scoop up a few people in your office and bring them in to brainstorm. You need to be very thoughtful about who is in the room. The people invited to a brainstorming session should have very different points of view and expertise on the topic. Keep in mind that the brainstorming group is not the same group of people who will make the final decisions at the end of the brainstorming session.

If you are going to design a new car, for example, you need to include people with very different perspectives and knowledge. These might include the engineers who build cars, customers who buy them, sales people who sell them, the mechanics who repair them, valets who park them, and so on. Also, consider people who can bring a totally fresh perspective and expertise, such people with disabilities, children who sit in the back seat, as well as people those who design bicycles, rockets or submarines. These folks don’t get to make the final decision about the car design, but their points of view and ideas are incredibly valuable to the ideas generation.

The size of the group is also an issue. There is always a tension between having many points of view and being able to have one conversation where everyone contributes. Apparently, Amazon had a policy of “two- pizza teams.” No team was bigger than could be fed with two pizzas, which allowed for optimum communication and collaboration. Once a team got larger than that, it was broken in two. This is a great guideline for brainstorming too. With six to eight people (and a couple of pizzas) you have a group who can bring a range of perspectives and can also easily interact.

What is the brainstorming topic?

This critical step is usually missed. The framing of the brainstorm question is a critical decision. For example, are you asking for ideas for a new name tag, or an introduction device? Are you asking for ideas for a new umbrella or a way to stay dry in the rain? Or, are you asking for a better suitcase or a way to have the things you need at your destination? Are you planning a birthday party or a way to mark someone’s birthday? Each of these questions tees up a totally different set of solutions.

A small change in the way you ask the question dramatically changes the tone and scope of the answers. Therefore, I always have my students “frame-storm” before they brainstorm to come up with all the questions they can ask before they dive into generating solutions. Without the right question at the beginning, your brainstorming session is doomed.

What else should be in the room?

It is helpful to fill the room with things that will stimulate the discussion. For example, if you are brainstorming about the design for a new pen, then you should have lots of different writing instruments, as well as interesting gadgets and toys to spark your imagination. You need to have paper and markers for everyone. It is also incredibly helpful to have other simple prototyping materials, because you will want to mock up a quick example. These include tape, scissors, cardboard, rubber bands, and so forth. Many people “build to think.” The act of creating a quick example with simple materials actually helps the thinking process. And a three-dimensional prototype often communicates much more than words or a two- dimensional drawing.

How do you start a brainstorming session?

Starting a brainstorming session isn’t always easy. People have to switch gears from their everyday work mode, where their focus is on execution, to a brainstorming mind- set, where there isn’t a clear destination. Doing a short warm-up exercise can lubricate the transition. There are zillions of ways to do this, from writing a progressive poem together to doing Mad Libs. One of my favorites involves giving everyone a set of paper letters that spell a long word, such as “entrepreneurship,” and asking them to take five minutes to create as many words as possible using those letters. Another involves starting with a seemingly silly prompt, such as “How would you design eyeglasses if we didn’t have ears?” Again, this exercise stretches the imagination and prepares everyone for the real work ahead. Although it might feel a bit awkward at first, it is important to mark the transition into a brainstorming session in some way and to give the participants a chance to warm up their imagination, just as an athlete warms up before a race or a singer warms up before a performance.

What are the rules of brainstorming?

Real rules exist for effective brainstorming. As mentioned above, an important rule is that there are no bad ideas. This means that the participants aren’t allowed to criticize ideas. In fact, no matter how strange the idea, your job is to build on it. The key is to embrace all ideas that are generated and to work with them for a while.

Brainstorming is a way to explore all the possibilities, whether they are inspiring or insipid. This is the “exploration” phase of a project, which needs to be distinguished from the “exploitation” phase, where decisions are made and resources are committed. There should be a clear wall between these two phases, so that your group doesn’t fall into the trap of eliminating ideas too early. This is the biggest challenge for most people — they feel a need to evaluate ideas as they are generated. This alone will kill a brainstorming session.

It is also important to encourage wild and crazy ideas. Even though they may seem strange, there may be a gem hidden inside. The key is to generate as many ideas as possible. Give yourself a goal, such as coming up with five hundred new flavors of ice cream. Once you have come up with three hundred, you know that you only have two hundred to go. You have moved beyond the first waves of ideas and are posed to generate the most interesting and surprising recipes. It is important to remember that each idea is a seed that has the potential to grow into something remarkable. If you don’t generate those ideas, then like seeds that have never been planted, no amount of time and tending will yield fruitful results. And the more ideas you have, the better. Just like seeds, you need a large number in order to find the ones that have the greatest promise.

One way to break free from expected ideas is to encourage silly or stupid ideas. This unleashes ideas that would never have surfaced if they only focused on their best ideas. When people are asked to generate bad ideas, they defer judgment and push beyond obvious solutions. In fact, the craziest ideas often turn out to be the most interesting ones when looked at through the frame of possibility.

What is the brainstorming process?

Once you have the right space, people, and question, and have reminded everyone of the rules, your goal is to make the process as fluid as possible. Only one conversation should be happening at a time, so that everyone is in sync. Along the way, you are going to want to challenge participants to look at the problem from different points of view.

One approach is to remove the most obvious solutions from the pool of possibilities, so that you have to come up with something else. This forces you to tackle the challenge without the expected tool in your toolbox. For example, if you are brainstorming about ways to make it easier to park your car in a busy city, the expected answer is to add more parking spaces. If you eliminate that possibility, then other, less obvious answers will emerge.

During a brainstorming session, you should also throw out surprising and provocative prompts along the way that will help the group push past their assumptions. For example, if you are coming up with ideas for a new playground, you could ask how someone might design a playground on the moon or underwater. You could ask how you might design it one hundred years in the future or in the past. You could ask how a child would design it or someone with a disability. You could ask how you would design it with one dollar or with a million dollars. Or, you can solicit ideas for the most dangerous playground in the world. In fact, studies have shown that the farther away you get from your current place and time, both physically and mentally, the more imaginative your ideas. These prompts provide a convenient way to do this.

In addition, it is important to build on other people’s ideas. In a perfect brainstorm, there is a rhythm to the discussion, and it feels like a dance. Someone comes up with an idea, and several people build on it for a short time. Then you jump to a new approach. The dance could be called “Build, Build, Build, Jump!” To make this work smoothly, all the ideas should be written as short statements, such as “Build a house on the moon” or “Give everyone a key to the building,” rather than long descriptions that look like business plans. The short statements are like newspaper headlines for each of the ideas.

How are ideas captured?

Make sure that everyone has a pen and paper or sticky notes. This might sound remedial, but it isn’t. If only one person is at the board writing down ideas, then they control which ideas are captured. When everyone writes, you avoid the “tyranny of the pen,” where the person with the pen controls the flow of ideas and what is captured. In addition, if everyone has a pen and paper, they can write or draw their ideas in real time, without having to wait for a hole in the conversation. When they do speak up, they will have already captured their idea, so it will be faster to add it to the board.

Using sticky notes enables each person to write down ideas as they arise and then put them on the board when the time is right. They also force participants to write short “headlines” to summarize each idea rather than spending too much time writing lots of details. Sticky notes also allow you to reorganize and cluster similar ideas together as patterns emerge. All this adds to the creative spirit of the brainstorming session.

How much time does a brainstorming session take?

It is generally impossible to keep the energy needed for productive brainstorming going for more than about an hour. This means that there should be a clear limit to the amount of time you brainstorm. A flash brainstorming session of ten to fifteen minutes will work if all the participants know each other well and can quickly dive into idea generation. A longer session of forty-five to sixty minutes yields the best results. A key is to make the session long enough to get beyond the early waves of ideas. However, these longer sessions should be broken up into smaller segments by injecting various prompts along the way in order to keep the discussion fresh and everyone engaged.

It is best to end a brainstorming session on a high note, leaving everyone wanting more. In fact, few things feel better than a robust brainstorming session. Everyone feels invigorated and validated, as others build on their ideas. If you don’t feel great at the end of a brainstorming session, you have done it wrong.

At the end of the session, the room should be saturated with ideas. There should be words and drawings covering the walls and prototypes on the tables. It should look and feel as though the subject has been fully explored, providing a rich collection of material that can be mined.

What do you do when you are done?

Sometimes the end of a brainstorming session is the most challenging part of the process. As discussed earlier, those who are part of the brainstorming session represent a wide range of perspectives, but are not the ones who will decide which ideas to implement. Even so, the participants are usually eager to pick their favorite ideas, and it is helpful to know their preferences.

To address this, you can give all the participants a chance to vote for their top choices in several different categories. For example, ask each person to put a red star next to the ideas that will have the biggest impact, a blue star next to those that can be implemented quickly, and a green star next to the ideas that are most cost effective. This process gives the decision makers useful input on what to do next, and it provides everyone involved with a chance to express an opinion.

The final step is to capture all that happened. Take photos of all of the ideas, make notes about the best ones, and save all the materials that can be saved. They are the valuable products of the brainstorming session. The person or team who is in charge of making the decisions about the project can mine this massive collection of diverse ideas and decide which ones to pursue. These materials can be revisited at any time in the future. As time goes by, some of the ideas that seem impractical might look promising.

This scratches the surface of effective brainstorming strategies. The more you brainstorm, the more questions you discover. The key is to “Practice Practice Practice” in order to learn and master the nuances of effective brainstorming, must like a violinist who wants to make it to Carnegie Hall.