How to Brainstorm Effectively

The ability to generate ideas — and implement them efficiently — is crucial for the long-term success of businesses, yet few take the time to create a culture that truly fosters creativity and innovation. The first step to establishing such a culture within a professional environment is to learn how to brainstorm effectively.

Team Brainstorming

But, before exploring ways in which you can facilitate the perfect brainstorming session, let’s take a quick look at the origin of this popular technique. Brainstorming originated as a solution to a problem we are all familiar with — how do you come up with a unique, novel idea within the context of a professional environment? Advertising executive Alex Osborn felt that the traditional meeting environment suppressed the free flow of original ideas, so, he came up with a strategy that would involve adhering to a set of rules. This would be the catalyst needed in order to create a space where creativity could flourish. This strategy would later become known as brainstorming.

Osborn’s rules restricted judgment, encouraged a high quantity of suggestions, sought collaboration and celebrated bold proposals. While his rules remain at the heart of modern brainstorming, these values have evolved into a variety of techniques and methods. The goal of brainstorming — creativity — has remained unchanged, but further refinement over the years has allowed businesses to approach the practice from many angles and for a range of purposes.
We’ve created a guide that includes the six most effective brainstorming techniques, along with practical examples, to equip you for organizing a brainstorming session that can yield the best results.

1. Clarify the Goal

Before brainstorming, it’s good to set the focus of the session. Preparation can make sure everyone is on the same wavelength. What’s the ultimate objective of the meeting? Are you developing real solutions for company problems? Setting the focus of the session is simple. As simple as writing a short brief. For instance, if your company is releasing a product later in the year, your brief could be about crafting a memorable, creative strapline. Clarifying your goal in the beginning allows you to track and measure the results afterward. Did you reach your goals? Did you accomplish what you set out to?

Then, make sure you post the brief in an accessible place so that everyone can reference it. That gives all team members a reference point and acts as a reminder of the session’s purpose. That way, you can also ensure no one veers off course.

Keeping on task is another obstacle you might face, but using an external facilitator or moderator will make sure your group reaches its goals and achieves what it set out to achieve. Look for someone who has experience in facilitating brainstorming sessions. Someone who can trigger productive discussions, steer the group toward a high volume of ideas, in a criticism-free zone.

Taking Notes

2. Loosen Up

Think of all those times you’ve attended a meeting where the same, predictable course of action has been suggested again and again. Staying in your comfort zone gets in the way of brainstorming. Everyone has the ability to think creatively under the right circumstances. In order to brainstorm successfully, get everyone to loosen up, feel inspired so that the process can take off.

So, how do you get a group of colleagues, who only know each other in a professional setting, to loosen up? How can your team prevent corporate protocol from holding them back from exceptional ideas? According to a study from Northwestern, an embarrassing tale is the icebreaker you need. In the experiment, instead of the traditional “I am so-and-so…” introduction, individuals were encouraged to share an embarrassing moment with the group. Afterward, the groups brainstormed. Blush-worthy stories managed to get participants to drop their guards, and this led to 26 percent more ideas than usual. Plus, the range of ideas was broader than usual, with 15 percent more areas of discussion.

So, a little uneasiness at the start can help people loosen up and generate an atmosphere where unique thinking can thrive. Start sessions off with unexpected activities to trigger out-of-the-box thinking.

3. Embrace Collaboration

Many believe that brainstorming as a group is less productive than as an individual. That’s because group settings have the potential to become chaotic, and, offer spotlight to only the most outspoken members. While there are benefits to separating people, the team dynamic can thrive through collaboration. Also, building on one another’s’ ideas can lead to unique results and foster company cohesiveness.

But how do you get all individuals to collaborate? Try using good old-fashioned pen and paper. Putting ideas on paper gives everyone an equal opportunity to collaborate, and this can change the success level of the session. Researchers examined this by looking at the order of brainstorming – through group and individual writing. One group passed around slips of paper and built ideas together, while the other jotted down their own ideas first. The group that generated ideas together produced a whopping 37 percent more ideas. The results of this study display how collaboration can be profitable when each member of the group has an equal say.

You can use a method like this too. Establish equality by facilitating a session where everyone can write down their ideas separately and then discuss them together.  

Multicultural group meeting

4. Use Limitations

It may seem counterintuitive to create a free-flowing environment that fosters creativity and then say, “Wait! Add constraints.” But, restrictions can actually increase creativity and serve as a healthy incentive for inspiration.

Set deadlines for your team to finish collecting ideas for instance. Many artistic geniuses and innovators appreciate restrictions in their creative work process. Architect Frank Gehry, who constructed the Guggenheim Museum, let limitations provoke him to craft masterpieces. In the same way, appropriate boundaries can instigate ideas.

You could set a time limit for your brainstorm session – the pressure will certainly motivate any team into using imaginative thinking. Time-tracking software like Toggl can provide a helpful boundary for your team and enhance online collaboration sessions.

5. Value Diversity and Individual Input

Whilst brainstorming, be sure to prioritize individual perspectives so that you can reap the benefits of divergent thinking. Your biggest assets at a brainstorming session are the minds that are sitting with you.

Each person’s experience, worldview and background allows them to address a puzzle from a different angle. Fresh ideas from different outlooks, personalities and specialty areas can keep your team from chiming in, “Someone else already said my answer.” You also have a greater chance of gaining original insight when you value multiple points of view. So, valuing diversity and divergent thinking can yield a wide array of potential solutions.

One way to highlight individual thought is through a question-generating technique called framestorming. First, everyone hears a problem that would require a solution. Everyone is then divided into smaller groups. These groups are tasked to come up with questions about the problem (one person records). Each group then finalizes their questions. Next, everyone agrees on the top three questions from the list. The process is complete after a reflection period, and the questions then become actionable projects.

6. Map out Your Ideas

Creating a summary of sessions creative outputs and team suggestions makes it easier to spot promising ideas. Actually visually mapping out information can highlight the connection between thoughts and direct your next steps.

But how exactly is a visual summary of the session useful? Well, the human retina transmits data at approximately 10 million bits per second, meaning that people receive information by sight quickly. Once data is in a conveyable form, it can lead to decision-making. A strategy called data visualization links separate ideas in a big-picture format.

Also, creating a visual record of the session can help you store and manage ideas. If you use a systematic and organized method, you can easily return to these results later. A mind map is the ideal tool to do this because it offers a visual summary. Mind-mapping software can piece together distinct thoughts for your group to observe and build upon. 

Mind map on white board

Facilitate a Profitable Brainstorming Session

Nurturing creative thinking is a complex process, but you can stimulate your team by valuing individuals and embracing collaboration.

All in all, the key to organizing an effective brainstorming session within a professional environment is to be prepared! Setting your goal for the session helps with your preparation. Make sure that everyone loosens up and use limitations for that added extra little challenge.  Keep a record by mapping out your ideas. And remember, brainstorming is an effective technique to develop ideas, so always keep the environment and atmosphere light-hearted and non-judgmental, that way you ensure the most creative outcome.

Unlock your creativity with online mind mapping!

Try MindMeister