I spent many years as a management trainer. I'm passionately interested in life-long learning, writing, researching, and many other things.
What Is Brainstorming?
Brainstorming is a way of generating loads and loads of ideas on a particular subject, especially when you have a problem that you don't know how to solve. It can also be called "idea generation." It gives you a way of getting a fresh look at the problem and many different possible solutions, even some that you might think of as "silly," but which could be turned into a useful solution or way of helping.
There are many ways of brainstorming, including the use of a mind map, but the classic technique uses a group of people and a whiteboard or flip chart. Other ways of brainstorming include the use of yellow stickies (Post-It notes or similar).
How to Brainstorm: First Steps
State the Problem
To brainstorm solutions to a problem, you first need to state what the problem is: it could be "how to sell more widgets", "how to go on holiday with no money", "how to decorate the house on a very low budget", "how to learn a foreign language quickly", "how to choose an outfit for a fancy dress party", basically any question you can ask that has more than one possible answer.
Assemble a Small Group
Preferably, you need a group of people. Probably between three and eight is best—not too many, not too few. With more people, some get left out (or feel left out) and don't contribute. With fewer people, you don't get the mix and sudden flashes of inspiration that can come when one person's ideas spark another idea in someone else. But if there's only you - don't be afraid to try it out just by yourself - you may well be very pleasantly surprised by the results.
Gather Some Tools
You also need some tools to assist in this project. Any one of the following will work:
- Whiteboard and pens
- Flipchart and pens
- A handy wall and some yellow sticky notes (Post-It notes)
Note: Sticky notes are the easiest for subsequent sorting.
Have you brainstormed before?
Four Rules of Brainstorming
There are four ground rules for brainstorming. These are:
- Quantity NOT quality. You want to get as many ideas being provided as possible, even if some of the ideas seem silly - just get them down or shouted out.
- No criticising. In this stage, you do NOT criticise the ideas (or the person) in any way. It is ok to ask for clarification, ie, could you say a few more words about that, but NO "that won't work" and no "but how would we do it?". Don't worry about how to do it, or how much it will cost, etc at this stage - that comes later.
- Piggyback ideas. That means that one person's idea(s) sparks an idea in someone else. For instance, someone might say "hold regular coffee mornings" and someone else might "piggyback" on that and say "have an end of year party", someone else might "piggyback" on that and say "have a post-audit party".
- Be creative. Wild and whacky suggestions encouraged. There is NO criticism or evaluation at this stage and ALL suggestions should be put forward, with a huge emphasis on creative, off-the-wall, whacky ideas.
It can be useful to write the ground rules out and pin them up where everyone can see them, so they can be pointed to if anyone starts to criticise a suggestion. All suggestions and all contributors should be given equal weight.Everyone's contribution is worthwhile and should be respected as such.
Video of Brainstorming Rules
The Nitty Gritty of Brainstorming
OK, let's get down to it.
- If you are using a whiteboard or flip chart and pens, then you will need someone to be scribe or notetaker. If you are using a wall and sticky notes, then everyone needs a pad of sticky notes and a pen or pencil.
- The scribe writes the question at the top of the whiteboard or flipchart pad or the organizer prints it on a piece of paper for sticking on the wall.
- You can "warm everyone up" by asking a warm-up question, such as, "How many uses can you think of for a paperclip" (or a foam coffee cup, or a tennis shoe etc).
- Get everyone to shout out suggestions, eg, for a paperclip, suggestions for uses might be: hang a picture, pick your nails, eat snails, open it up and unclog the shredder (turn the power off first!), use it as a plant tie, etc.
- Once everyone is warmed up and excited or at least, reasonably enthused, start on the "real" question.
- The scribe or organizer reads out the question and asks for everyone's contribution, then writes it on the board or flip chart. If you are using a wall, everyone writes down their own suggestion on a sticky note and the organizer asks participants to read out their suggestions, then in turn, to stick their notes on the wall.
- Once you have a lot of suggestions, or the rate of suggestions is falling off, ask for a few more. Quite often the last suggestions "squeezed out" can be the best.
How to Organise the Results
Now, you need to organise the suggestions. This is easiest with the sticky notes and wall method.
Group the Ideas
- Sticky notes: Ask people to go up to the wall and organise the sticky notes into similar groups, so all the sticky notes that make similar suggestions are grouped together. Just move the sticky notes round to do this. One person may want to put a sticky note in one group and someone else may want to put it in another group. If so, just duplicate the note, so one can go in each group.
- Whiteboard or flip chart: The group needs to go through the suggestions and say which ones should be grouped together and whether any are duplicates which could (with the suggestor's agreement) be removed. Different coloured pens or highlighters are useful here.
- Once the suggestions have been grouped the first time, now by agreement in the group, you need to find a "name" for each group. It could be something like "use blue widgets to plug the holes."
- Once you have a name for each group, see if you can group some of these groups together, using the group names you created in the previous step. So you might have two group names: "use blue widgets to plug the holes" and ""use yellow widgets to plug the holes". Find a name for that group. It might be "Widgets for plugging holes".
- Continue this way, trying to make one overarching group name that includes everything suggested but you may not be able to do this.
- Once you have grouped everything as far as you can, it's time for a break.
How to Evaluate the Results
Once all the suggestions have been made and grouped as far as possible, it's time to evaluate them. Up until now, there has been no criticism allowed, no negativity, no "that won't work". But now, it's time to sort out the useful from the not so useful. If this is being done as part of a business session, it is often the top group that works on this by themselves. If it is being done by a social group, then it is better for everyone to keep working at it to reach consensus.
Evaluating the session does not mean throwing out all the whacky, off-the-wall suggestions. These have a use and it's not just to get others to piggyback useful suggestions onto them. With having grouped all the brainstormed suggestions into categories, it's necessary to look at all those suggestions and see if you can make a helpful combination solution to your problem from them.
For instance, the category "plug leaks with widgets", might include the categories, "plug with blue widgets" and "plug with yellow widgets". Whoever is looking at this category needs to consider how this category fits with the overall question put up at the start of the session and how the suggestions made within this category could be used to solve the problem. You may end up using only yellow widgets, or only blue widgets or some entirely different, combination, maybe green widgets.
If there are a lot of categories, you could get different groups to work on each one and then have a wind-up session at the end where each group presents their findings for general agreement.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Your thoughts on brainstorming and other creative problem solving techniques?
DreamerMeg (author) from Northern Ireland on February 14, 2020:
Yes, trying several possibilities and giving yourself permission to say "this is just practice" frees up the creative vision.
Denise McGill from Fresno CA on February 12, 2020:
This is very artistic in nature. I've used a brainstorming method to come up with illustration possibilities for a story. Often the first one that I thought was good isn't the best one and after 5 or 6 sketches I'm loosened up enough to think outside the box and from different perspectives. That's when the magic happens.
DreamerMeg (author) from Northern Ireland on December 09, 2017:
Yes, I love making wild and wacky suggestions but sometimes, they end up the best, with a bit of editing!
Nell Rose from England on December 05, 2017:
Working in an office we are used to doing this, and yes its a great way to get to the solution. Mind you some of the suggestions do go slightly off mark sometimes! lol! but we get there in the end.
DreamerMeg (author) from Northern Ireland on July 17, 2016:
Thanks so much Paul and for visiting and commenting.
Paul Richard Kuehn from Udorn City, Thailand on July 16, 2016:
Thanks for an excellent and informative hub, Meg. When I was teaching English in Bangkok, I introduced brainstorming to some of my students and they really loved and enjoyed the idea. I am sharing this hub with HP followers and on Facebook.
DreamerMeg (author) from Northern Ireland on June 05, 2014:
Yes, commenting on blogs or responding to other people's questions is a good way of brainstorming and also of seeing things from others' points of view. Thank you for visiting and commenting.
informationshelte on June 05, 2014:
You have made it really clear how to apply brainstorming in practice. This technique is the first step towards effective problem solving, whether in personal life or business situations.
Just to attempt and take it a bit further (as my personal brainstorming contribution to your discussion!) I would like to suggest the idea that commenting on blogs, hubs, etc. is a sort of online brainstorming and the global online community is the source of ideas and different perspectives on various issues. That's incredible, I think, and this is how comments should be used in practice!
I agree with you that it's important for any unorthodox ideas that may arise through brainstorming to stay free of criticism, provided that they are presented with a good intention.
DreamerMeg (author) from Northern Ireland on August 14, 2013:
Thanks for visiting. Brainstorming is useful for anyone from small children (who are great at it) to old grannies and granddads, who can also be good at it and use it to find new ways of doing things!
Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on August 13, 2013:
Useful ideas, Meg. Thanks for sharing.
DreamerMeg (author) from Northern Ireland on March 12, 2013:
Thanks very much for visiting. There are plenty of ways of coming up with ideas, we just have to practice them :)
torrilynn on March 11, 2013:
really great tips here on brainstorming
it is one of many steps of coming up with ideas
and putting them to use
thanks and Voted up
DreamerMeg (author) from Northern Ireland on March 05, 2013:
Thank you for visiting. Yes, brainstorming seems to have dropped out of sight and yet I continue to find it useful for myself and I think many others do too.
Gail Meyers from Johnson County, Kansas on March 05, 2013:
Brainstorming is an idea I learned in a creative writing class in high school, but I do not hear much about it anymore. I think it can be an effective and helpful tool. Thanks for some great tips on how to get started. Voted up and useful.
DreamerMeg (author) from Northern Ireland on August 23, 2012:
Thank you very much.
DreamerMeg (author) from Northern Ireland on August 22, 2012:
Thanks very much for your comment and interest.
Deb Welch on August 22, 2012:
Good and useful Hub - I found it interesting. Yes - I have done some of this activity within a work site and it really accomplished much. Thanks, have a pleasant day.