The hero is faced with a huge—potentially insurmountable—challenge. A random event or object sparks their creativity, and suddenly they devise a brilliant solution to save the day.
As romantic as this narrative is, it’s also highly unrealistic. Most of us don’t spontaneously develop genius ideas. We have to put ourselves in the right conditions and work hard to think of ideas.
That’s where brainstorming comes in. Brainstorming helps us be innovative on demand—that is, when it works. It can also quickly be a waste of time discussing random ideas. If you want to generate great ideas, the key is to brainstorm effectively. Here's how.
The History of Brainstorming
As central as brainstorming feels to modern work culture, it’s actually relatively new. In 1948, advertising executive Alex Osborn published Your Creative Power, a book with a chapter on brainstorming or "using the brain to storm a creative problem—and doing so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective," as he defined it.
Osborn said his team used this technique to generate 87 ideas in 90 minutes. To help others take advantage of its creative power, he outlined four primary rules:
No negative feedback
Focus on quantity over quality
Use others’ ideas as launchpads
Encourage big thinking
Brainstorming was a huge hit. It’s become one of the most popular ways to come up with new ideas. But as anyone who’s ever sat through endless—and unproductive—brainstorming sessions knows, it can also be a huge waste of time.
To make sure both your independent and group brainstorming sessions lead to novel (and useful!) ideas, experiment with these 12 strategies both on your own and with a group.
5 Ways to Brainstorm on Your Own
Independent brainstorming may seem like an oxymoron. However, Osborn’s own research shows it can be more effective than group collaboration. A 1958 Yale study found people working by themselves developed twice as many solutions to creative puzzles as those in groups.
Try these strategies next time you’re solo and need to spark some creativity—and perhaps give them a try before your team brainstorming sessions, to come ready with ideas.
1. Find Word Associations
Leadership trainer Andy Kelund recommends choosing a random noun (ideally one that’s unconnected to the focus of your brainstorming session) and combining it with your brainstorming focus. Use the union as a springboard for more ideas.
Suppose you want to host an event for your customers. You open a dictionary, flip to an arbitrary page, and see the word "frog." This reminds you of the frog your school photographer used to bring to picture day to make kids smile, which inspires you to hire professional photographers to take LinkedIn headshots at the event.
Kelund says if the first word doesn’t work, just pick another.
2. Use a Prompt
Just as writers use written prompts to find inspiration, you can use prompts to think of your next brilliant idea.
Packs of creative work cards known as "method cards" were popularized by design agency IDEO. These cards would include different prompts to help you think, say, about the material you'd use or the customer group you're focusing on. You can find example decks on Method Kit, with brainstorming prompts for projects, personal development, product developments, startups, marketing and PR, workshop planning, personas, and more.
Alternatively, ask a coworker to make up a prompt for you. The best prompts are pretty abstract phrases (like "Describe your challenge or goal to a five-year-old" or "Do the last thing first"), so your colleague doesn’t need to be familiar with what you’re doing.
3. Use a Visual Jumpstart
Pick an interesting image that’s somehow related to the focus of your brainstorm. For the customer marketing event brainstorm example, you might select a photo of customers, a conference, or people mingling. Search Google Images for a photo to use.
Write down everything that comes to mind when you look at that photo: phrases, memories, and related thoughts.
Once you’ve completely exhausted your associations, review the list and see if anything jumps out. If you can’t find an item with obvious potential, try combining two or more thoughts.
4. Give Yourself Boundaries
It seems counterintuitive, but boundaries can make you more creative. The fewer resources you have to work with, the more inventive you have to be—perhaps a way to tap that superhero gift of coming up with solutions in crisis.
To benefit from this effect, take whatever problem or opportunity you’re trying to brainstorm for—and amp up the difficulty.
For instance, if you have three months to create a new user acquisition strategy, ask yourself how you’d approach the same project if you only had one month—or a day.
Perhaps you have a $10,000 partner marketing budget. Challenge yourself to create a plan using $5,000 or even $500.
Use the solutions you develop as a springboard for your fully-fledged idea, or surprise your manager by hitting your goal before the deadline or under budget.
5. Take Away Boundaries
On the flip side, giving yourself mental freedom can also help you innovate. Try imagining you had as much of one resource as you wanted to get the job done—whether that’s time, money, expertise, or help from your co-workers. What would you do?
Take that idea, and scope it down.
As an example, suppose your company is opening a new office, and you’re responsible for the PR campaign. If you had a blank check, you might buy Snapchat Spectacles for every attendee and turn their videos from the night into a cool promo video.
Because you don’t have an unlimited budget, you turn this idea into paying for a Snapchat filter, encouraging participants to add your brand on the app and giving prizes to those who send you Snaps.
7 Ways to Best Brainstorm as a Group
Group brainstorming can be productive—with a little structure. Here are some of the best ways:
1. Create Diverse Teams
Rather than holding a brainstorming session with your team or department, create a cross-functional group of people from all different parts of your company to benefit from diverse viewpoints and skills.
Research suggests adding new team members with current ones will improve the quality of ideas. Northwestern sociologist Brian Uzzi studied 474 Broadway musicals and found those with "intermediate" levels of social intimacy were three times more likely to do well with both critics and the audience—as opposed to those with "high" levels of cohesion, aka teams who always work together.
Fresh voices lets you avoid groupthink—but if a group is too unfamiliar, people often clash. Having a range of relationships gives you the best of both worlds.
2. Try Brainwriting
Just as how the first number you say in a negotiation tends to influence the final outcome, the first ideas people share in a brainstorming session affects the entire discussion.
Kellogg professor Loran Nordgren explains that sharing ideas in groups isn't always effective. Thanks to conformity, "early ideas tend to have disproportionate influence over the rest of the conversation. They establish the kinds of norms, or cement the idea of what are appropriate examples or potential solutions for the problem."
One solution? A process called "brainwriting." Participants write down their ideas before or at the very beginning of the meeting, and then come together to talk about them.
Ideally, ideas are anonymous. Consider having team members put their ideas on Post-It notes on a wall, then ask everyone to vote for their favorites.
Alternatively, you can use a free app like Candor. Candor sends your question to your participants, gathers their responses, and turns each idea into "cards" that you can use to organize your discussions.
3. Use the 6-3-5 Method
One variation of brainwriting, the 6-3-5 method—where 6 people generate 3 ideas in 5 minute—is a simple way to generate 108 ideas in a half hour. You need six participants—ideally not more, as the meeting would become hard to manage. If you only have four or five team members, this method will still work (although you’ll have fewer ideas).
Give everyone a separate piece of paper and ask them to write down three ideas in five minutes. Then have them pass their paper to the right. They have another five minutes to write down another three ideas before passing their papers to the right again. Repeat until their paper makes its way back to them.
It's like the game of telephone, reinvented for creative brainstorming.
4. Brainstorm with an "Outsider"
Sometimes, all you need is a new pair of eyes looking at your problem. Ask someone outside your company to brainstorm with you—ideally, someone who’s in your role at a company that’s not in your space or a direct competitor. For example, if you work in co-marketing at an IT software company, you might brainstorm with a co-marketing professional at a tourism business.
Send each other your questions or prompts ahead of time (like, "I need a name for this new product" or "I want to grow email sign-ups by 20% this month"). Then take turns brainstorming together in-person, over chat, or on Skype.
5. Flip your Worst Ideas
If the mood in your brainstorming session becomes negative, don’t try to fight it. Make that energy productive with the "worst idea" exercise.
Ask everyone to write down their craziest, most inane, least feasible ideas. Then challenge them to somehow turn those ideas into good ones—either by changing or adding a key detail, or doing the opposite of what they proposed
You might end up with some fantastic suggestions. Even if you don’t, everyone will be more productive after stretching their minds a bit.
6. Encourage Criticism
Debate encourages divergent thinking and enhances the quality of thought and decisions of the group.
One of Osborn’s core brainstorming tenets—"no criticism"—is misguided. Charlan Nemeth, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, found that groups encouraged to debate generated 20% more ideas than those told not to critique each other’s ideas.
Besides telling your team members to give constructive feedback, you can harness this effect by setting up debates. First, come up with a question or a prompt. If you’re searching for ways to increase webinar registrations, for example, you might ask every member of your team to prepare a creative idea to drive registration that costs less than $1,000.
At the brainstorming meeting, then, pair your members off. Have them debate their ideas one group at a time. You might give the first person three minutes to explain their proposal, four minutes for their partner to ask questions, one minute for their partner to critique it, and two minutes for the first person to defend it. Then ask the second person to present their proposal.
For an added twist, tell partners to switch ideas. Not only will this exercise force your team members to challenge their own assumptions, it’ll also put them into problem-solving mode.
7. Share Inspiration
Brainstorming shouldn’t be an isolated event. To foster a constant stream of ideas, create a shared file where everyone can store their random thoughts and inspiration. That might be a Trello board, Google Drive or Dropbox folder, Pinterest board, or just a text file or Google Doc that everyone adds ideas to.
Ask people to mull over a specific prompt such as "Develop a user-generated content campaign," or find examples of a bigger theme like "Brand awareness plays."
You can even create a room in your team chat app for brainstorming. This approach makes it easy to riff on each other’s ideas; for instance, one person might link to a noteworthy campaign, while another might comment with a related thought three hours later.
Brainstorming isn’t typically that productive. Add some structure, though, and you can turn a random stream of thoughts into actionable ideas that will actually produce great results.
Still stuck? Check out our guide on How to Generate More Good Ideas—which recommends that you need to come up with a ton of ideas, even bad ideas, to find the good stuff that comes to the surface.
Have your own brainstorming tricks? We'd love to hear how you and your team come up with great new ideas in the comments below!