Generating ideas with brainstorming

Brainstorming is the commonly used method to generate ideas. It is a group activity where the group’s collective thinking is used to come up with many ideas—booking a specific time allocated to brainstorming highlights to attendees that they have a defined period to generate ideas, and that the evaluation will come later. The technique first appeared in Alex Osborn’s 1942 book How to think up.

Ideation: the formation of ideas or concepts.

Oxford Languages

Brainstorming is a problem-solving process used to activate prior knowledge, develop possible theories or hypotheses, and identify things to research further. The session’s aim should be to construct a shared model to explain the problem and provide a clear direction for what to do next. Design Thinking, Design Sprints, and Problem-Based Learning (PBL) all make heavy use of brainstorming as a collaborative idea generation method. 

In PBL, once questions have been identified from the trigger material, the group brainstorms what they already know and identify potential solutions. The group then analyses and structures the brainstorming session’s output and uses missing knowledge to create learning objectives. Each group member then independently researches the objectives, and then they come back to discuss findings.

The Interaction Design Foundation rules for brainstorming

The Interaction Design Foundation has eight rules for running brainstorming sessions: 

  1. Set a time limit.
  2. Start with a question, a plan or a goal – and stay focused on the topic.
  3. Defer judgement or criticism, including non-verbal.
  4. Encourage weird, wacky and wild ideas.
  5. Aim for quantity.
  6. Build on each others’ ideas.
  7. Be visual.
  8. Allow one conversation at a time.

The key to generating new ideas is a challenging question or problem statement, get that right, and the rest is down to the people you get in the room. Have a single, specific problem statement that expresses a point of view or a question that challenges the groups’ assumptions. 

Do not let anyone evaluate any idea or answer as they are created. Coming up with ideas needs to be dynamic so shorter sessions of up to 60 minutes work best and force people to focus on new ideas rather than evaluating them. If you choose to go longer, never have more than 90 minutes without a break. 

Encourage as many crazy, wacky, and alternative ideas as possible; it is a quantity session, the quality will be developed from the ideas at a later session. Whiteboards with markers or post-it notes on a wall make it easy for people to follow and inspire more ideas, so prepare the room before you start. 

Switching between the two modes of individual and collective ideation sessions can be seamless—and highly productive. Alex Osborn’s 1950s classic Applied Imagination gave advice that is still relevant: Creativity comes from a blend of individual and collective ideation.

Interaction Design Foundation

Brain dumping – the brainstorm for individuals

Brainstorming is a group activity whereas the brain dump is its solo equivalent. By dumping all your ideas about something onto a page and out of your head, you open up mental space to more creative ideas.

You can use individual brain dumps and group brainstorming together for even better results and make sure everyone contributes. Getting each group member to do a brain dump at the start can help quiet group members contribute and free up everyone’s headspace for new ideas. You can use brain dumps after a brainstorming session to continue the conversation after the group session. Allocate five minutes at the start of the session for each member to write questions or ideas on paper or post-it notes and then share their thoughts, put these in a visible place and group together any duplicate ideas.

Try the better brainstorming technique

Hal Gregersen published a three-step method to better brainstorming sessions in the Harvard Business Review. The technique focuses on questions rather than answers to get group members excited about the challenge presented and avoids the negative traps present in many ideation sessions.

Step 1: Set the stage

Select a challenge you care deeply about and invite people that will see that challenge from fresh angles. Set our the problem in a maximum of 2 minutes, this will keep it high level and avoid constraining the questions with too much context.

Set two rules

  1. Questions only
  2. No preambles or justifications to questions

Step 2: Brainstorm the questions

Set a timer for 4 minutes and ask a group to generate as many questions as possible within this time. Aim for 15 questions in the 4 minutes to keep the pressure up and the focus on questions only. Once complete, check with the group about how they feel about the challenge, if needed, rerun the 4 minutes until the group is excited.

Step 3: Identify a quest – and commit to it

Study the questions and select a few interesting ones. Try to expand these questions with a set of follow-up questions related to them. Once the challenge is fully understood, and multiple approaches have emerged, commit to at least one pathway.

Let me know on Twitter if you give this a try. I will be doing a brain dump and then group brainstorm for my project 4W/KG in the coming week and will share the outcome.