Business colleagues brainstorming multicolored labels stuck on whiteboard in meeting


Sitting here staring at my keyboard and wondering what to write in this weeks blog led me to a favourite topic of mine : brainstorming.

Now we all know how to brainstorm don’t we? Well actually we don’t.

There is far more to the topic than most of us acknowledge. For example one of the best reference books I have come across on brainstorming, Techniques of Structured Problem Solving by Van Grundy, has a 120 page section on generating ideas, of which many fall into the brainstorming kind.

Brainstorming is used in most organisations and teams at some stage and for most of the time is is completely ineffective. So why is this?

Let me list some of the issues that are blocks to effective brainstorming.

1. Brainstorming usually takes place in a boardroom or seated around a table. 

Well actually this is the worst space in which to brainstorm. It  tends to lead to a complacency of thought and only logical rational ideas being generated.

Throw out the table, stand not sit, or even better walk outside, and see how ideas flow better!

2.  Brainstorming is done by getting people to shout out loud their ideas.

This can of course work, however it favours the extrovert and leaves the introvert out of the picture.

Try a period of silent brainstorming, or brainwriting as it is often called. In this everyone has a set of post-its or cards and writes one idea on each. They then get pinned up and sorted later.

3.  Brainstorming is done in 10 minutes or less.

This is not enough time to allow the unconscious to get to work.

Try for  periods of around 30 minutes or have intervals of different activities intertwined with brainstorming and change the format of the brainstorming.

4. Brainstorming is about a ‘free for all’.

Well yes and no. Ideas need to be allowed to be expressed freely, however a set of rules is required for the climate to be conducive to effective brainstorming:

  • Criticism is ruled out
  • Freewheeling is welcomed
  • Quantity of ideas is sought, the more the better
  • Combining ideas and building on others is good also.

5.  Brainstorming is about coming up with words to represent ideas.

However it can be stimulated by images, metaphor, sculpture, etc. The idea here is that a whole variety of stimuli can be used to seek out further ideas around the topic.

Here I have tried to offer some ways of improving brainstorming and have also introduced some different formats to aid brainstorming.

What are your favourite approaches to generating ideas through brainstorming?

Barbara is an executive coach, change and creativity facilitator.