Is it typical for you to get dragged into formal or informal brainstorming sessions, but you don’t get much out of them? If so, you’re not alone. For valid or invalid reasons, you may have mixed feelings about brainstorming. For example, an executive or manager who is overly critical probably messed up most of your brainstorming sessions.
There’s no escape from brainstorming, so what’s the best way to go about it? What are the most popular techniques of brainstorming? But, first, what is brainstorming?
Brainstorming is a process where people come up with creative solutions to problems. It also helps blend different ideas together. It’s usually a group activity where everyone adds ideas spontaneously.
Brainstorming is effective when you prepare and have a set of guidelines.
Alex Osborn, an advertising executive in the 1940s, developed the method he called “Think Up” after being frustrated with employees’ inability to come up with creative advertising campaigns. Later on, it was called brainstorming.
It was Osborn who came up with the four rules of brainstorming to boost employee creativity. Even though brainstorming is one of the world’s most widely recognized creative tools, these four rules aren’t as widely known.
Osborn’s 4 rules of brainstorming
Focus on the number of ideas, and ideally, those ideas should be short.
- Focus on large quantities of ideas
- Withhold criticism
Don’t criticize others’ ideas and reinforce the notion that any idea is welcome.
- Encourage wild ideas
No idea is too ridiculous or bizarre; the wilder, the better!
- Build on ideas from others
Wild ideas morph into viable solutions.
These rules were created to focus on one issue at a time.
Rule #1: Focus on large quantities of ideas, not quality
Brainstorming is all about quantity. An efficient brainstorming session generates lots of ideas without making participants feel pressured. Any restriction that limits ideas undermines the goal of brainstorming. Freewheeling thinking usually leads to wild, outlandish ideas, so don’t hold back.
Most of us have difficulty getting into the ‘Speak before you think’ mindset, especially in business settings. But it’s essential to brainstorming. There’s no need to come up with well-thought-out complete solutions.
Speed is important when brainstorming as a team. It allows you to bounce easily from one idea to another and let people be more uninhibited. Try to grasp the essence of the idea as quickly as possible. It takes a lot of pressure off the participants.
The more ideas you have, the easier it is to pick a good one. Also, it’s easier to modify those ideas later than to come up with brand new ones.
Rule #2: Withhold criticism
Hold off on criticizing the ideas until after the brainstorming session. For some people, it’s the hardest rule to follow. Often, disapproval is communicated through facial expressions. So, no rolling of the eyes.
There’s more. You can’t praise ideas either. In a way, praising some ideas is like critiquing others. Giving feedback on someone’s idea takes a lot of mental energy. It might be a good idea to focus on new ideas instead of overanalyzing the ones you already know.
Our brain takes a while to process our thoughts, so occasionally, we say, “I wasn’t serious!” or “Just kidding!” However, when you brainstorm, it’s recorded anyway. Nothing is discounted. This rule keeps people from backtracking and improving on their previous ideas.
Rule #3: Encourage wild ideas
No idea should be off-limits during brainstorming. Think outside the box, but don’t miss the obvious and simple suggestions. It’s possible to turn wild ideas into practical ones with the group’s synergy. Group members are more likely to exchange ideas once they’ve built a rapport.
According to Osborne, crazy ideas can often lead to creative new ideas because they tend to loosen up the way people think. Sometimes, it’s the unusual, out-of-the-box ideas that turn out to be the best solutions. Using a wild idea as inspiration can usually lead to a workable solution.
Rule #4: Combine and build on ideas
As people build on wild ideas, they start to take shape. It’s sometimes easier to adapt existing ideas than to come up with something brand new.
It’s here where the synergy of the group comes into play, and every team member uses other people’s ideas as inspiration. People with a knack for coming up with new ideas can inspire others to follow suit.
Traditional brainstorming leads to flawed solutions and bad decisions, Osborn observed. The best way to minimize those risks is to follow these rules.
What is the best way to brainstorm?
As it turns out, there are a lot of different brainstorming techniques. Depending on the circumstances, some techniques can be better than others.
The most popular Techniques of Brainstorming
All techniques of brainstorming work best when you follow Osborn’s four rules. The goal is to come up with many ideas to discuss and combine for the best solution or strategy.
Round Robin Brainstorming
Round-robin brainstorming is much more structured than traditional brainstorming. As a result, the technique isn’t free-flowing like other techniques.
People who are too loud can ruin group brainstorming. People who don’t yell just let yellers have the floor.
You can use round-robin brainstorming to make sure a few individuals don’t dominate the discussion. It’s a great way to get everyone involved. This technique lets participants contribute simultaneously, so more ideas are generated.
When Round Robin Brainstorming works best?
It works best when you need to come up with a lot of ideas quickly. This technique lets everyone contribute without getting distracted. It makes sense to have less than six or seven people in a group to make it productive.
When is it not the best choice?
The technique isn’t the best for solving problems collaboratively, where everyone works on one idea at a time. This might be a bit overkill if you’re laser-focused on a particular problem and don’t need to generate too many ideas.
How it’s done
Two ways to put it into action. The first way to do round-robin brainstorming is to have participants brainstorm individually in a group.
Round Robin Brainstorming technique 1
Everyone sits around a table with paper and pens. The facilitator reviews the problem statement with the group and makes sure everyone agrees to follow the four rules of brainstorming.
It’s time to brainstorm. Write an idea on paper in silence and pass it to the person to your right. Everyone now has a piece of paper with an idea written on it by their neighbour.
Then everyone uses the idea on the paper to come up with a new one. Then pass it on to the next person. It’s repeated until everybody gets their originals.
The next step is to organize all the ideas, eliminate duplicates, and categorize them. You can then prioritize them. Finally, you can start over with a new topic or problem statement.
Ideally, brainstorming sessions should last 3 to 5 minutes. If you have a large group, it’s best to divide it into multiple groups, perhaps 10 or so each.
Round-Robin Brainstorming usually involves the following steps.
- Step 1 – Gather the team around a table, and give everyone a card or piece of paper to jot down ideas on.
- Step 2 – Discuss the issue or question at hand. Participants can ask the facilitator questions if they need clarification.
- Step 3 – Each participant comes up with an idea, writes it down, and then passes it to their neighbour.
- Step 4 – Everyone silently reads the card and adds a new idea. Then passes it on.
- Step 5 – Continue until you have enough ideas to sort and prioritize.
Round Robin Brainstorming technique 2
You can do round-robin brainstorming by dividing participants into 3 or 4 teams and asking them to brainstorm on a whiteboard or flip chart as a group. Let’s say there are four groups. You’ll need four flip charts with different questions or different perspectives on the issue for each one. Here’s how brainstorming looks like in this case.
Advantages of Round Robin Brainstorming
The most significant benefit is that vocal team members don’t have as much influence. It ensures that everyone has a chance to participate. In addition, it boosts the participation of introverts and more reserved team members.
Disadvantages of Round Robin Brainstorming
Round-Robin Brainstorming isn’t anonymous. So it’s no surprise if some people don’t feel comfortable with their neighbour seeing their ideas. Perhaps they filter their own ideas or spend too much time writing something witty. Additionally, each person gets their ideas from just one person, not the whole group.
Brainwriting is a more creative way to brainstorm. Rather than shout out ideas, participants write them down on paper first, without telling anyone what they wrote (in case someone has the same idea). Then get together again so you can discuss all those thoughts in one place. It’s faster than the traditional method.
Sometimes this is called individual brainstorming. It is not only a less disruptive form of creativity, but it also leads to more effective and efficient teamwork. It’s because you use an online tool or write out your thoughts rather than simply use your voice during the meeting.
It doesn’t require as much intervention from facilitators as traditional brainstorming methods. They require setting up time limits and ground rules. Brainwriting is much less demanding.
When using brainwriting, it is possible to generate more ideas than when brainstorming. It reduces anxiety and extraneous talk, allowing participants to focus on developing ideas.
When does brainwriting work best?
Brainwriting can be helpful in some cases. It could be one or more of these. The group is big, there are quiet people, you don’t have a moderator who knows how to get ideas across quickly, and you don’t want loud or forceful people to influence others.
When might it not work best?
It might be better to use traditional brainstorming instead of brainwriting if you want to foster teamwork. It might be hard for your participants to write their ideas without the chance to ask clarification questions.
How to add a bit of twist to brainwriting?
Brainwriting can be adapted in creative ways if the group really wants participation. If it helps, you can make it interactive. Start by stating the problem clearly. Then, give everybody a piece of paper.
Have them write a few ideas down and pass the paper on to their neighbour. Let everyone scan the ideas on the paper before they enter their own again. This will allow them to gain inspiration and clarification from others’ ideas.
Additionally, you can do a little brainstorming before you dive into brainwriting. It helps kick-start creativity and gets the group warmed up for the brainwriting session.
Advantages of Brainwriting
- When it comes to brainstorming, introverts are at a disadvantage. Brainwriting helps break down this barrier and lets them be part of the team.
- As we discussed earlier, with brainwriting, participants can express themselves without feeling inhibited by others.
- It also reduces distractions.
Disadvantages of Brainwriting
- The responses can be anonymous, so there’s no transparency or accountability.
- It can be a little time-consuming compared to some other methods.
- Reduced communication and energy levels can make participants less invested in the process.
- You can’t get instant clarifications on your ideas.
- There’s a chance that more than one person will submit the same idea.
Six Thinking Hats
“The Six Thinking Hats” technique, created by Dr. Edward de Bono, allows you to focus on one aspect of thinking at a time, achieving full-spectrum thinking.
The six hats are White (Fact), Black (Opinion), Red (Feeling or emotion), Yellow (Optimism), Green (Pros and cons) and Blue (Decision).
At least six different perspectives are explored among the participants, including the decision-maker. Thus, the hats represent six ways of thinking. As you wear each hat, you explore what each perspective means.
Think of it as a way to organize your thoughts and brainstorm. The six hats also help participants not get sucked into their emotions and think about the topic from several different angles.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re creating a new marketing strategy, product design, or customer service approach; this systematic thinking technique makes it easier to come up with better ideas and decisions.
Even business ideas can be biased. Some people would rather win an argument than find a good solution. With Six Thinking Hats, people examine multiple aspects of a problem. It can challenge their biases.
The white hat represents facts. You wear it when you’re looking at the data. You have to analyze information that’s neutral and unbiased. This is where ideas are judged on merit, not opinion or emotion.
Look for past trends and insights in the information you already have. Also, figure out what data is missing and how to collect it.
Do you need more information, and where can you get it? Before you put the white hat down, you have to answer those questions.
Feelings and emotions are represented by the red hat. Powerful emotions can sometimes cloud or even prevent ideas from being presented logically. The red hat helps you stay connected to intuition, gut reactions, and also emotions.
Put yourself in other people’s shoes and think about how they would react. Sometimes a decision based on emotion is better than one based solely on reason and facts. Red hat wearers may feel anything from extreme anger to pure joy, depending on their position and point of view.
When you wear the red hat, you’re free to share all your emotions. Intuition and feelings are hard to explain, but they affect our decisions. You’re trying to get the perspective of someone who doesn’t have all the facts.
Critique and judgment are encouraged with the black hat. It’s about being the devil’s advocate and pointing out the flaws in an idea. Black signifies seriousness.
You should criticize freely here and consider all the negative points of an idea. You’ll get rid of excessive optimism that way. If you have strong feelings about the topic, now’s your chance.
A black hat wearer might seem pessimistic or cynical. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that this is an opinion, not a personality. When you’re critical, you can spot the holes in an idea or solution.
Critically analyzing something helps you make plans for the worst-case scenario.
‘Yellow hat’ mindset is based on optimism and positivity, looking for benefits in an idea. It’s basically looking for the silver lining in any situation.
It’s a way to look at the ideas on the table and see how they can be improved. Thinking in this way lets you explore new directions without getting stuck on what’s not working
It’s time to get creative! A green hat thinker explores new possibilities without any limitations. It’s also the colour of nature, hope, and renewal, so green can be calming in tough situations or exciting when generating new ideas.
By using this hat, you’ll probably come up with fresh ideas that go beyond the generic ones. So here’s your chance to be creative without worrying about criticism from your superiors.
A team wants to think of as many ideas as possible during the green hat thinking and not hold back.
The Blue Hat is the main coordinator. This person makes sure all of their peers are heard. Before making any decision, the person makes sure everything is in order.
They wear the blue hat throughout the meeting and manage all the other hats, ensuring a smooth process. Their job is to watch what’s happening and to choreograph the whole 6-hat process.
So, in a nutshell, the six thinking hats technique allows people to discuss the full complexity of a topic or problem in an organized and focused way.
- Takes away the influence of dominant participants since no one viewpoint is dominant.
- Forces different thinking processes to approach a problem holistically.
- Reduces conflicts between participants since only one aspect of a problem is considered at a time
- Focuses and makes you think clearly
- Structured and more productive than traditional brainstorming
- It’s more time-consuming.
- Doesn’t work without a skilled facilitator.
- Some people have a hard time looking at things from another point of view.
- In that case, they might feel less engaged.
To sum up, brainstorming is a great way to come up with ideas and solve problems. It can be hard to choose which technique is suitable for your situation. In this article, we discussed a few tips to help you choose the right one.
The four rules of brainstorming set the ground rules for a productive session regardless of the technique you choose. You can try brainwriting to get insight from those who don’t speak up a lot.
The six hats method helps you think holistically about a problem. It helps you identify and get rid of your biases.
References and further reading
Wilson, C. (2013). Brainstorming and beyond: A user-centered design method. Elsevier.