Brainstorming: what it is, how to do it and different variants

Brainstorming: what it is, how to do it and different variants

Editorial team Published on 3/22/2023

If you work in a team, you’ve probably already come across brainstorming as an invaluable way to uncover ideas and find solutions to problems. To use it successfully, however, you need to understand exactly what it is and how to do it effectively.

Defining brainstorming

The term ‘brainstorming’ comes from a combination of the words ‘brain’ and ‘storm’, creating an evocative image that explains metaphorically what the process involves. Brainstorming is a research method where a group of people come together to discuss a topic, with everyone making a contribution. The flow of ideas and different viewpoints that arise from this coming together of many different minds, without any filters or judgements, can lead to new creative inspiration.

Brainstorming is by no means new: people started talking about it in 1939, when the American advertising executive Alex Faickney Osborn, the founder of the agency BBDO, was the first person to hone and apply a new form of moderator-led group discussion. Let’s see how it works.

How to brainstorm: method and steps

A classic brainstorming session is split into two main stages: the divergent phase and the convergent phase. However, there is a crucial step to complete before that: preparation. And that’s where we’ll start.

Preparation. First of all, you need to decide on a moderator: an experienced and well-trained person to lead the discussion. Next you need to assemble the group. If your team is small, everyone can take part, but if not, you’ll need to create a well-balanced and varied group, to ensure a wide range of ideas. A useful tip is to also involve people that don’t work in your department, as this is an excellent way to gather new viewpoints free from conditioning or preconceptions.

The divergent phase. Once the problem or topic under discussion has been identified, the moderator presents it to the group. It is important that they keep this brief and avoid preambles, excessive information or details, as well as subjective views or judgements. The discussion must be free and spontaneous. After the introduction, participants can start coming up with ideas. The moderator should write everything down on a whiteboard, including ideas that may seem less valid. It’s vital that everyone feels free to express their point of view, and at this stage the ideas should not be evaluated.

The convergent phase. Once all thoughts have been noted down, the creative stage ends and the analysis stage begins. It is up to the moderator to solutions, and these are then discussed, analysed and enhanced by the group.

The real value of brainstorming comes from the fact that every new idea generated is then honed and enhanced by multiple creative minds.

Tips for effective brainstorming

Alex Faickney Osborn came up with some simple principles to follow to ensure effective brainstorming. They are:

  1. Welcome wild ideas. Being instinctive and speaking without thinking unleashes creativity.
  2. Go for quantity. You need to collect as many ideas as possible during the creative phase, to increase the chance of finding effective solutions.
  3. Combine and improve ideas. Active listening between the members of the group is vital: one idea can lead to another, and everyone can contribute to improving a concept.
  4. Withhold criticism. During the creative stage, everyone must feel free to explain their thinking without inhibitions.

Types of brainstorming: the alternatives

As well as ‘classic’ brainstorming, there are some variants that use alternative approaches to generate ideas. Here we’d like to introduce three interesting techniques that may be right up your street.

Questionstorming. The dynamic is the same as with classic brainstorming but, instead of concentrating on the answers, here you focus on the questions. Starting from an initial assumption, each person in the group is asked to explore it through a series of questions (with no answers allowed), with all the questions that emerge written down. This broadens the horizons in the search for potential solutions and allows you to go beyond the limitations of the assumption: is it completely true, or should it be challenged? Questioning the questions can lead you to rethink mistaken conceptions, and so generate innovative ideas.

Brainwriting. This is a version of brainstorming conducted on paper. The moderator gives each participant a sheet of paper with the same sentence written on it, which acts as the starting assumption. Each person is then asked to use words or drawings to develop this topic spontaneously and without fear of judgement (the sheets remain anonymous for this reason), before passing it to another person, who enhances and improves the original proposal. At the end of the round, each participant is left holding a sheet bearing contributions from multiple people. This technique is often used in very large teams, where a spoken discussion would be impossible, or where the participants speak different languages. And brainwriting also offers another important benefit: it allows people to express themselves both verbally and visually. In creative teams, for example, the art designer may find it easier to express their ideas through drawing, while the copywriter may prefer words.

Imaginary brainstorming. This technique makes use of people’s imagination. The dynamics are the same as classic brainstorming, but here participants are asked to consider an imaginary context with made-up characters: the only thing that remains rooted in reality is the issue to resolve. This approach reformulates a real problem and creates a certain amount of distance from it, with various benefits: the topic can be observed from new perspectives (those of the invented characters); any emotional involvement and conditioning that people may have when discussing a situation involving them is reduced; and new characters and new contexts can lead to fresh inspiration. All these aspects may help, for example, if the team has been working together for a long time with well-established and (probably) habitual dynamics.

When you are choosing which brainstorming technique to apply to your business, it is therefore worth considering the composition of your work group, the limitations you want to overcome through the discussion and where you think your creativity and ability to find new solutions are coming unstuck. And don’t forget to find the right person to guide you. Happy brainstorming!

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