What Brainstorming Is – and What Brainstorming Isn’t

Posted: January 14, 2012

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Born from advertising in the 1950s, brainstorming has been an essential form of idea generation at many of the most innovative companies in the world. However, misunderstandings about the process and purpose of brainstorming have risen over the years. In this article, I will present a few misunderstandings about brainstorming, and tips to help you in the activity of brainstorming.

Brainstorming does not create great ideas

Brainstorming doesn’t even create good ideas. It just creates ideas, and a lot of them. The purpose of brainstorming is to create as many ideas as possible in a short amount of time. Limiting any ideas during a brainstorm only hampers the process, and sometimes, a bad idea can lead to a great idea.

Brainstorming isn’t any meeting where you come up with ideas

We have all had these meetings. Where everyone is put in a room with the expectations that the perfect idea will come out of the meeting, but every idea that is presented is shot down before it can even grow legs. These meetings are the reason that many companies consider brainstorming ineffective, and if this is what they consider brainstorming, then I understand why.

Brainstorming cannot be done as an individual

By definition, brainstorming is a group activity. The group allows people to move beyond road blocks and push further to produce ideas that the individuals could not have otherwise developed on their own.

Orchestrating a brainstorm session

Effective brainstorming requires people to do something that doesn’t come naturally: to quit doubting themselves and others. To overcome this, there are several rules of brainstorming. We put these up in our conference room, and anyone who violates them is called out in front of the group.

  • Go for quantity. Set a goal at the beginning of the meeting, and don’t leave until it’s completed. This will keep people on task, and they will be more willing to speak their ideas so that they don’t have to stay in the meeting too long. At VisionPoint, we have found that we can usually come up with around 75 ideas within an hour.
  • Defer judgment. Judgment can be one of the most disruptive forces to a good brainstorm session. Make sure everyone in the brainstorm meeting agrees to this and don’t be afraid to call them out if they break this rule. Without a relaxing and welcoming environment, a brainstorm will not really work.
  • Record all ideas, and don’t be afraid to be visual. There is nothing worse than creating a bunch of ideas and then forgetting them. The first thing we do before we start a brainstorm meeting is pass out sticky notes. When we have an idea, we write it down, and then when it’s our turn to talk, we say your idea and put it on the board. This does two things, it keeps one person from writing frantically to keep up and allows us to write down our ideas as soon as we get them.
  • Encourage wild ideas. By coming at the problem from a different perspective, or ignoring certain aspects of the problems, a more diverse set of ideas can come about.
  • Stay on topic. Sometimes, the aspect of encouraging wild ideas can steer the group off topic. Make sure that everyone is clear about the challenge they are trying to solve. We always write down our goal for the meeting on the board. This gives a base point to make sure we don’t get off topic.

Standardizing our brainstorming process has greatly improved our production of ideas. Please try it out, and let us know how implementing the rules of brainstorming has worked for your organization.