Brainstorming - Rules & Techniques
How to effectively generate ideas with your team
What is Brainstorming?
Brainstorming is an activity that helps your organization generate more innovative ideas. Brainstorming is one of many methods of ideation—the process of coming up with new ideas—and it occurs during the divergent phase of the creative process. Brainstorming helps you generate a large number of ideas so that you can produce different options for solving your challenge.
The complex business challenges of today require new solutions—we can’t get to new places by just doing what’s worked in the past. To come up with innovative ideas, it’s important to go beyond your comfort zone. To do that, you’ve got to start with an abundance of options, including some wild ideas, that you can build on and test.
Brainstorming is an effective way to:
- Produce a large number of ideas
- Generate ideas quickly
- Expand your portfolio of alternatives
- Get people unstuck
- Inject insights from a broader group
- Build enthusiasm
- Solve tricky problems
- Improve team collaboration
“Done right, brainstorming can be amazing. It's a lot like a game. If no one plays by the rules, it's a disaster. But follow them and you'll be surprised at how freeing and fruitful it can be.”
IDEO Partner and IDEO Play Lab Founder
Planning For a Brainstorm Session
If you’re wondering how to set up a brainstorm, think about the meeting in three phases. Get the most out of everyone’s time by planning ahead.
- Frame a question grounded in insight to guide the group’s thinking.
- Share inspiration and insights from competitive and analogous research.
- Embrace a mindset of curiosity, using the rules of brainstorming as a guide.
- Loosen people up with a creative warm up.
- Start with heads-down individual brainstorming.
- Share ideas as a group and build on each other’s concepts.
- Group ideas into buckets or themes.
- Vote on your favorite ideas.
- Define next steps and action items.
Video: An IDEO brainstorm in action with the IDEO Play Lab in the From Ideas to Action course.
Across the thousands of brainstorms IDEO has run—both with internal teams and with clients—we follow seven important rules. Set the stage for a successful brainstorming session by sharing these rules with your team.
- Defer judgment
- Encourage wild ideas
- Build on the ideas of others
- Stay focused on the topic
- One conversation at a time
- Be visual
- Go for quantity
Brainstorming Techniques and Ideation Methods
Brainstorming is just one way to come up with ideas. It’s great for group settings, but there are many other ways to generate ideas. Here are a few methods to try:
Mash-up — Bring odd or unexpected things together to spark fresh ideas.
E-storming — Send an email prompt to collect ideas from friends or coworkers.
Other People’s Shoes — Roleplay or draw a storyboard of your challenge from the perspective of a specific persona.
Idea Wall — Put up a prompt in a public place along with sticky notes and sharpies and collect ideas several days later.
Prototyping — Try making a quick mockup of an idea to see what you can learn.
Analogous Interviews — Speak to people in different industries who might have a different perspective on your challenge.
Silent Brainstorming — Gather a group and share a prompt, but forgo discussion and instead have everyone write down ideas on sticky notes.
Rapid Ideation — Limit yourself to 10 or 15 minutes and focus on coming up with as many ideas as possible.
Sketching — Instead of words, use drawings and images to share ideas and activate a different part of your brain.
Observation — Watch how people engage with a product or service to gain a new perspective and uncover hidden challenges or opportunities.
Surveying — Wondering what your customers might like? Ask them with a survey to kick off an ideation session and set aside assumptions.
Constraints — Try putting different limitations on your brainstorming prompt to push your thinking.
For distributed or remote teams, some of these approaches may work better than others. Your best bet is to plan ahead and adapt the activity to be as inclusive as possible. The key to an effective ideation session is enabling all contributors to have a voice.
Find more activities to overcome creative barriers in IDEO U’s Unlocking Creativity online class.
Common Pitfalls to Avoid
Facilitating an effective brainstorm is as much about knowing what obstacles to look out for as it is generating new ideas. In any brainstorm or ideation activity, look out for these 10 common challenges and course correct when you see them appear.
- Groupthink — The urge to conform to the group, even unconsciously, overrides creative thinking and sharing of new ideas.
- Office politics — Participants feel obligated to support a leader’s idea or adopt a competitive mindset and feel like the brainstorm is a contest to prove individual ability.
- Default to convergence — We’re more conditioned to make choices than to come up with new ideas. It’s easy for a brainstorm to slip into decision-making mode before the best ideas have a chance to come out.
- Going off topic — Without a clear prompt or challenge, teams can waste brain power exploring unrelated ideas.
- Lack of momentum — Lots of great ideas are shared, but they don’t go anywhere after the brainstorm.
- Wasting time — A brainstorm can drag on for too long or fail to lead to any outcomes without proper planning both before and after the session.
- Excluding introverts and remote workers — Quieter teammates might not feel confident speaking up and remote teammates may get left out of in-person meetings.
- Emotional attachment — It can feel personal to share your wild ideas. Watch out for people supporting ideas out of attachment more than logic.
- Good ideas get lost — If your brainstorm is rocketing along and you haven’t prepared to capture ideas, the best ones may get lost in the shuffle.
- Lack of decision-making — Teams can get stuck in the divergent mode and continue coming up with new ideas even when it’s time to narrow the focus.
Psychological safety is essential to really extract any value in brainstorming. Establishing the right conditions for your session will truly allow your team to be generative and explore beyond the obvious.
Get tips for avoiding these common brainstorming pitfalls in IDEO U’s online course, Cultivating Creative Collaboration.
Related Courses on Brainstorming
Learn exercises designed and practiced by creative experts at IDEO to help you overcome the common barriers to creativity.
From Ideas to Action
Learn design thinking skills that will help you generate an abundance of ideas, turn these ideas into prototypes so you can gather feedback and learn quickly, and keep evolving your ideas through multiple rounds of ideation and prototyping.
Cultivating Creative Collaboration
Learn the skills and techniques you need to foster creative collaboration and unleash the potential of a team
More Brainstorming Resources
- 5 Brainstorming Exercises for Introverts
- Divergent Thinking and the Innovation Funnel
- The Three Words That Make Brainstorming Sessions at Google, Facebook, and IDEO More Productive
- If You Can’t Have Fewer Meetings, Have Better Ones
- IDEO U Design Thinking Resources
- 7 Tips on Better Brainstorming
- Ideation Method: Mash-Up
- The Designer’s Toolkit for Tackling Tough Problems
- Harvard Business Review: Better Brainstorming
- Harvard Business Review: Your Team Is Brainstorming All Wrong
- IDEO.org's Design Kit
- Build Your Creative Confidence: 30 Circles Exercise
- IDEO’s Method Cards