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Brainstorming Best Practices

This post highlights some of the research and best practices you’ll want to incorporate into your own brainstorming sessions to get the most out of them. A few minutes spent understanding some of the common mistakes and hacks for getting the best ideas out of a group can have a big impact on the end result.

A well facilitated brainstorming session can produce up to 30 times as many unique ideas.


Table of Contents

Common Brainstorming Mistakes

Osborn Brainstorming Ground RulesThe concept of brainstorming was first introduced by advertising executive Alex Osborn in his book “Applied Imagination“. Since then, many studies have highlighted pitfalls with the traditional brainstorming approach he first outlined.

Here’s a list of the biggest issues to avoid and what you should do about it.

The first pitfall to avoid: Coming up with ideas as a group

Studies consistently demonstrate that coming up with ideas in a group setting generates fewer ideas that working separately.

What the research has to say

The first real test of Osborn’s brainstorming technique was done at Yale University. 48 individuals were divided into groups and given a series of creative puzzles. The groups were told to follow Osborn’s guidelines. As a control sample, the same puzzles were given to 48 individuals working on their own.

The solo students came up with about twice as many solutions as the brainstorming groups.

More importantly, a panel of judges said their solutions were more “feasible” and “effective.” Since then, numerous follow-up studies have come to the same conclusion. Why is that?

  • Blocking: Since only one person can contribute at a time, everyone else is waiting for their turn to share.
  • Collaborative Fixation: People tend to get stuck on the first idea and come up with similar ideas.
  • Evaluation Apprehension: Some people may not contribute because they fear judgment.
  • Free Riding: If there are a lot of ideas already, some may feel like they don’t need to contribute.
  • Personality Characteristics: If someone dominates the conversation, others don’t feel comfortable asserting their own ideas.
  • Social Matching: Some people may alter their ideas to fit in.

The 1st big takeaway for successful brainstorming is: Make sure you allow people time to come up with ideas on their own before sharing.

The second pitfall to avoid: Withholding criticism

Osborn argued that coming up with ideas and criticizing was like trying to get hot and cold water out of the same faucet at same time. You just end up with lukewarm water. However, studies have shown that debate and criticism increases creativity.

What the research has to say

In 2003, Charlan Nemeth from the University of California, Berkeley took 265 students into teams of five. All the teams were asked to solve the same problem: how to reduce traffic congestion in San Francisco. One set of teams got the standard brainstorming framework to come up with ideas. The second team was told to come up with ideas with no further direction. The last group was told that research demonstrated debate and criticism were an important part of coming up with good ideas and were encouraged to debate.

Teams that debated performed best.

On average, they generated nearly 25% more ideas. Additionally, after the initial session, researchers asked each student if they had any more ideas about improving traffic. Those that debated came up with over twice as many additional ideas.

The 2nd key takeaway is: Encourage debate of ideas.

Third pitfall to avoid: Jumping into brainstorming too quickly

People aren’t actually very good at free-association. We come up with much better ideas with the right prompts.

What the research has to say

In another study conducted by Charlan Nemeth, she found that when subjects were presented with an unusual prompt first, creativity was much improved. In the 60s, two psychologists, David Palermo and James Jenkins, created a huge table of word associations based on the first thoughts that come to mind when people are asked to reflect on a particular word. They discovered that the majority of these associations were very predictable. For example, when people are asked to free-associate about the word “blue,” the most common first answer is “green,” followed by “sky” and “ocean.”

Nemeth’s experiment devised a way of getting beyond the first associations to more creative thoughts. In the experiment, pairs of subjects were shown coloured slides and asked to identify the colours. In some pairs, one of the subjects was a lab assistant. The assistant was instructed to give the wrong answer. After a few minutes, participants were asked to free-associate about the colours they had seen. Those exposed to wrong answers came up with associations that were more creative. Now, “blue” prompted “jazz” and “berry pie.”

The 3rd key takeaway is: Don’t rush into brainstorming. Ask good questions and give people new perspectives to come up with ideas. See the section below about how to facilitate for ideas on how to do this.

The Best Way to Brainstorm

There is a huge difference in the results you get between a well-facilitated brainstorming session and a poorly facilitated brainstorming session.

What the research has to say

In one study, 9 groups of randomly assigned students were formed to use different approaches to come up with ideas for dealing with junk mail.

  • Group 1: Instructed to have a free discussion
  • Group 2: Instructed to have a discussion aimed at producing 5–7 really good ideas
  • Group 3: Instructed to come up with at least 20 ideas
  • Group 4: Instructed to use brainwriting* and had a brainwriting facilitator join the group
  • Group 5: Instructed to use brainwriting* and had a facilitator explain the tool, but did not join the group

*Brainwriting allows participants to write their own ideas down and to share them by exchanging papers during the session, allowing both simultaneous processing and building on each other’s ideas. This is the approach that SoapBox uses in the brainstorming software we’ve built (we call them SoapBox Challenges within the application).

  • Group 6: Instructed to generate ideas individually, but follow the guidelines for brainstorming (also known as nominal group technique described below).
  • Group 7: Instructed to work as a group and follow the guidelines for traditional brainstorming (share ideas in a group setting, don’t criticize, finally consolidate ideas into themes)
  • Group 8: Instructed to work with a facilitator. The facilitator used some idea stimulators to help the group generate ideas and encouraged “hitch-hiking,” or deliberately building on ideas offered by others in the group.
  • Group 9: Instructed to work with a facilitator, who followed the same procedure as Group 8, but also had someone in the group who took on the role of a client. The client was asked to clarify the problem and answer questions.

The results

brainstorming study results

The 4th key takeaway is: Appoint a facilitator that’s made themselves familiar with ways to help generate ideas and keep the session productive.

Facilitating Brainstorming

Our third key takeaway was to not rush into brainstorming and a facilitator plays a key role in making sure this doesn’t happen. That the right questions and prompts are provided to help people come up with great ideas. Here are the two things you should do as a facilitator.

First, come up with a great question.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied how Nobel laureates and other creative people achieved their breakthroughs and discovered something interesting. Once they asked themselves the right question, their ideas flowed rapidly. (Read more about where great ideas come from.)

One approach for finding the right question comes from the HBR article, “Breakthrough Thinking From Inside the Box”. In working with clients, the authors have found that asking people to think outside the box does not work. Similarly, asking people to brainstorm within their existing box (using existing market data for example) does not work. They propose providing a new box to think within. The most fertile questions focus the mind on valuable overlooked corners of the universe of possible improvements. So instead of asking, “How can we increase services revenue?” (too broad), ask “What is the biggest hassle about using or buying our product or service that people unnecessarily tolerate without knowing it?”

Another method for coming up with a great question (or questions) is to break it down into multiple objectives. Ralph L. Keeney studies decision science and wrote a paper titled “Value-Focused Brainstorming”. It’s an academic paper you can’t access without an account, but you can find a quick summary of his 4 steps here. Let’s say you wanted to design a product that would enable cyclists to transport and drink coffee while they were riding. A couple of ways to describe this would be: “spill-proof coffee cup lids,” or “bicycle cup holders.” But as a concept to brainstorm, it’s better broken into key objectives. Allow someone riding a bicycle to 1) drink coffee; 2) avoid spills; 3) not burn their tongues; 4) avoid distractions while biking; 5) not contribute to accidents; 6) keep the coffee hot; and 7) minimize costs. Going into that much detail before brainstorming about ways to design the cup holder makes the group much more likely to succeed.

A final method for coming up with a great question is to do a quick brainstorming session on the question itself. The first exercise isn’t jumping into problem-solving mode, but problem discovery mode.

Net: Einstein was reported to have said, “If I were given an hour in which to do a problem upon which my life depended, I would spend 40 minutes studying it, 15 minutes reviewing it and 5 minutes solving it.” Make sure you do the same for your brainstorming initiative. The up-front effort will result in far better ideas.

The 5th key takeaway is: Invest the time needed to come up with a great question.

Second, help people approach the problem from new perspectives.

At first, ideas are often quite predictable. To help get past the first set of more predictable responses, it helps to provide people with a different way to look at the problem. Here are a few perspectives you can suggest throughout the brainstorming session to help group members consider the problem from a new perspective.


Use these to help people come up with ideas on their own before sharing.

  • Map out the process – You know your starting point and what solving the problem looks like. Writing out the various steps involved in getting from point a to point b may open up new, more specific areas for focus ideation on.
  • Changing Your Attributes – You can try to imagine yourself as someone else and how they might solve the problem, or give yourself different characteristics that might help you solve the problem. How would I solve this if I was the owner of the company? How would I solve this if I was the customer?
  • Mind Mapping – Starting with the main goal or objective in the middle, connect ideas to this main objective and then look to the next level. If you look at those ideas what connections can you draw out from there?
  • Medici Effect Storming – The Medici Effect describes how ideas might not be obviously related, but if you can identify parallels, you may find things that are useful. One good example of this is Blue Ocean Strategy, where looking at similar, but not directly related industries, may offer ideas for business strategy that differentiates yourself from the competition.
  • Blind Writing – This is an attempt to let your mind wander to come up with ideas. The rule is to start and continue writing or doodling for a defined time (10 min or so). You must continue writing, even if it’s to say you have no ideas.
  • Reverse Storming – This approach takes the opposite stance to solving your problem. Instead of trying to come up with ideas to solve the problem, work on identifying ideas that would prevent you from solving the problem. Coming up with and understanding these ideas may help you figure out more original ways to solve your problem.
  • Question Brainstorming – This process involves brainstorming questions and not answers. Finding answers to the questions could be the work of future or subsequent sessions.

As a group

Use these to help facilitate good discussion and debate.

  • Nominal Group Technique – Brainstorming members write down their ideas anonymously. The facilitator collects the ideas and then everyone votes on the ideas. The top ideas (most voted on) may go back to the group or subgroups for further ideation and then ultimately present it back to the group.
  • Group Passing Technique – Here someone contributes an idea and then passes it to the next person in the group who adds their thoughts to the idea and then passes it to the next member of the group. Each person adds their thought to the original idea. Once this is complete the next person submits their individual idea and that is passed around for further thought. Once everyone has submitted an idea and everyone has provided a thought to each of these, you have a thorough list of ideas that have been elaborated on.
  • Team Idea Mapping Method – Similar to the nominal technique, brainstorming members write down their ideas. What differs is the process for evaluating ideas. Instead of voting, ideas are grouped into themes. This facilitates the group getting to a better shared understand of the problem and potential approaches. New ideas may also arise through association. Once all the ideas are mapped out, evaluation and voting of ideas can begin.
  • Directed Brainstorming – Similar to the group passing technique, this process start with someone writing down a single idea. That idea is passed onto the next individual. Instead of adding a thought to the idea, the request is to improve the idea. This technique is effective when the evaluation criteria for evaluating ideas are known in advance (ie cost, time, the impact to resources, desired outcome).
The 6th key takeaway is: Provide the group with new perspectives to help them come up with better ideas.

When You Should Use Brainstorming

Most of the time we use brainstorming as a way to get lots of creative solutions to a problem. And this is definitely one of the benefits of a well-facilitated brainstorming effort.

Group collaboration has been shown to increase commitment to the solution and increase overall employee happiness and engagement. Let’s not forget the last final step of problem-solving is to implement the solution. In today’s work environment, execution almost always requires group work and often requires cross-functional group work. People are more motivated to collaborate when they’re a part of solving the problem versus just being told what to do.

Furthermore, including a team in problem-solving on a regular basis develops problem-solving muscle and increases overall engagement.

Every attempt to give your team a voice and include them in the decision-making or problem-solving process is a step to increasing engagement and motivation. Finding ways to engage people in this manner consistently is an extremely powerful way to build a highly productive team.

Giving employees a voice builds problem-solving muscle, trust between managers and employees, and increases motivation. Doing it consistently ensures this is baked into your team’s culture.

The 7th and final key takeaway is: Brainstorm, or use variations of brainstorming regularly with your team to increase buy-in, commitment and group problem-solving muscle.

Help yourself to this easy template for a great brainstorming session:

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About SoapBox

SoapBox Innovations creates software that helps organizations give employees a voice. Whether your focus is on collecting feedback or soliciting ideas, we make it easier to act on employee input that drives real business value.

Harness the power of employee ideas.