Forcing creativity and ideas to spring forth is difficult, if not painful.
How do you brainstorm ways to solve a problem? Do you ever wonder if there is a way it could feel more methodical and less like pulling teeth?
Luckily, there are lots of techniques for brainstorming that you can use to turn brainstorming into a process that can be repeated over and over no matter what question you’re faced with. And it’s flexible: you can do it alone, in small or large groups, through visuals, or in writing.
Some brainstorming techniques lend themselves more readily to different scenarios and are more effective depending on who you’re brainstorming with, what your brainstorming about, and when your brainstorming session takes place.
So, whether you’re an idea-producing machine or someone who struggles to come up with new ideas, these techniques will help you improve your output.
General brainstorming tips to get you started
Before you start your brainstorming session, consider the following tips to increase your efficiency and effectiveness:
Don’t dismiss an impractical idea
When you brainstorm, don’t worry about how you will create or effectuate the ideas you come up with. It’s more important to be open to all possibilities at this stage; you don’t want to disregard an idea that sounds crazy or impractical too early. You never know what might end up being a smart solution once you have more information at later stages of the project.
Choose the setting with care
Whether or not you’re brainstorming on your own, your environment will impact your output. Does it make sense to sit outside, go for a walk, utilize a space that has comfortable seating, or settle into your favorite room where you have peace and quiet? Ideas come differently to different people, so take into account where you generate your best ideas.
Know the what and the who
Take time to clearly understand the question or issues you’re brainstorming to minimize confusion and wasted time. Researching information and talking to people who are closest to an issue sets you up to have more impactful ideas that can actually be used. If you’re brainstorming ideas that affect certain people, identify them and their expectations or needs. There’s no point in brainstorming a solution to a problem if the solution won’t actually help the people it’s meant to.
Brainstorming on your own can be tricky; you lose the ability to bounce ideas off of another person and it’s hard to stay focused and find inspiration. But sometimes you just have to do it by yourself.
- Fewer distractions
- You don’t have to navigate ego or tensions among others
- You can brainstorm at a time and setting that is best for you, not others
- Trying to stay on task and focused can be challenging
- No outside perspectives/resources to draw inspiration from
- Not having a sounding board in the form of other people to bounce ideas off of
Though it can be challenging, here are our best techniques for when you go it alone. And don’t limit yourself to using just one; you can use one, two, or all three of the techniques in the same brainstorming session.
Solo Brainstorming Technique #1: Draw or create a mind map
Even if you’re not a visual learner, generating ideas with pencil and paper can be extremely effective.
For example, imagine you’re faced with the problem of developing a mission statement for your small business. It’s just you, you’re getting things off the ground and you want a strong mission statement to guide you through the phases of establishing and growing your business.
Working on your own, it’s easy for your ideas to spin out of control. When you commit your thoughts to paper, it helps give you focus and direction. This is where a mind map can come in and help.
Solo Brainstorming Technique #2: Outline and create headings
If visuals and images don’t work for you, create an outline. An outline lays out ideas, questions, and information methodically and in an organized way using headings and grouping categories together.
Using the same example above (creating a mission statement), an outline might look like this:
- Create a Mission Statement
- What is my story?
- I’m a local business.
- I want to share what I make for my family with other families in my community.
- Who are my customers?
- Why do I do what I do?
- It’s fun and brings me joy
- There’s a void in the market
- I’m passionate about it, it’s been a lifelong dream
- How do I do what I do?
- Employ locals from the community
- Use local resources to encourage and support other local businesses
- Use local ingredients
- What do I do?
- Create opportunities
- Produce a quality product
- Inspire others
- What is my story?
Again, start with the question/problem/issue at the top, then nest questions and categories below it, and finally nest the answers to those questions or elaborate on each category. Outlining is a great technique to use when the end product is a story, essay, or article.
Solo Brainstorming Technique #3: Write it, then walk
When you start brainstorming, your initial thoughts are the most obvious – they’re right there on the surface. So write them all down as they come to you. Then, when you start to lose momentum, don’t stay sitting in one place hoping you’ll come up with something new and letting yourself get frustrated when that doesn’t work. Get up and take a step back; sitting and feeling stuck is no fun and isn’t productive!
Being physically active can jump start your mental activity and forces you to stop thinking about the task at hand. Take a break by going for a walk, run, or playing with your dog. Keep it short though, just long enough to engage your mind in a different way so that when you resume brainstorming, you see the issue from a new perspective.
These three techniques can counteract the cons of brainstorming on your own, making it easier to find solutions to the problems and questions you’re faced with.
Brainstorming in a group
If brainstorming on your own seems challenging, a group brainstorming session can be equally so, but in different ways. When many people are together in a room, it can be hard to keep everyone’s competing ideas on track, or you might have the opposite problem of no one speaking up and the conversation going nowhere.
- Easier to generate ideas and spin offs
- More collaborative – people have the opportunity for their voices to be heard
- Encourages teamwork
- More egos are involved
- Increased interruptions or getting off topic, less organized
- Not enough contribution from those hesitant to share
Remember, just like in solo brainstorming, not to judge ideas negatively or dismiss them quickly as bad or wrong. Being open is more conducive to collaboration and encourages creativity! Plus, you never know which crazy-sounding idea will actually be the smartest, most logical solution in the long run.
To get a group brainstorming session started, try one or more of the techniques below.
Group Brainstorming Technique #1: Shout it out
This is a great idea for small groups, maybe 3-5 people, and is straightforward enough that it can be done in any setting. Identify a leader or notetaker to collect and write ideas that the groups shouts out, ideally on a board that everyone can see.
Keeping the group small reduces the likelihood members will get distracted, interrupt one another, or talk over one another. Additionally, it ensures everyone feels comfortable sharing their ideas; you don’t want ideas coming only from the loudest members of the group. Small groups encourage participation from those who have great ideas, but are self conscious or hesitant to share.
Group Brainstorming Technique #2: Break into small groups
Similar to Technique #1, but more appropriate for larger groups, take the large group and break it down into smaller groups. If you’re leading such a brainstorming session and are concerned about the representativeness of the small groups (having a mix of different department units sprinkled throughout each one), create the small groups in advance or count people off once they’re in the room so that all the “1s” go in that corner, all the “2s” go in another, etc.
These small groups can now function in the same way as in Technique #1, generating ideas amongst themselves. After 5-10 minutes, everyone comes back together to share the ideas brainstormed in their small group with the large group. This technique has the benefit of encouraging participation and decreasing interruptions because everyone has a chance to share.
Once you have every group’s ideas written on the board, look for overlapping ideas that can be combined to help bring down the number of options. If necessary, the larger group can then ask questions and rank the ideas in order to reduce the number of options further for a productive conversation about next steps.
Group Brainstorming Technique #3: Round robin
Whether in a small or large group, a round robin technique allows everyone to share in an organized fashion. Knowing that each person will have a turn to speak reduces the stress of trying to make your voice heard and ensures those who dominate the discussion don’t go overboard.
To make sure there is still a free flowing, back and forth discussion, only go once or twice around the room and then open it up to everyone to discuss ideas in more detail.
Group Brainstorming Technique #4: Utilize independent idea development then vote as a group
This brainstorming technique works great for small to medium sized groups. First, have each person write down their ideas individually on sticky notes focusing on quantity not necessarily quality. Google’s Innovation Lab uses this process, creating 40+ ideas in 5 minutes.
Then, bring the group back together so each person can share and explain a few of their best or favorite ideas in detail. Finally, each person votes on one or two of the favorite ideas generated by the group. Voting makes the process democratic and gets everyone involved.