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Brainstorming: definition, ground rules, and techniques

Bring on your best ideas

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What is brainstorming?

It’s a common scenario: you need to come up with some creative ideas. Maybe you’re trying to find a solution to a complex problem, or perhaps you’re spitballing your team’s next big project.

Either way, you’re feeling the pressure to amp up your innovation and churn out some brilliant suggestions.

What happens now? Well, you might rely on a brainstorming session to get those creative juices flowing. 

Before we dig into the ins and outs of how to brainstorm effectively, it’s helpful to take a step back and actually define brainstorming. Merriam-Webster describes brainstorming as “the mulling over of ideas by one or more individuals in an attempt to devise or find a solution to a problem.” 

Sounds familiar, right? You can brainstorm on your own, but it’s a technique that’s frequently used in group settings to freely share ideas and build upon them.

Brainstorming is prevalent in today’s working world (you’ve likely been a part of a fair share of sessions yourself), but it has some serious historical roots. 

It was first introduced in 1948 by advertising executive Alex F. Osborn in his book "Your Creative Power." As the owner of his own advertising agency, he was looking for ways to pull better ideas out of his employees — something he referred to as “thinking up.” With that objective in mind, he established several principles and characteristics of brainstorming, which we’ll dig into in detail later.

Since that time, brainstorming has gained steam and become a common technique that businesses use to generate creative solutions to a variety of problems.

The importance of brainstorming

While it certainly isn’t without its criticisms and potential pitfalls, there’s a reason this technique has become so popular in the modern working world: it’s effective and is tied to numerous benefits.

Below are just a few of the many advantages of brainstorming that teams can expect to experience.

Plant sprouting

Brainstorming encourages more creative thinking.

The first benefit is obvious: brainstorming requires an individual or team to think more creatively and without boundaries, which can lead to improved ideas and suggestions. For example, did you know that the idea for the Amazon Echo was reportedly born out of a brainstorming strategy? 

Since brainstorming is often done in a group, it forces us to step away from our own biases and consider other perspectives and contributions without offering any upfront criticism. 

Beyond that, productive brainstorming exercises challenge us to not only consider other ideas but to build upon them — which leads to an even better end result. 

Brainstorming leads to better teamwork and greater group cohesiveness.

All of that working together does more than generate better ideas — it can actually improve our level of teamwork. There’s plenty of research out there that backs this up. 

“Groups that focus on both the quantity of ideas and building on the ideas of others significantly increase their cohesiveness,” said David Henningsen, a Northern Illinois University professor and researcher, who co-led a study on brainstorming

“Brainstorming can be used to help a team buy into and implement a plan of action, or it can be used to simply build cohesiveness, which in turn can lessen employee turnover and increase employee commitment.”

Brainstorming gives everybody a chance to be heard.

How to brainstorm: types, ground rules, and techniques

Clipboard with list

When done right, brainstorming offers tons of perks. But that begs the question: how exactly do you do it right? 

There’s a bit of strategy involved in pulling off a successful brainstorming session. Here’s the information you need to get the very best ideas out of everyone on your team.

Brainstorming ground rules

Brainstorming techniques

You have your brainstorming session scheduled and organized. what? Your team is all just staring at each other slack-jawed. How do you get the conversation rolling? 

Below are just a few of the many different tactics that teams can use to get things started and make their brainstorming discussions that much more productive: 

  • Brainwriting: With this technique, team members share ideas by writing them down independently rather than shouting them out together. It’s especially helpful if you know you have a number of introverts on your team.  
  • Starting with an embarrassing story: Beginning the conversation with something that’s potentially embarrassing immediately puts everybody in a more vulnerable and open state of mind — which makes them more willing to share ideas.  
  • Giving ideas time to marinate: Even though the excitement is strong, you might not want to jump into action on an idea right away. Research shows that even a brief break can give you time to strengthen that suggestion even further.  
  • Figuring storming: This tactic involves putting yourself in the shoes of someone else to think about how they might handle the situation. It can be effective because it challenges us to get away from our own biases and perceptions.

Flex your creative muscles

Brainstorming can be powerful, but it involves more than pulling your team into a room and asking them to share their two cents. It requires a basic understanding to figure out your strategy. 

So, the next time you’re trying to figure out how to brainstorm business ideas, return to this overview as your starting resource. It’ll help you lay the foundation for successful brainstorming sessions moving forward, and you’ll be well on your way to getting the very best ideas out of your team.

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