Everything you need to know about brainstorming

Brainstorming is not just a ‘buzzword’. It’s an extremely useful technique that is employed in many businesses and can be used in all. As a creative, efficient, problem-solving method, it encourages free thinking in the search for innovative ideas.

With this working method, organizations can explore new possibilities, generate fresh concepts, and develop new solutions to problems or challenges. There is strong competition in today's rapidly evolving business landscape. Innovative ideas help businesses differentiate themselves from their competitors. Companies need to adapt quickly to change to take advantage of new circumstances and address challenges when they arise.

Brainstorming can help businesses to find new ideas and improve in many ways. It is an essential element of the tried, tested, and enduringly popular design thinking process. Maybe you are looking to enhance efficiency and productivity, meet new customer needs, drive business growth, or improve employee engagement. Brainstorming can give you many ways to create an environment that supports ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking, encourages the right type of risk-taking, and promotes experimentation.

What exactly is brainstorming?

Brainstorming helps you and your teams to generate a large number of ideas and solutions to a specific problem or question. It exists predominantly as a group activity but can be done individually too. During a brainstorming session, team members should be able to contribute their thoughts and suggestions in an open and non-judgmental environment. 

This is intended to encourage free thinking, enabling people to explore different perspectives and possibilities. Participants are encouraged to think laterally, share their ideas without criticism, and build upon the ideas put forward by others.

There are a few key principles to follow that should foster a productive and inclusive atmosphere:

1. Define your question or pretext 

You need to think carefully about the question you are asking people to brainstorm ideas about. It needs to be specific enough to generate the desired results, but not so specific that it becomes difficult to come up with possible solutions.

2. Generate as many ideas as possible 

In the initial phases you are looking for quantity, not quality. The aim is to encourage a free flow of ideas without any limitations.

3. Look for quickfire ideas in a limited amount of time 

If you have too long to think about things it is easy to end up telling yourself an idea is ridiculous and could never work. By making the process quickfire and time limited it is much easier to extract ideas as they come to mind, without overthinking how they might work in practice.

4. Suspend judgment 

It does not matter how ‘silly’ an idea might seem to start with: all ideas should be accepted and recorded without evaluation or criticism. This helps create a safe space where participants can feel comfortable expressing unconventional or seemingly impractical ideas.

5. Build upon ideas

You can add to or modify ideas proposed by others to refine and expand upon initial concepts. This should help promote a collaborative and iterative process.

6. Encourage diverse perspectives

Different backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints will enrich the brainstorming process. You will get unique perspectives and insights that can lead the way to innovation.

7. Encourage wild or unconventional ideas 

Brainstorming encourages thinking beyond the ordinary and exploring unconventional solutions. Sometimes the most innovative solutions can be based on ideas that initially seem outrageous.  

When your brainstorming session is complete you will have a bank of ideas. These ideas can then be evaluated, refined, and prioritized through more teamwork to identify the most feasible and promising solutions.

Why does brainstorming work so well?

Brainstorming can be highly effective for several reasons. This practice helps to overcome the mental blocks and biases that can hinder creativity. If you can suspend judgment and create a non-critical atmosphere, it will encourage participants to freely express ideas, even if they might seem unworkable. 

And while this may seem like the case at the outset, there may be something that sparks another idea, and so on. Brainstorming gives you the possibility of exploring different perspectives and this can lead to the creation of innovative solutions.

Research by Carnegie Mellon University has shown that the collective intelligence of a group is greater than the sum of its parts. Working as a group, team members can build upon each other's ideas, combining insights and perspectives. The collaborative nature of brainstorming sessions sparks creative thinking and helps people to come up with more imaginative ideas. And the greater the diversity within the group, the better. If you can bring individuals together with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and knowledge, you can put this together to create something unique.

The brainstorming process can also enhance engagement as participants can feel a sense of agency and ownership, which increases their motivation to contribute. When ideas are valued and respected, individuals are more likely to actively participate. 

Brainstorming supports iterative thinking, as ideas are built upon, refined, and developed over time. Because the process is collaborative it allows for feedback and discussion and a more positive and supportive environment. This is in contrast to a more hierarchical, traditional environment that many companies still operate.

Who introduced brainstorming into the world of work?

Alex F. Osborn was the first to invent the concept of brainstorming in the 1940s. He was an American advertising executive who was looking for better ways to come up with creative ideas. He found that people working as a group would come up with better ideas and published several books on the subject. 

In 1953 his book Applied Imagination introduced the concept properly, along with some examples of how brainstorming had been used to great effect by the advertising agency he co-founded: Batten, Barton, Durstine, and Osborn, or BBDO.

Since then, brainstorming has been used by organizations to help find creative ideas and solutions. Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, and Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, have both utilized brainstorming methods. 

Microsoft even had a dedicated policy of asking employees for ideas. ‘Ideas individually generated by the company’s employees were sent to Bill Gates. It was his tradition to take a week off about two times year, calling it the “Think Week” when he went through piles of paper and marked them individually to converge the best suggestions to create his own ideas’. This process has been fine tuned over the years at Microsoft.

When can brainstorming be useful?

There are many situations when brainstorming methods can be useful. If you want to generate creative ideas, solve problems, or stimulate innovation it can be used to great advantage. Here are some of the most useful ways in which you can harness the power of teamwork and use brainstorming methods to create better outcomes.

1. Problem-solving

If you have a complex problem or challenge it can be difficult to see a way forward. By breaking down the problem into smaller parts and formulating a question or statement relating to each specific outcome, you can use brainstorming techniques to help generate a wide range of potential solutions. Participants can explore different perspectives together, and the method allows them to think outside the box.

2. Idea generation 

Successful businesses need to be constantly innovating and improving. It is not always easy to come up with new ideas and concepts, but brainstorming can help your teams generate them. As it encourages free-flowing thinking it can spark innovative solutions or concepts that may not have been considered otherwise.

3. Project planning 

A project management mindset is an essential part of any efficient teamwork. Before you start a new project, it can be a good idea to hold some brainstorming sessions to gather input from team members. This can help to identify potential risks, define project goals, and outline strategies or approaches to achieve those goals. You want to get your project started on firm foundations.

4. Product development 

If you want to develop a new product or improve an existing one, it is not always obvious where to start. Brainstorming can help generate ideas for features, design elements, marketing strategies, and other aspects related to a product's creation, development, or launch.

5. Team building

Without strong teamwork and collaboration your teams will be less efficient and effective. Brainstorming sessions can foster collaboration and teamwork within a group. 

If you encourage individuals to contribute their ideas and actively listen to others, you can allow all members of your team, no matter how junior they are, to feel seen and important. This promotes a positive and inclusive team environment and is likely to lead to greater productivity and higher levels of engagement and satisfaction.

6. Marketing and advertising

Brainstorming originated in the advertising industry and is still commonly used in marketing and advertising. It can help with ideas for creative campaigns, slogans, taglines, and promotional strategies. Brainstorming methods enable marketers to explore different angles and messages that will more effectively reach their target audience.

7. Content creation

If you need to produce engaging and original content for things like articles, blog posts, artwork, or any other creative aspect in your business, you can use brainstorming techniques as a starting point.  

Although brainstorming is a valuable method for seeking solutions to problems, it is not always the ideal answer. If you have difficult team dynamics or a problem has certain time constraints, brainstorming might not be the place to start. 

If you are not entirely clear on the problem and what needs to be solved, brainstorming is unlikely to help you with the solution. The validity of the question or statement used as the starting point will also influence how useful your session is.

How does brainstorming fuel team efficiency and creativity?

We have looked at some of the ways in which brainstorming can be used for positive outcomes, and one of those is improving your teams’ efficiency and creativity. Used properly it can strengthen your team by making them feel more engaged and bonded.

Brainstorming allows for creative thinking but within a structured environment. The process begins with the introduction of a problem or topic and team members are urged to think of ideas quickly, without censoring the answers that come to mind. If you wait until the start of a session to inform the team of the subject, you are likely to get more spontaneous and creative answers. When individuals are given time to consider an issue in advance, they can dismiss their ideas as unfeasible or foolish.

Brainstorming sessions are, by definition, creative exercises. If you can encourage your team members to actively participate in a group brainstorming session you will be giving them opportunities to be more creative at work. This is likely to extend into other areas of their work.

Working together as a team can help people come up with solutions in less time than if they were to search for answers on their own. As we have seen, collective intelligence is greater than the sum of the individual parts. Teams that are more efficient and effective will produce more in less time. And what they produce should be of a higher quality.

Brainstorming methods and teamwork

One of the most effective ways to run a brainstorming session is with a whiteboard. Traditional whiteboards have limited functionalities, but online whiteboards offer many extra features to make your sessions even more productive. With endless scope and the option to use it and share it with remotely based teams, both at the time and after the event, a virtual whiteboard is the ideal collaborative tool.

There are various readymade brainstorming templates available to enable your teams get the most out of their meetings and improve their effectiveness. You can even set a timer to add a degree of urgency and make the session more efficient.

Whether your teams are old hands at brainstorming or just getting to grips with it, our collaborative tools will help them work better together. Why not check out our resources to see how we can help you?

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