Brainstorming has been around since 1953 when Alex Osborn created it as a way for groups to come up with solutions to a problem. Since then its been written about a fair bit. Wikipedia, Mindtools, and Jefffrey Baumgartner all have very good coverage of how it works. This article is my take on brainstorming, and how to get the most out of it.

What is it?

Brainstorming was originally designed with mixed groups of around 12 people in mind. Groups would include both experts and non experts, focusing  on a single question in the hope of generating a large number of ideas. All participants are expected to contribute their ideas, without evaluating or judging the ideas of others. In a functioning brainstorm, participants ‘feed’ off of each others ideas, allowing the power of free association to create lots of new ideas. Unexpected or wild ideas are encouraged, in the hope that they may spark even more ideas.

How does it work?

Our brains are fantastically good at forming patterns and associations between ideas. When we have seemingly run out of ideas generated on our own,  a bit of prompting from outside can be all we need to spark a whole new round of ideas. By using a group to build on each others ideas in this way, the total output of the group can be way higher than the idea count generated individually.

At the end of the session, the group will need some evaluation criteria and techniques to enable them to sort through their ideas and choose the ones they wish to take forwards to more detailed solution building activities. The best brainstorming sessions will generate a LOT of ideas, and hopefully a lot of ideas with some potential to turn into high value solutions.

Brainstorming in practice

A really great, creative idea often seems obvious in hindsight yet strangely difficult to come up with using normal thinking (read logical thought, see Ed de Bono in Serious Creativity for more). This is because we are used to employing logic and experience to solve problems, and are geared towards trotting out the same old solutions. For problems where this isn’t enough, brainstorming can be a useful tool to introduce previously unexplored lines of thought.

That’s how it should work anyway. In practice group dynamics and individual thinking styles introduce a raft of problems such as groupthink (everyone tending towards the same idea and effectively shutting own the thinking process), and any number of social blocks to the process. Looking beyond the social aspects of whether or not participants will freely participate, there is the issue of whether or not random production of ideas in the hope that one of them is useful has any merit. In this case, there are a number of supplementary techniques that can be used to direct the group towards deliberate creative thinking. Think of brainstorming as a first step.


Since the original approach to brainstorming was created, there have been a number of attempts at improving the process including:

  • nominal techniques: Any section of the brainstorm in which individuals list out their ideas (often in silence) before sharing with the group
  • passing: The session is divided up into a number of iterative mini brainstorms with groups (of one or more) passig their ideas to the next group and working on the incoming list
  • discussion: standard brainstorms often focus on headline ideas without judgement or discussion. These alternative approaches focus on an element of open discussion to partially explore ideas as they are put forwards (in the hope that participants can free associate fomr the ieda as a whole AND form its discussed parts).
  • directed: a specific line of questioning is used to direct the brainstorm to component parts of the problem/question at hand
  • reverse: the question is reversed, the brainstorm commences, and results are reversed at the end in the hope that this is enough to disrupt the process and generate more creative answers

There are also an awful lot of additional creative thinking techniques, such as random word or famous person, which can be used within the brainstorm. I hope to come back to these later, but for now this article is about the technique as a whole.

Show me

I couldn’t find much in the way of actual brainstorms on film, but these do at least run through a few demonstrations of key principles.


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