Lately, I have the feeling that people are fed up with all this brainstorming stuff. Honestly, in my whole life, I have participated in maybe a few successful brainstorming sessions. Most of them were spontaneous, organised on the spot. We probably didn’t even call them brainstorming sessions—just fruitful discussions where, together with others, I felt motivated and engaged in creative cooperation.

But as we live in a dynamic, continuously changing world, we will not escape the necessity of innovation, future-shaping, or complex problem-solving. Creativity and critical thinking are the most appreciated skills almost everywhere: starting from the educational sector, through the world development agencies (UNESCO, ONZ), ending at Apple, IDEO, and other super modern IT companies. Coming up with a variety of ideas that can be tested, verified, improved, and finally implemented is a precious competence. Fortunately, it is also something that we can shape. There are some ways to make brainstorming sessions more comfortable and eventually successful.

Below I share some tips that I have tested during my design thinking process. I do not claim that they will always work or that they are a remedy for every brainstorming session. However, they work pretty well for me –a results-oriented person who is also a fan of structure. I think best when my brain is balanced, relaxed, and at peace. I will hardly come up with any ideas when everyone is talking at once or is shouting over their ideas…

  1. Give people time to prepare – ideas and innovation are not born in a vacuum. Imagination needs to be fed. When you tell people what kind of challenge you are going to brainstorm a day before, they will have time to get prepared, do some research, and reflect.
  2. Do not push participation – the worst brainstorming participant is one who doesn’t want to be there. They will resist, break the rules, and demotivate others.
  3. Provide basic conditions – try to find the most comfortable room for the session. Daylight and fresh air are the most basic necessities, but anything more: like a sofa, maybe some snacks, coffee, and water, can provide additional support
  4. Remind participants of the most important brainstorming rules:
    • Do not judge others’ ideas; there are no stupid ideas; each one is valuable;
    • Quantity is more important than the quality of ideas;
    • One idea per sticky note – ideas should be described with a max of 5 words but still understandable for others. They can also be presented as simple drawings.
  5. Create a list of idea killers and boosters – words matter and the way of communication during brainstorming is one of the main success factors. Here is an example of this kind of list:

Source: Graphics by M-Powered inspired by:

6. Brainstorming energiser – if you have time, start the session with some fun and play. Visit our Imaginarium toolbox to find out how to run these kinds of exercises.

7. Facilitate the process – leaving people with only enough time for brainstorming may work with very experienced design teams. In other cases, it is always good to have some handy ideas on how to structure the process and help people to access their imagination:

  • Step 1 – Five minutes for individual work. You can specify the number of ideas you expect from each team member. It can be any number – just think: if you have five people and each comes up with just four ideas, you will generate 20!
  • Step 2 – time for sharing ideas – make sure that everybody has a moment to speak and share;
  • Step 3 – discussion and building on others’ ideas. This step can be simultaneous with the previous one. When somebody presents an idea, others can build on it and develop more innovation;
  • Step 4 – when people need some inspiration to get out of the box, you can propose a “Role-playing” activity. Give them examples of fictional creatures or real people and ask how they would solve the problem: What would Steve Jobs, Mother Teresa, Shrek, Einstein, etc. propose?

Ask everybody to choose one of the people and come up with at least one idea. 😊

  • Step 5 – if you have more than one group working on different challenges, you can ask them to visit one another and add some ideas to the list already developed by the first team.

The whole session should last no more than 40 minutes. The facilitator acts as a timekeeper, which is one of the most important roles during brainstorming. Structured time keeps people on the right track and stimulates a good level of energy.

In my next blog, I will share some ideas for different brainstorming structures. Stay tuned and good luck!

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x