Brainstorming. It's been something ingrained as necessary in order to generate new ideas since we were kids. "Time to brainstorm your next science project." "Let's get together and brainstorm some ideas on why Elizabeth can't stand Mr. Darcy." Brainstorming has been done to death. So much so, that managers have forgotten why we even brainstorm in the first place. Most managers believe it's just the first step to generating the next great idea. And if that great idea doesn't happen? Then they'll take the next best concept and move on. 

With fast approaching deadlines and limited resources, it's important that those few hours you devote to brainstorming provide you with a positive return. 
We're not asking you to take your team outside, sing "kumbaya," and reach this euphoric state where all creativity will be unleashed. We're simply giving you some advice on what you should be doing (as well as what you shouldn't be doing, but probably are). 

The Origin of Brainstorming

The idea of brainstorming all started when Alex Osborn, an advertising executive, was frustrated with the poor creative output he was receiving from his employees. In 1953, he published a book titled Applied Imagination, which covers why brainstorming in a group is much more powerful and efficient than ideating independently. 
He theorized that in order to have an effective brainstorming session, the group must:
  • Defer judgement: don't point fingers when bad ideas are presented
  • Reach for quantity: focus on the quantity of ideas over quality
Osborn claimed these are the basic principles to engaging in a healthy and productive brainstorming session. But the challenge lies when you attempt to consistently implement these principles into practice.  . 
Let's go over the do's and don'ts of brainstorming and some brainstorming techniques to battle bad habits, so you can be sure your next brainstorming session is successful and effective:

The Rules of Brainstorming


Don't: Immediately get everyone involved
Do: Give people some time to think on their own
Oftentimes, the first step to brainstorming is to gather everyone in a room and start thinking. However, it's important to pump the breaks on group brainstorming right away.  .
In the book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, Richard Wiseman explores why brainstorming in a group is not always the best way to come up with ideas.   .
Wiseman says, "Over 50 years of research shows that people often reach irrational decisions in groups… and highly biased assessments of the situation... strong willed people who lead group discussions can pressure others into conforming, self-censorship and create an illusion of unanimity. People are more creative away from the crowd."  .
Instead, have your team come up with ideas on their own, prior to the brainstorming session. Give them time to think through and jot down their ideas independently, before sharing them with the group. This allows ideas to flow freely without any influence, intimidation, or unintentional groupthink.


Don't: Put limitations on the brainstorming session
Do: Allow everyone to talk openly without structure
You may be wondering, "Isn't it a little contradictory to have a blog post on the rules of brainstorming, and then suggest having no rules for brainstorming?" The truth is, without understanding how to get the most out of your brainstorming session, you're probably already putting your own unintentional limitations on it already.   .
Actively trying to keep the session open without engaging in judgement or labeling with statements like, "That's a bad idea" is the only rule you should be following. Other rules can put limitations on creativity and hinder your team from opening up to all possible options.  .
We're not saying to go have a day-long brainstorming session. Block off an hour on the calendar. If the ideas are flowing, go over the hour. If there is burnout early on in the session, cut the meeting short and reschedule. 


Don't: Shoot down ideas right away
Do: Make sure everyone shares at least one idea
It's easy to shoot down ideas that just seem completely out there or totally impractical. However, it's not ideal for brainstorming.  .
Some people tend to cater to their social inhibitions when they're asked to share their ideas, so the key to brainstorming is to hear everyone out—even if that means hearing the most outlandish ideas possible (because sometimes these are the best).   .
The best way to combat this judgement is by having everyone share their ideas first before giving any feedback. This is called Round Robin Brainstorming and is helpful in silencing participants who tend to dominate the conversation, and giving the quiet ones a chance to speak up.   .
Aaron Levie, the CEO and co-founder of Box, said it best: 


Don't: Focus on the quality of ideas
Do: Focus on the quantity of ideas
In most situations, quality is more important than quantity. When writing an article, it's more important to focus on the quality of the article than how long it is. This isn't the case for group brainstorming.  .
When ideating, it's important to get as many ideas out there as possible and as quickly as possible. There is no such thing as a bad idea.   .
This technique is called rapid ideation, and the goal is to generate ideas quickly so there's no time for judgement or afterthought. This allows your team to explore all realms of creativity, without placing restrictions on "bad ideas."


Don't: Record only the good ideas
Do: Record everything
A rule of thumb in most meetings is to take notes. It's similar for a brainstorming meeting as well. However, you don't want your team to just jot down the ideas that make sense or are realistic. Don't rush into trying to uncover the best idea right away—you can narrow it down to the top ideas later. Designate someone from your team to record all ideas on a notepad or a consolidated work management tool like Wrike. This allows everyone to view the notes being written in real time, and gives everyone else an opportunity to add in something that might have been left out. Having a consolidated location for brainstorming notes also makes it easy to find and review later on, since it's already shared with the entire team.


Don't: Limit the ideation to one brainstorming session
Do: Allow everyone to add in ideas on their own later
Once the brainstorming session is over, it's important to keep the creative juices flowing. What if one person's idea sparks another one? Make sure everyone takes 10-20 minutes after the meeting or later in the week to devote time to their own ideas that might feed off the ones shared in the meeting.
Don't leave this open ended. Provide a clear deadline for the project so your team can gauge how much time they should devote to brainstorming and when they need to start executing. Consider researching both in-person and virtual team-building games to get the creative juices flowing, and see what comes out of the brainstorming session when you include a bit of fun.
Getting your team involved in the brainstorming process is not only beneficial to the project itself, but it allows your team to share their voice and be engaged on a project from the start. Planning your group brainstorming sessions around these tips and techniques instead of doing it ad hoc will lead to more productive and effective brainstorming sessions; not to mention add more fun and imagination to the task at hand. 

Other Brainstorming Resources