“You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.” —Walt Disney

Does brainstorming ever feel like a total waste of time? You feel it's necessary to get your team's input on a topic, but the session usually just turns into a few people bickering, and the other participants saying nothing at all. This is a classic case of brainstorming gone wrong.

Many people forget the key to brainstorming is quantity, not quality. Yes, you read that right: quantity, not quality. Brainstorming is the first step in the exploration phase of a new project, so it's important to be open to all ideas and possibilities. Problems arise when team members think they need to filter out the good ideas from the not-so-good ones due to fear of being judged or rejected.

Another problem with brainstorming is many people think it can only be done one way: an open discussion in a meeting room with everyone involved. This method is not necessarily wrong, but it can lead to some largely unrecognized social drawbacks that might contribute to an unproductive session. For instance, when the first couple of ideas are shared during a session, there is a tendency to focus on those ideas throughout the rest of the meeting. Leigh Thompson, a management professor at the Kellogg School, conducted a study on traditional brainstorming methods and found that only a few people do 60-75% of the talking. This bias, often called “anchoring,” can often prevent other fresh ideas from coming to light.

Here are 7 easy ways to brainstorm effectively, encourage collaboration, and eliminate judgement:

1. Brain Writing

The general principle of this technique is to separate idea generation from discussion. The team leader shares the topic with the team, and the team members individually write down their ideas. This helps eliminate anchoring and encourages everyone on the team to share their own ideas. It also gives everyone more time to think over their ideas, which is especially helpful for your introverted participants. This brainstorming technique works best for teams who seem to be greatly influenced by the first ideas presented during a meeting.

When you get your team to brainstorm ideas individually, away from distraction and public opinion, concepts are generated that may not naturally surface when in a larger setting. Individual brainstorming techniques such as this will often give you more unique ideas than when the group is left to think up topic ideas.

2. Figuring Storming

Ever considered how someone else might handle the situation? Or what they might say about a particular topic? With figuring storming, you aim to do just that. Think about how someone such as your boss, a famous celebrity, or even the President of the United States might handle the situation. Putting yourself in new shoes can give the team a different perspective and presents the possibility of fresh ideas. This technique works best for teams who find themselves coming across the same ideas for repetitive projects.

Try the simple question: what would Abraham Lincoln do? When you brainstorm questions that revolve around the possible actions of a third party, you free up ideas that aren't limited to your participants. It's one of those exercises for teams that gives everyone a different viewpoint.

3. Online Brainstorming (Brain-netting)

These days, virtual teams are becoming more and more common across all business types. The evolution of email and collaboration tools make working remotely the norm in some environments. But what happens when the team needs to come together to brainstorm? Sure, ideas can be tossed back and forth through email, but then it becomes difficult to archive those ideas for future reference. Having a central location online where team members can collaborate is crucial for these virtual teams — consider cloud-based document storage or an online collaboration tool. One of our most well-known customers, Redfoo, uses Wrike to brainstorm music and clothing ideas for his multiple companies. He created an ideas folder in Wrike where he can jot down ideas and share them with his team. This way, all the ideas are archived in one central location and can be referenced easily.

There are many other online collaboration tools and exercises out there that can help you capture ideas as they surface. One of those brainstorming exercises for groups involves using an online mind-mapping tool to answer very specific questions or simply to generate ideas that might be tangential to the main problem. What other ideas surround this concept? Map these examples out, visually.

4. Rapid Ideation

Sometimes, time limitations can help generate ideas quickly, because you don't have time to filter or overthink each one. With this technique, the team leader provides context beforehand with information or questions on the topic, budget, deadline, etc. Then, a time limit is set for individuals to write down as many thoughts or ideas around the topic as possible, using any mediums available. People should not worry about filtering their ideas. The great part about this style of brainstorming is that it's completely customizable to meet the needs of the team and project. Several different mediums can be used, such as pen and paper, white boards, Post-Its... anything to get the creative juices flowing. The time limit for your rapid ideation session can be anywhere from 5 to 45 minutes, depending on the complexity of your topic. This technique is good for teams who tend to get sidetracked, or for placing a time limit on brainstorming sessions that frequently last longer than expected.

While brainstorming is the basic technique for developing ideas and getting people to think up new concepts and solutions, there is a very real temptation to overthink things. It's easy to get bogged down by every new idea and its details. This is precisely the problem that rapid ideation seeks to solve. 

Bonus Tip: Try Some Brainstorm Music

Here's a unique tip for your session: try putting on some brainstorm music — i.e. music that makes it more conducive to generating new ideas. Depending on your company culture, or the team involved, the right kind of music at the right volume can help. But do stick to these guidelines for picking the music: keep it instrumental (it's better for concentration and attention), keep it in a major key (so the mood stays positive), and ensure the music stays at a fixed tempo and volume (less distracting). Two examples you could play: Bach's Brandenburg Concertos if you like classical music, or some deep house if you enjoy electronic dance music. Check out some suggestions on websites to visit for your background music.

5. Round Robin Brainstorming

This method begins by having the team gather in a circle. Once the topic is shared, go around the circle one-by-one and have each person offer an idea until everyone has had their turn. Simultaneously, a facilitator records each idea so they can be discussed once the sharing is over. It's very important to not evaluate any ideas until everyone has the opportunity to share. This technique is good when some of your team members have a tendency to stay quiet throughout meetings.

When leading a session, the round robin method of brainstorming allows everyone to pitch in and contribute. Just make sure to treat each idea with equal weight. And try to discourage people from saying "X already mentioned my idea." If this does happen, say you'll return to them at the end so they have time to think of something new.

6. Starbursting

This form of brainstorming focuses on forming questions rather than answers. Starbursting challenges the team to come up with as many questions as they can about your topic. An easy way to begin a session like this would be to start listing questions that deal with the who, what, where, when, and why. This style assures that all aspects of the project are addressed before any work goes into executing it. It's a good technique for teams who tend to overlook certain aspects of a project and end up rushing to get things done last minute.

Thinking up some good brainstorming questions has the added benefit of giving you an instant backlog of ideas for web content: in case you need a FAQ section for your website or product, simply answer the generated questions!

7. Stepladder Technique

Developed in 1992, this style of brainstorming encourages every member in the team to contribute individually before being influenced by everyone else. The session begins with the facilitator sharing the topic or question with the whole team. Once the topic is shared, everyone leaves the room except two members of the team. These two members will then discuss the topic and their ideas. Then, one additional member is added to the group. This new member will contribute their ideas BEFORE the other two discuss theirs. Repeat this cycle until everyone from the original group is in the room. This technique is particularly useful for teams who are easily influenced by only one or two members, leading to groupthink. This also helps encourage the shy folks in the group to share their ideas without feeling intimidated by a room full of people.

The stepladder technique is actually one of the more mature brainstorming strategies as it incorporates both an individual and a group participation aspect. This brainstorming technique is useful for medium-sized groups of anywhere from 5 to 15 people. Once the group gets larger however, it takes much longer and may become unwieldy.

The Benefits of a Group Brainstorm

So why is brainstorming in a group beneficial? The definition of brainstorming holds the key: it is a way to solve problems by holding a group discussion and collecting information or ideas that are arrived at via "unrestrained and spontaneous participation in discussion." 
It's a useful method, especially in the early stages of a product or a company's growth, to bring together a wide range of viewpoints. Additionally, it's a quick way to generate a large quantity of ideas. Instead of just one or two, a group effort can exponentially increase the number of ideas. 
Here are a few tips to help your next brainstorm become a resounding success:
  • Make the objectives crystal clear from the start. What are you trying to find/solve? What constraints are you operating under?  
  • Just as with other collaborative meeting techniques, allow everyone to have a say. Facilitate the session so that the people who are quiet have equal time in the spotlight as those who have the tendency to dominate discussions.   
  • Take away the possibilities of anchoring by letting people generate ideas individually first, before coming together to discuss and elaborate. 
  • Go for quantity over quality at the start. 

Does your team brainstorm successfully?

What other techniques has your team used for effective brainstorming? Tell us in the comments!

Related Reads: How to Better Foster Creativity on Teams 65 Essential Tools for Digital Marketers Creative Block? 5 Surprising Ways to Spark Creativity

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