Brainstorming doesn’t deserve its bad reputation – how to make it work

Brainstorming has a bad reputation. I think this is undeserved. I do understand where the bad rap comes from. Brainstorming is often executed poorly. We’ve all been there, sitting in a boring conference room, someone trying unsuccessfully to create some sort of atmosphere, the conversation dominated by a few people, and in the end everybody is unhappy. “Good work team…” 

This is very unfortunate as there are ways to conduct effective brainstorming sessions. They just aren’t the typical ways. Today, I want to dive into this topic of idea generation. I want to consider how the best ideas come about (spoiler: the unconscious), give advice on effective brainstorming solutions, and share examples of ideation sessions.

Let’s start with some basics.    

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Basics about idea generation

Some knowledge about human psychology is key in attempting to effectively come up with creative ideas. Amongst others, there are – to me – three basic concepts worth knowing when it comes to brainstorming. (Teresa Torres was the first to really spell this and much more out for me in her great book Continuous Discovery Habits in the chapter “Super Charged Ideation”. I definitely recommend to read that for more details.)

  • The power of the subconscious
  • Priming and bias
  • The creative cliff illusion

Understanding the impact of these forms the base for the structure of any brainstorming session. Let me explain why.  

The power of the subconscious

The best ideas don’t come to you during typical brainstorming meetings. They come during showers, walks, while cooking, or when you are bored. The reason for this is your subconscious that continues to work while the conscious part of the brain is distracted.

For this reason, any organized brainstorming needs to allow for our subconscious to ruminate in the background. More often than not this means doing some other task that is not too mentally demanding or specifically planning (long) breaks, allowing the subconscious to do its magic.

Priming and group conformity

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann introduced me to the concept of priming. Priming essentially means that human behavior and thinking is unknowingly influenced by external events. (There has been some discussion around the statistical robustness of the findings. In my experience priming plays a major role in any group setting, though.)

In the context of brainstorming, priming means influencing people’s thinking with surroundings and with what others say (first). It means that the first ideas stated will influence the participants in such a way that are biased towards those ideas. Through priming and group conformity dynamics participants will unconsciously restrict the size of the solution space.

On the other hand, the cross-pollination effect of people building on ideas of others is extremely valuable. According to Steve Jobs creativity is simply connecting the experiences of creative people to synthesize new things, after all. 

So, you need to avoid biasing the team with the ideas of others if you want to extract the full range of ideas. But there has to be some sort of idea sharing to inspire each other. 

For an effective brainstorming, consequently, the team members should first privately come up with as many ideas as possible to avoid bias. Afterwards, they share all of their ideas to get the cross-pollination effect.

The creative cliff illusion

Generally speaking, people tend to think that the first ideas are the best ones (guilty 🙋‍♂️). They also think that after a short period of time the quality of the solutions declines sharply. This creative cliff is an illusion. Creativity actually increases or persists over an ideation session. 

In idea generation, this means the team should continue coming up with ideas after they generated up with the initial batch. Counter to intuition the team should persist in ideating, e.g. until reaching some goal for the total number of generated ideas. This concept forms the base of the often heard Mantra quantity over quality in brainstorming. 

How to have an effective brainstorming session

Having a rough understanding of the three concepts above leads to a few ground rules for any brainstorming. 

  • Quality over quantity
  • Private idea generation with subsequent sharing
  • Plan breaks, so the unconscious can do its work

In order to truly allow for quality over quantity, you need to create a safe space for bad ideas. You can’t have good ideas unless you’re willing to generate a lot of bad ones. Too often do we fear having bad ones and thus don’t contribute as much as we could. It is the moderator’s job to ensure this safe space.

Not included above but it should be a given is setting some sort of goal. I recommend doing this already at least a day before the actual brainstorming starts. Giving a short outline of what problem you are trying to find solutions for already gives the mind some time to come up with ideas.  

People will inevitably get stuck during brainstorming sessions. If that’s the case, they should take a break. Getting up, walking around, grabbing a coffee, sitting down somewhere else , or whatever else they do during this break will help the mind get unstuck. 

If that doesn’t help, it can also make sense to look at products or companies that solved similar issues as inspiration. Additionally, many techniques exist that all help to avoid getting stuck.

Having covered the theory, what could it look like in practice?

Examples of ideation sessions

In this space I want to share possible schedules of effective brainstorming sessions. I want to give two examples, one synchronous, the other asynchronous. 

Synchronous Brainstorming

In this case the participants come together in meetings to come up with ideas at the same time, synchronously. This can be in-person or remote. The structure doesn’t really change. 

Monday 2pm
10 minute meeting where the moderator shares the goal of tomorrow’s session and gives some boundary conditions.

Tuesday 9am
Start of the session. The Moderator repeats the goal, explains the rules and builds the safe space for “bad” answers (quantity > quality, there are no wrong answers), answers any questions, and presents the schedule. 

Tuesday 9.15am
Individual idea generation. Every participant writes down as many ideas as they can come up with. They need to be written down in such a way that others cannot see them. In remote settings we have used separate sections of Miro boards or private documents. In-person, people mostly use post-its. The moderator encourages the participants to take breaks when they become stuck.

Tuesday 9.35am
Sharing of ideas. Every participant presents what they wrote down. The others are encouraged to ask questions and build on the original ideas. The moderator already clusters similar ideas and ensures the ideas generated during the discussion are documented as well. In the end all ideas are in one space (e.g. all post-its are on one wall, in a defined space in Miro, or copied into a dedicated Teams/Slack channel). 

Tuesday 10.20am

Tuesday 1pm
Individual idea generation (including building on the ideas discussed prior) and the subsequent presentation as done before. Afterwards the session is over for the day. The moderator encourages participants to write down any other ideas they may have until the next morning. 

Wednesday 10am
Final sharing of any ideas that came up after the end of Tuesday’s session as done before. 

Wednesday 10.20am
Summary of all ideas. Depending on the circumstances the team can then vote on the solution to implement or the top three that they want to test in some form or fashion.

Asynchronous idea generation

In this case the participants do not come together at the same time but – for example due to working in different time zones – come up with ideas at different points in time. This is done remotely. Instead of fixed meetings, there are deadlines until the participants need to participate. In an asynchronous brainstorming the number of participants can be much higher. Special thought needs to be put into recruiting the right people. 

Monday morning
The “moderator” creates a document outlining the goals, schedule and boundary conditions. Every participant receives the document to read.

Wednesday deadline
Idea generation days. Throughout the days everybody comes up with as many ideas as possible and writes them down. They have to be added into some digital workspace before the deadline. Due to the asynchronous nature, the ideas need to be spelled out much more detailed than in the synchronous version. 

Friday deadline
Idea clarification. The participants comment on the idea to ask questions or build on them until the next deadline. All participants periodically check and clarify doubts about their solutions.  

Following Tuesday deadline
Second ideation. The participants add any further ideas they may have come up with to the workspace until the next deadline. 

Following Thursday deadline
Second clarification.Everyone comments or adds to the presented ideas as done before. 

Following Friday
Synthesis of all ideas and depending on the circumstances voting on one or several solutions until some deadline the following week.

Brainstorming has an unfairly earned reputation

Just to be very clear. There is no need to conduct ideation sessions in exactly the manner described above. My aim is to inspire a new approach. Far too often do I still see teams sit down in a boring conference room for 30 minutes to brainstorm. This can work. More often than not it doesn’t. 

Do something different! I think the biggest boost comes from having several sessions with breaks in between and having the participants come up with ideas privately before sharing them. Doing these two things alone should already greatly improve the effectiveness. 

Happy Ideation!

Coverimage by on Freepik