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Brainstorming: definition, ground rules, and techniques

Bring on your best ideas

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What is brainstorming?

It’s a common scenario: you need to come up with some creative ideas. Maybe you’re trying to find a solution to a complex problem, or perhaps you’re spitballing your team’s next big project.

Either way, you’re feeling the pressure to amp up your innovation and churn out some brilliant suggestions.

What happens now? Well, you might rely on a brainstorming session to get those creative juices flowing.

Before we dig into the ins and outs of how to brainstorm effectively, it’s helpful to take a step back and actually define brainstorming. Merriam-Webster describes brainstorming as “the mulling over of ideas by one or more individuals in an attempt to devise or find a solution to a problem.”

Sounds familiar, right? You can brainstorm on your own, but it’s a technique that’s frequently used in group settings to freely share ideas and build upon them.

Brainstorming is prevalent in today’s working world (you’ve likely been a part of a fair share of sessions yourself), but it has some serious historical roots.

It was first introduced in 1948 by advertising executive Alex F. Osborn in his book "Your Creative Power." As the owner of his own advertising agency, he was looking for ways to pull better ideas out of his employees — something he referred to as “thinking up.” With that objective in mind, he established several principles and characteristics of brainstorming, which we’ll dig into in detail later.

Since that time, brainstorming has gained steam and become a common technique that businesses use to generate creative solutions to a variety of problems.

The importance of brainstorming

While it certainly isn’t without its criticisms and potential pitfalls, there’s a reason this technique has become so popular in the modern working world: it’s effective and is tied to numerous benefits.

Below are just a few of the many advantages of brainstorming that teams can expect to experience.

Plant sprouting

Brainstorming encourages more creative thinking.

The first benefit is obvious: brainstorming requires an individual or team to think more creatively and without boundaries, which can lead to improved ideas and suggestions. For example, did you know that the idea for the Amazon Echo was reportedly born out of a brainstorming strategy?

Since brainstorming is often done in a group, it forces us to step away from our own biases and consider other perspectives and contributions without offering any upfront criticism.

Beyond that, productive brainstorming exercises challenge us to not only consider other ideas but to build upon them — which leads to an even better end result.

Brainstorming leads to better teamwork and greater group cohesiveness.

All of that working together does more than generate better ideas — it can actually improve our level of teamwork. There’s plenty of research out there that backs this up.

“Groups that focus on both the quantity of ideas and building on the ideas of others significantly increase their cohesiveness,” said David Henningsen, a Northern Illinois University professor and researcher, who co-led a study on brainstorming.

“Brainstorming can be used to help a team buy into and implement a plan of action, or it can be used to simply build cohesiveness, which in turn can lessen employee turnover and increase employee commitment.”

Brainstorming gives everybody a chance to be heard.

Research shows that more than half of professionals don’t speak their minds at work — whether it’s to colleagues or managers. That’s another benefit of brainstorming: it ensures that everybody has a chance to be involved in the creation and decision-making process.

A well-structured brainstorming session also opens the floor to more introverted team members who otherwise might not speak up with their own ideas.

Brainstorming tools and discussions are particularly effective when everyone involved approaches the conversation with an Open mindset. Take a deep dive into what it means to work Open by learning how Atlassian does it.

How to brainstorm: types, ground rules, and techniques

Clipboard with list

When done right, brainstorming offers tons of perks. But that begs the question: how exactly do you do it right?

There’s a bit of strategy involved in pulling off a successful brainstorming session. Here’s the information you need to get the very best ideas out of everyone on your team.

Brainstorming ground rules

One of the best ways to set yourself and your team up for brainstorming success is to establish some ground rules for what is and isn’t allowed during that session. Fortunately, Osborn did most of this work for you when he first came up with the concept. When he implemented brainstorming within his own advertising agency, he identified the following core principles:

Rule #1: Generate as many ideas as possible during the session.

While it can seem counterintuitive to most of us, brainstorming is about quantity rather than quality. By placing the focus on getting as many ideas as possible, people are more willing to share things that they otherwise might write off as irrelevant or over the top.

Rule #2: Criticizing ideas is not allowed.

You might hear this referred to as non-evaluation (and it’s also a key concept of the Atlassian Open mindset). Brainstorming isn’t about critiquing ideas on the spot — it’s simply about generation. That lack of immediate feedback empowers people to share ideas more openly without the fear of failure or disapproval.

Rule #3: Wild and ambitious ideas are welcome.

During a brainstorming session, you want people to think big. That’s exactly why this principle (which you might hear called “freewheeling”) exists. It encourages more creative thinking, because people know that they’re not just allowed — but actually encouraged — to think outside of the box.

Rule #4: People are encouraged to build on other ideas.

Finally, there’s a concept called “piggybacking.” While criticisms aren’t allowed, brainstorming participants are welcome to build upon other people’s contributions. This creates a more collaborative atmosphere, where good ideas get even more traction.

Those ground rules are a helpful start, but there are a couple of other tips you should keep in mind when structuring your brainstorming session.

First, pay close attention to who you’re including in the conversation to ensure you have a diverse group of participants at the table. Research has consistently shown that diversity drives creativity and innovation, so incorporating different voices will improve your chances of getting varied (and ultimately better) ideas.

You can also try hosting your brainstorming sessions in a different space — whether it’s a picnic table outside or that beloved coffee shop around the corner. Basically, break from routine and get away from the office conference room.

That level of novelty improves the neuroplasticity of our brains, which activates our ability to think about things in new ways. So, in short, changing up your scenery could lead to even bigger and better ideas. Plus, we could all use a break from the office, couldn’t we?

Brainstorming techniques

You have your brainstorming session scheduled and organized. what? Your team is all just staring at each other slack-jawed. How do you get the conversation rolling?

Below are just a few of the many different tactics that teams can use to get things started and make their brainstorming discussions that much more productive:

  • Brainwriting: With this technique, team members share ideas by writing them down independently rather than shouting them out together. It’s especially helpful if you know you have a number of introverts on your team.
  • Starting with an embarrassing story: Beginning the conversation with something that’s potentially embarrassing immediately puts everybody in a more vulnerable and open state of mind — which makes them more willing to share ideas.
  • Giving ideas time to marinate: Even though the excitement is strong, you might not want to jump into action on an idea right away. Research shows that even a brief break can give you time to strengthen that suggestion even further.
  • Figuring storming: This tactic involves putting yourself in the shoes of someone else to think about how they might handle the situation. It can be effective because it challenges us to get away from our own biases and perceptions.

Flex your creative muscles

Brainstorming can be powerful, but it involves more than pulling your team into a room and asking them to share their two cents. It requires a basic understanding to figure out your strategy.

So, the next time you’re trying to figure out how to brainstorm business ideas, return to this overview as your starting resource. It’ll help you lay the foundation for successful brainstorming sessions moving forward, and you’ll be well on your way to getting the very best ideas out of your team.

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