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Brainstorming Techniques

Inspire endless “aha!” moments

Meeples in parachutes delivering content

You’ve put a brainstorming session on the calendar and you’re ready for the brilliant ideas to start rolling in. 

But here’s the thing: you can’t assume that you’ll simply gather everybody in a room and watch the magic happen. 

An effective brainstorming session needs more than just a bunch of brains — it needs structure. That means you should come prepared with some prompts and exercises to kick off the idea generation process. 

Below are a variety of brainstorming techniques in four different categories, so you can help everybody pull out their best ideas and make the most of your time together.

Visual brainstorming techniques

You don’t need to be an artist to pull this off. Whipping out some markers and doodling away with these visual brainstorming exercises can help you get out of your own head and come up with some creative ideas.

1. Mind mapping

You can do this: Alone or with a team

What you’ll need:

  • Whiteboard or paper
  • Markers

How it works: Mindmapping forces you to explore different facets of a problem and organize your ideas for possible solutions. You’ll need to start with the central question you’re trying to answer or problem you’re trying to solve, which should be put at the center of your paper or whiteboard. 

Make this specific enough to provide direction without boxing people into one way of thinking. For example, ask, “How can we improve our customer response times?” rather than something general like, “How can we provide better customer service?” 

From there, write down different thoughts that are related to that question and jot them in separate bubbles around the core question. Then, use those ideas to spark even more ideas that you can connect using circles, lines, and arrows.

End up with a mess? That’s exactly the point. But now you can comb through all of those ideas and pull out the best ones.

2. Storyboarding

You can do this: Alone or with a team

What you’ll need:

  • Sticky notes
  • Markers
  • A blank wall

How it works: You’ve probably heard of storyboarding in the context of planning out a movie plot or a script. And that makes sense because this technique is especially helpful for brainstorming and designing a series or a process.

For example, imagine that you and the rest of your team are trying to design a new employee onboarding process. Using this type of brainstorming technique, everybody gets some sticky notes and writes down the different elements they think belong in your onboarding process (i.e., a welcome lunch, an office tour, and a one-on-one meeting with the team manager).

After that, you can collect the sticky notes, remove any duplicates, and place and move the notes around on a blank wall to find the best order for your onboarding process. Once everyone agrees, document that order so everyone has it for reference. 

3. Group sketching

You can do this: With a team

What you’ll need:

  • Pencils
  • Pieces of paper

How it works: Science says that doodling can improve our focus, enhance our creativity, and give our problem-solving skills a boost. It’s time to pull out some pencils, channel your inner artist, and do some group sketching.

It’s simple: each team member gets a sheet of paper and sketches something related to the core concept you’re brainstorming, for example, activities for your next team outing.

When those first rounds of sketches are finished, papers get passed to the next person who sketches another related image. Maybe the first drawer sketched a pizza, while the next person sketched a wine bottle. Continue passing those papers. Once they’ve made it all the way through the group, collect and discuss the sketches.

It’s a fun activity that can help your team identify new connections and generate more innovative ideas. 

Starbursting

You can do this: Alone or with a team

What you’ll need:

  • Marker
  • Paper or whiteboard

How it works: On your paper or whiteboard, draw a six-pointed star and write the challenge, problem, or opportunity you’re brainstorming at the center. For example, imagine that your team wants to put together a new webinar but you haven’t ironed out any other details yet.

Within each point of the star, write the following terms: who, what, when, where, why, and how.

Now, jot down questions that start with each of those terms. Maybe it’s, “Who will host our webinar?” or “Who is the intended audience for this webinar?” Think of as many questions – both obvious and non-obvious – for each term as possible.

Starbursting enables you and your team to explore all possibilities and thoroughly think through all elements of an idea or project.

Analytical brainstorming techniques

Gears

1. Customer journey mapping

You can do this: With a team

What you’ll need:

  • Whiteboard
  • Markers
  • Sticky notes
  • Timer

How it works: This technique helps you visualize how customers experience your product or service, as well as how they feel along the way.

What does this have to do with brainstorming? Well, sometimes all you need is to get outside of your own head and explore different perspectives on a problem or question. 

Customer journey mapping puts you in the shoes of your customer so that you can potentially identify solutions or ideas that you wouldn’t have thought of on your own. There’s a detailed breakdown of how to use customer journey mapping in this playbook

2. Dependency mapping

You can do this: With a team

What you’ll need:

  • Laptop
  • Large display screen
  • Whiteboard or shared digital document

How it works: Brainstorming doesn’t have to be all about coming up with innovative new ideas. It can be just as helpful for proactively addressing any project problems before they throw you off track.

That’s where dependency mapping comes into play. It helps you spot any potential sticking points and manage them ahead of time. Through dependency mapping, you and your team will identify:

  • Systems affected: What teams and processes will your work affect and how?
  • Risks and mitigations: What are the worst fears about this project? To what degree will each influence the project?

Once that’s done, you and the team should look back at the risks and dependencies you’ve identified, and come up with a plan for managing them all. Make sure to name a stakeholder for each, so you know who should be actively managing each risk throughout the project.

Want to learn more? A full description of how to use dependency mapping can be found in this playbook.

3. Premortem

You can do this: With a team

What you’ll need:

  • Whiteboard or butcher’s paper
  • Markers
  • Sticky notes
  • Timer

How it works: A premortem is all about picturing the glass half full – and then the glass half empty. You’ll divide your team into two groups: the failure team and the success team. 

The failure team will brainstorm all of the potential reasons your project could take a major nosedive, while the success team thinks about all of the ways your project could be worthy of your best victory dance. From there, you’ll cross-examine those hypothetical successes and pitfalls and narrow them down to the top three risks and opportunities.

That gives you a chance to see into the future and steer clear of any roadblocks. Learn more about how to conduct a premortem in this playbook.

4. S.W.O.T. Analysis

You can do this: Alone or with a team

What you’ll need:

  • Paper
  • Markers

How it works: S.W.O.T. stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, and those four things are exactly what you’ll be identifying to better plan your project. 

On a piece of paper, label four columns with S, W, O, and T (one for each letter of the acronym) and then begin jotting things down within each column. 

As just one of many brainstorming examples, maybe that new app idea will separate you from your competitors (strength) and could be promoted at your upcoming user conference (opportunity). However, you haven’t seen huge demand for that type of app yet (weakness) and more and more of your competitors are moving toward a similar product (threat). 

S.W.O.T. analysis helps you thoroughly think through that product, anticipate any potential problems, and really get it into tip-top shape before pitching it elsewhere. Here’s more information about how to turn your S.W.O.T. findings into actionable strategies.

Creative and game-like brainstorming techniques

While brainstorming is an organized effort to get your team coloring outside the lines, it should also be a good time. Throw in a couple of creative techniques to gamify the process a little bit. Here are a few ideas.

Illustration of two people collaborating on a whiteboard

1. Disruptive brainstorming

You can do this: With a team

What you’ll need:

  • Disrupt cards
  • Whiteboard
  • Markers
  • Sticky notes
  • Timer

How it works: Disruptive brainstorming is a great tool for generating as many ideas as possible and then finding the best ones within a certain set of constraints.

There’s quite a bit to it (and you can get the full rundown in this playbook), but the gist is that you should have your team break into groups, and have each group brainstorm as many ideas within a theme as possible. For example, how can we increase signups to our newsletter list? Groups will write their ideas on sticky notes and hang them on their whiteboard.

Then, each person walks around the room, going to each group’s board and removing the ideas they don’t support. They’ll throw these ideas to the floor – literally. 

From there, you’ll move into disruptive brainstorm loops that last 10 minutes each. You’ll add new disrupt cards, move team members between different groups, and come up with as many ideas as possible within the constraints dictated by the disrupt card. For instance, if you pull the “limited access” disrupt card (which pushes the idea that people love exclusivity), how can you make your newsletter more selective? Should it be a paid membership? Should it offer discounts or content that nobody else gets? 

After doing that, you weed through all of the ideas again. It’s fun, it’s team-focused, and it gets people moving around, so they aren’t falling asleep at the conference room table.

2. Wishing

You can do this: Alone or with a team

What you’ll need:

  • Pencils
  • Paper

How it works: One of the characteristics of brainstorming is that it gives you a chance to think beyond limitations and come up with your most dream-worthy solutions to problems – you know, if resources and budget weren’t an issue.

That’s what the wishing technique is all about: reaching for the stars. For example, if you’re planning your annual client lunch, what’s your dream venue? (top of the Empire State Building) Who would you love to have speak? (Michelle Obama) What would you serve as the meal? (Kobe beef steak) Go ahead and dream big. 

When you all have your wishes, share them with the group and talk about how your ideas might not be that far-fetched. How could you actually make them a reality? You might be surprised by what you come up with.

3. Forced connections

You can do this: With a team

What you’ll need:

  • Random objects
  • Pencils
  • Paper

How it works: Sometimes you just need to get your team’s neurons firing – even if it has nothing to do with your end goal or project.

Try this: bring a bag of random objects to your next brainstorming session. Pull out two or more items and challenge the team to come up with all the ways those things could be related to each other.

It may not have anything to do with, well, anything. But, figuring out how an umbrella could possibly be related to catnip is bound to awaken your team’s inventive side.

Stacked blocks

4. Team brainwriting

You can do this: With a team

What you’ll need:

  • Pencils
  • Paper

How it works: You can think of this brainstorming technique sort of like a big game of Telephone. Each team member writes a few ideas on a piece of paper.

Pass those papers around and have each person add their own ideas, using the original idea as their inspiration. Once each slip of paper has gone around once, it’s time to discuss.

Not only is it fun to see what everybody comes up with and how ideas build upon each other, but this type of brainstorming format gives everyone a chance to actively participate – whether they’re introverts or extroverts.

5. Role playing

You can do this: With a team

What you’ll need:

  • Bag or a hat
  • Slips of paper
  • Pencil

How it works: It’s human nature to get stuck in our own perspectives, but role playing can help you think about things in new ways by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

Bring a hat or bag filled with slips of paper into your next brainstorming session. On each slip, write somebody’s name. It could be the names of customers, board members, celebrities, historical figures, etc.

Have people pull out a slip of paper one at a time and try to come up with ideas as if you’re the person named on the paper. How would Abraham Lincoln increase paid app downloads? What about Oprah? It’s a great way to step away from your own biases and shake things up!

6. “What if” brainstorming

You can do this: Alone or with a team

What you’ll need:

  • A vivid imagination

How it works: Sometimes you just need a breather, a moment to think about a situation in an entirely different way. 

That’s when it’s time to ask a lot of hypothetical questions in the form of “what if?” For example, what if the problem were worse? Or, what if it was happening to a different team? Or at a totally different time? What if it wasn’t happening at all?

Having an open conversation about these sorts of questions can encourage some serious out-of-the-box solutions and keep your team from getting too stuck in their own opinions. 

7. Improv games

You can do this: With a team

What you’ll need:

  • Depends on your chosen game

How it works: Maybe you just need to get your team’s brains warmed up, ready to work, and used to thinking on their feet. Improv games are a lighthearted and often hilarious way to get your team to open up. 

Try these ideas: Tell a story a word at a time by going around in a circle. Or play “family portrait” where groups have 10 seconds to pose for a family portrait based on a prompt, for example, “like a family of gymnasts” or something equally silly. Or assign people characters to act out a scene and then require them to switch characters whenever someone yells, “Switch!” 

Check out more improv games to try out with your team. 

Even something as simple as having team members start your session with an embarrassing story can put your team in the right headspace to start openly sharing some fresh ideas. 

Brainstorming techniques to focus and refine your ideas

Your brainstorming session was a smash hit, and now you have billions of ideas that you want to pursue. That’s awesome! But also too much of a good thing. It might be worth it to pull your team together one more time to refine some of those suggestions and zero in on your best bets. Try these approaches.

Arrow in bullseye

1. Elevator pitch

You can do this: With a team

What you’ll need:

  • Sticky notes
  • Markers
  • Whiteboard or blank wall
  • Timer

How it works: You’ve settled on one idea that you love from your brainstorming session. But now you’re facing another hurdle: getting buy-in from other departments or stakeholders.

Don’t go sharing your idea until you and your team have worked through this elevator pitch exercise. Have the team create a bunch of different two- to three-line statements that really sell your idea and then vote on the best one. Find more details about how to run an elevator pitch session in this playbook

After you’re done, you should have zoned in on the best aspects and top benefits of your idea.

2. Sparring

You can do this: With a team

What you’ll need:

  • Print-outs of your ideas or work
  • Sticky notes
  • Pens or markers
  • Timer

How it works: Maybe you’re stuck between several ideas or are unsure about which one you can actually get done. Sparring is a useful way to get peer feedback and land on the winning idea.

Sparring is more about bettering ideas than coming up with them. Share the work or ideas you need feedback on and then invite team members to smash it: mark it up, pose questions, and offer criticisms, etc.

Resist the urge to fix the work or ideas right now. This is simply all about raising questions and collecting valuable feedback. Intrigued? See if sparring can help flush out your ideas in this playbook.

3. S.C.A.M.P.E.R.

You can do this: Alone or with a team

What you’ll need:

  • Pencils
  • Paper

How it works: S.C.A.M.P.E.R stands for substitute, combine, adapt, modify, eliminate, and reverse, and you follow each letter of the acronym to really noodle on your ideas. 

For example, what would happen to the project if we substituted this for that? Or, what would happen if we eliminated this whole feature? 

This will help you think through all aspects of your idea and make sure that you truly are on the right path.

4. DACI

You can do this: With a team

What you’ll need:

How it works: You have an idea or a solution, but you’re feeling stuck about how to move forward. What happens now?

DACI streamlines decision-making, so you always know how much say people have and who has to sign off on the end result. Using this system, you assign the driver, approver, contributors, and informed to make roles and responsibilities clear.

Learn more about the DACI framework in this playbook. 

5. Problem framing

You can do this: Alone or with a team

What you’ll need:

  • Whiteboard or butcher’s paper
  • Sticky notes
  • Markers
  • Paper
  • Timer

How it works: Unlike the others, this technique is best used ahead of your brainstorming session so that you can set your team up for success.

Problem-framing challenges you to pinpoint the core problem that you’re solving for (for example, improving collaboration between your marketing and sales teams) and then draft a problem statement. That way, you can come prepared with brainstorming questions that make your goal clear – without boxing people in.

Check out this playbook see how you can use problem framing to your advantage.

Here come the lightbulb moments…

There are tons of advantages of brainstorming – as long as you do it right. Remember that a meeting of the minds won’t do you much good if you aren’t prepared to lead the discussion with some thoughtful exercises, tools, and prompts.

So, the next time you’re feeling stumped about how to brainstorm effectively, return to this guide to pull out some activities that will help your team come up with their best ideas and have a great time doing it.

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