How to... Brainstorm

Written by: Alexander Garrett Posted: 08/04/2019

What is it? The invention of brainstorming has been attributed to US ad man Alex Faickney Osborn, one of the founders of the agency BBDO. In 1953, he originated a process called ‘organised ideation’ to produce new ideas in the agency, and the participants quickly began referring to it as ‘brainstorming’.

Osborn gave much of the credit for his process to Hindu teachers in India. He introduced the term in his book, Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Thinking

Understand the basics. Osborn’s method runs on four principles:
• Focus on quantity: the more ideas generated, the greater the chance of finding an innovative solution to the problem at hand
• Don’t criticise during idea generation: the emphasis should be on moving forward with ideas, piggybacking on other ideas, and creating new constructs
• Unusual ideas: unusual solutions are welcomed as a way to get people ‘thinking outside the box’ and finding innovative ways to solve the problem
• Combine ideas: participants are encouraged to build on concepts and work together to create better ideas through the process of association.

Is it the right approach? Brainstorming doesn’t suit every kind of problem. “One of the first things you need to determine is whether you need a brainstorming session at all,” says Peter Clayton, Consultant and Founder of “A brainstorming session should be used for generating lots of new ideas and solutions, not for analysis or decision-making.”

Prepare. Who are you going to invite to take part? Osborn suggested 12 as a perfect number, made up of both ‘novices’ and ‘experts’ for the question at hand. In advance, share the problem you want to crack, so everyone has a chance to think about it. “Very few people come up with their best ideas under pressure, so if you’re leading the session, make sure you give everyone time to prepare,” says Kate Moxon, Digital Marketing Manager at agency Engage Interactive. 

Try a new room. “Try holding brainstorming sessions in rooms not associated with team meetings,” says Lindsay Kolowich, Digital Marketing Manager at software provider HubSpot. “If you can’t change the room, try changing something to stimulate the brain, such as rearranging the chairs or putting pictures on the walls.” Even more radical, send your people somewhere outside their comfort zone. Lionel Ohayon, Founder and CEO of design studio iCrave, reportedly sends employees to the Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada each year to enable them to soak up the creative stimulation.

Make it safe. “The key to brainstorming, as with managing a team, is creating psychological safety – a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,” says Neill Hunt of the Defence Entrepreneurs Forum, DEF UK.

Make it democratic. “Everyone should have their own pen and Post-it notes, so no one can dominate the board,” says James Taylor, Founder of training venture C.School. There’s too often a “tyranny of the whiteboard”, he says, where the facilitator chooses which ideas they are going to write down and nobody else gets a look-in. You also need to be aware of people who are less inclined to put their hand up. Some commentators recommend kicking off with silly ideas – maybe get everyone to come up with a name for the brainstorming team, or some unorthodox flavours of coffee – just to make these people feel at ease. 

Think big. “We follow the ethos that it’s much harder to develop a small idea into something impressive than to scale back a big idea,” says Engage Interactive’s Moxon. “We encourage everyone to think big when they come to brainstorms and assume no limitations; sometimes the ‘how’ is easier than you think!”

Take note. The Design Council advises: 
• State the problem clearly and concisely
• Don’t lose anything. Write your ideas on flipcharts or on the wall
• Number your ideas and set a target – to get to 100, for example
• Keep the focus sharp: edgy and precise statements are better than fuzzy ones
• Keep the ideas flowing, approaching the problem from different viewpoints.

Try it on your own. There’s a counter-hypothesis that you get better results from brainstorming on your own, rather than in a group. An article in the Harvard Business Review explains this line of thinking, the result of numerous studies: ‘For one, when people work together, their ideas tend to converge. As soon as one person throws out an idea, it affects the memory of everyone in the group and makes them think a bit more similarly about the problem than they did before. In contrast, when people work alone, they tend to diverge in their thinking, because everyone takes a slightly different path to thinking about the problem.’ So, one smart technique is to let people work on their own to start with, then come together to share their ideas.

Pick the best. To wrap things up, you need a process to decide which ideas you will take forward. That could mean voting in the group, or you could convene a separate committee, which can look at all the ideas afresh and take an objective view. Either way, the objective is to come up with at least one idea that you can put into practice.

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