Archimedes may have had his eureka moment while soaking in the bathtub, but creative new ideas don't often appear out of thin air. Instead of waiting for the perfect idea to strike, you can work with a group using creative brainstorming techniques to find new ideas and innovative solutions to problems. Here’s how to cultivate a practice of brainstorming to generate ideas for your company.
What is brainstorming?
Brainstorming is a form of collaborative creative thinking involving group discussion that generates diverse ideas. You can use brainstorming to solve problems or come up with new concepts. Brainstorming techniques promote spontaneity within an environment that minimizes inhibitions so team members can propose as many ideas as possible, reserving critique for later. At the end of a brainstorming session, you or your group of fellow brainstormers can narrow the ideas down to the best ones. The hope is that one idea triggers another and then another, eventually leading to ideas that are worth implementing.
6 popular creative brainstorming techniques
Brainstorming methods are strategies you can use to generate creative ideas. Here are some of the most popular group brainstorming techniques:
1. Mind mapping
Mind mapping is a form of visual thinking that allows you to organize ideas by breaking up a central topic into subtopics, and further breaking up those subtopics. This allows you to group new ideas by category and refine broad ideas into more specific ideas. Start by putting the main idea or question in the middle of a blank sheet of paper or whiteboard, then write related ideas in its immediate periphery, drawing lines connecting the outlying words to the central word. Continue the brainstorming process by moving outward, breaking up each idea into smaller related ideas.
For example, you might use this technique to brainstorm ways to expand a company’s skin care product offerings. Write “new skin care product” in the center of your mind map, then surround it with different product categories (“sunscreen,” “makeup remover,” “eye serum,” etc.) and then surround each of those categories with specific product types (“zinc oxide sunscreen,” “non-greasy sunscreen,” “sunscreen for different skin tones”). Once you’ve completed your mind map, you’ll have a diagram of potential avenues for expanding your product offerings.
2. Reverse brainstorming
Reverse brainstorming is a problem-solving approach that involves listing all the ways to make a problem worse rather than solve it. Although it might feel awkward at first, this method pushes participants to envision all the ways a situation could go wrong, which opens the door to creating safeguards against those potential problems. This creative exercise can bring to light overlooked issues or blockers, helping you develop precise strategies for overcoming them.
3. SWOT analysis
SWOT analysis is a brainstorming method that aims to identify the “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats” associated with an idea or challenge. When conducting a SWOT analysis, ask your brainstorming team to list all possible strengths associated with an idea—perhaps it's an idea for a new product or a reworking of your company’s organizational structure. Write down all of the ideas, then do the same with weaknesses (then opportunities, then threats) without spending any time analyzing the answers. Once you have collected all the responses, you can go through them and see what kind of insights came through.
This brainstorming technique is exactly what it sounds like: You set a theme or a problem, and each member of the brainstorming session writes down their top three ideas related to that theme or problem. Once they’re done, they pass their ideas on to the next person in either direction, and that participant continues developing the three ideas further. Repeat the process as many times as needed for every participant to refine every idea.
The main point of this brainstorming method is to remove any hesitancy that might come with speaking ideas out loud. It may also accommodate more introverted people. Brainwriting allows you to engage in collective thinking and to see how different minds feed off each other without requiring participants to discuss ideas aloud. Limit each round to under 10 minutes to keep the process moving and minimize overthinking.
5. Rapid ideation
Rapid ideation is an anonymous brainstorming method in which every person writes down as many of their own ideas as they can think of on sticky notes. Limit the time for the ideation process, and ask all participants to write down the first ideas that come to mind without evaluating them. When the timer beeps, collect the notes and arrange them on a whiteboard, grouping ideas by similar themes. This allows you to identify trends and outliers. Once all the ideas are categorized, you can discuss them with the group.
Write the idea in the middle of a whiteboard, draw a six-sided star around it, and write one of these questions at each point: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Use the starbursting brainstorming method to poke holes in a new idea and identify potential weaknesses and opportunities.
The goal for the team is to come up with questions related to the idea and your business in each category. For example, “Who is going to be the target audience for this product?” “How are we going to bring this product to market?” “Why would a customer want to buy it?” Write down all the questions the participants come up with, and schedule a time to contemplate them later. This method is not about coming up with answers in the moment; it’s about finding relevant questions that require answers and systematizing your thinking about the idea.
Best practices for productive brainstorming
Every effective brainstorming technique works in a similar way—group members gather in the same place and speak up in order to contribute ideas. Here are some best practices that promote creativity and comfort in a group brainstorming session:
- Level the playing field. When you’re brainstorming ideas, every person, from an intern to the CEO, should be treated equally, regardless of their title or rank. Creative ideas can come from anyone, and creating a safe space for self-expression ensures everyone feels comfortable contributing.
- Encourage the introverts. Make sure that everyone, even those who may not be naturally willing to speak in a group setting, gets a chance to share their thoughts in a way that feels comfortable to them. For example, to make the brainstorming session more accessible to introverts, you can have participants write down new ideas on sticky notes, then select a volunteer to read them aloud.
- Don’t be afraid to pitch silly ideas. The brainstorming session is not the time to pass judgment on ideas; every idea is acceptable and worthy of consideration. This is the likeliest path to achieving what will eventually be a great idea. One fresh idea triggers another and then another, eventually leading to the final few ideas that are worth implementing. The initial ideas might seem ridiculous, but they can lead to good ideas you might not have thought of otherwise.
- Focus on quantity over quality. When developing ideas during the initial phase of brainstorming, more is more. Ask your team to generate as many ideas as possible. That way you have a wider pool of ideas to pull from in the next phase of the process when you evaluate ideas, dismiss some, and choose to develop others.
- Allow for an open forum. A brainstorming session is an opportunity to speak freely in a polite but spontaneous way, and can involve some participants talking over or interrupting others when the creative juices are flowing. This may be a good way to generate ideas quickly. Of course, if an interaction gets argumentative, then it’s time to take a break and reset.
Effective brainstorming techniques FAQ
Can brainstorming be done alone, or is it better to work in a group?
You can use most creative brainstorming methods—like mind mapping and SWOT analysis—to develop ideas on your own, but brainstorming with a group can help you find unexpected insights you wouldn’t otherwise. Remember, if you’re brainstorming alone, it’s still essential to maintain a nonjudgmental attitude; write down every idea that comes to mind, and reserve critique for later.
How do I decide which brainstorming technique is best suited for my needs?
The best brainstorming technique depends on what helps you and your team members open up and feel inspired and creative. For example, some techniques are more visual than others, which may be better for people who think in terms of diagrams and structures.
How can I promote creativity and innovation during a brainstorming session?
A brainstorming session encourages creativity when you nurture an open and inclusive environment, welcome all creative ideas, and reward participants with appreciation for their input. Adding stimulants like music, art or a change of scenery can get participants out of their comfort zones, awaken their curiosity, and inspire them to come up with fresh ideas.