Brainstorming is a technique for finding the best solution to a known problem or challenge.

However, it’s often used for all ideation attempts, despite the limitations and challenges associated with it. It can be a very effective technique for creative problem solving, but only when used correctly.

Most research shows that brainstorming is in fact less effective than individuals coming up with ideas on their own. Where brainstorming is effective is when it’s used to improve the quality, not quantity, of ideas. Brainstorming is also great at encouraging team bonding and solving problems in an effective way that increases commitment to idea implementation, so that real innovation can take place.

Group brainstorming techniques

These below techniques are intended to help with pulling out better ideas via a collaborative process. By building on each other’s ideas, reviewing and voting, the end goal is to find a better idea. The other benefit is that group ideation helps build buy-in for later execution that will require participation. If people feel like they played a role in defining the problem and coming up with ideas, they’re more likely to feel invested in the ultimate solution.

  • Nominal Group Technique - Brainstorming members write down their ideas anonymously. The facilitator collects the ideas and everyone votes on them. The top ideas (most voted on) may go back to the group or subgroups for further ideation and then ultimately presenting it back to the group.

  • Group Passing Technique - A brainstorming member contributes an idea and then passes it to the next person in the group, who adds their thoughts to the idea, and then passes it to the next member of the group. Each person adds their thought to the original idea. Once this is complete, the next person submits their individual idea it’s passed around for further thought. Once everyone has submitted an idea and everyone has provided a thought to each of these, you have a thorough list of ideas that have been elaborated on.

  • Team Idea Mapping Method - Similar to the nominal technique, brainstorming members write down their ideas. What differs is the process for evaluating ideas. Instead of voting, ideas are grouped into themes. This facilitates the group getting to a better shared understand of the problem and potential approaches. New ideas may also arise through association. Once all the ideas are mapped out, evaluation and voting of ideas can begin.

  • Directed Brainstorming - Similar to the group passing technique, this process start with someone writing down a single idea. That idea is passed onto the next individual. Instead of adding a thought to the idea, the request is to improve the idea. This technique is effective when the evaluation criteria for evaluating ideas are known in advance (ie cost, time, impact to resources, desired outcome).

Getting the most out of your brainstorming

Ask the right questions

Invest the time and effort to find the right question and paint a clear picture of the objective. Time and again evidence shows that asking the right question(s) gets much better answers.

How do you come up with the right question?

Leverage the right context and avoid being too open ended or too defined. Another way is to think about breaking out a question into multiple objectives (learn more about these concepts here).

Ideate individually before and after the brainstorming discussion and do more than one brainstorming session

Research is clear. When it comes to getting a quantity of ideas and a large variety of ideas, ideating on your own is better. Save the group activity for discussion of ideas that will lead to further improvements, combining of ideas, etc. This discussion is important and the reason that brainstorming can be such a powerful technique for ideation.

The power of group brainstorming comes from creating a safe place where people with different ideas can share, blend, and extend their diverse knowledge. The process of having time to ideate individually, come together as a group and discuss and then have time for individual reflection is what will lead to the best ideas. Ultimately, repeating the process several times is the way most organizations will find their best innovations.

Idea software is something that can aid in facilitating this in a less formal way. Idea software allows for individual ideation, sharing of ideas and comments and voting so that the debate and criticism happens, but allows people to reflect afterwards and continue adding to the idea. It’s only when the idea has had sufficient time to be built into a good idea that it’s moved forward for evaluation.

Do not rely on brainstorming to solicit ideas. While an employee suggestion box focuses just on getting the ideas, an idea management program looks at the entire process from getting ideas, to building on and improving ideas, to evaluation and implementation, and measuring the impact of the innovation.

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