Ideas anyone?

Effective brainstorming

For over 50 years , the term ‘brainstorming’ has been used, reused, refused, abused and misused. Numerous techniques  have evolved to help to make it more effective (or at least that’s what they claim). However,  these techniques were created in a vacuum of specific needs and cherry picked from the core idea for sake of efficiency. At the same time they diminished the real purpose of brainstorming and suboptimized it to a degree, where sessions become mechanical and kill off any creativity by grounding us in debates of feasibility rather than possibility.

‘Ok, so what is (air quote) real (air quote) brainstorming?’, you ask. Before I answer, let me give you a tip on a good book – ‘The Myths of Innovation’ by Scott Berkun. The core of the book revolves around the misconception of innovation as something predictable, that can be tamed and squeezed into a process with measurable expectations. It’s a great read for those evenings, when you come back from the office tired and thinking that whatever you do has nothing to do with chance (good luck! – pun intended). Anyway, there’s this great chapter about creativity and few pages about the idea behind the brainstorming as envisioned by Alex F. Osborn 50 years ago in his apparently great book ‘Applied Imagination’ (note to self – read it already). Berkun goes on saying:

‘[brainstorming’s] rise to popularity led to the quick misuse of the technique as a panacea for every conceivable business problem. When it failed to do the impossible of tripling people’s IQs, reversing executive stupidity, or instantly transforming dysfunctional teams, the business world turned against it, despite its fundamental goodness. Those who still use the term apply it trivially to refer to any thinking activity they might need to do.’

‘Ok, so what we do is not brainstormin – then what is? Spill the beans!’. Patience my young Padawan, I’m getting there.

Osborn’s idea of brainstorming is based on 2 core statements:

  1. You have three things: facts, ideas and solutions.
  2. You need to spend quality time with each individually.

So what do we normally do? We jump from facts to solutions and skip ideas! There is a huge difference between an idea and a solution. Idea is the ‘what’, whereas solutions tell you ‘how’. We are so eager to realize our ideas, that before they leave our brain, we already did the math on feasibility, strained it through a mesh of constraints and cut off any parts that remotely resemble our past experiences.

And there’s more – here goes 50% of the time spent in brainstorming – the ‘yes’ and ‘noes’ and ‘we have done its’.  The nature of typical office mammal, which we all are, dictates the unwritten rules of showing-off, douchebagery, always-rightery and billable hours – hence the discussions about nothing and everything, discussions about the first ideas, not necessarily the best.

What we get in return is small deviations from the trend line. Looking at history of discovery, the trend line is not the place where it happens. Discovery happens on the edges of your chart, it’s those numbers you throw away, because they don’t cut it to the 50% standard deviation.

So how can we harness the real power of brainstorming?

The Recipe

As in any recipe – you can spice things up to your liking, but once you change the core ingredients, you’re cooking a different dish (duh!).

1. Know your facts (aka The Why?)

Action: Agree on what the problem is by asking ‘why are we here?’ and ‘do you also think that X is a problem?’ and providing as much context as possible beforehand.

If you have multiple problems, try splitting up into groups of people who are passionate about a given problem to get the most out of it. The worst you can do is randomly assign people to problems they don’t care about or don’t even recognize the problem. Finally watch out for people who are not interested in the problem as much as they’re interested in their own opinions. Opinions are not ideas.

2. Go crazy with the ideas (aka the What?)

Action: Generate as many and as crazy ideas as possible. Build new ideas incrementally on top of the previous ones.

Quantity and broad scope of the ideas will guarantee that you can easily compare ideas and that you have considered all possibilities rather than discussing the first idea that pops into your mind. Follow the phases to incrementally build more and more ideas.

Phase 0: The rules

First state the rules for all following phases (this is the really important part):

  1. do not pass any judgement or start discussions on what is possible or what is not (this is a rule that should not be broken no matter what)
  2. the goal is the quantity (quality can only come from quantity)
  3. there are no constraints (money, time, <insert your company’s stop word>, etc. is no object)
  4. the crazier – the better (encourage people to cross boundaries of the problem and think of things they would be scared to mention)

Phase 1: On your own

Give every single person some time to come up with their own ideas (e.g. try 5 minutes first and see if people are still busy, and repeat). Everyone should do this on their own, uninterrupted and not influenced by others in the team.

Phase 2: All together now!

Gather all the ideas in one visible place (board perhaps?)  and let everyone read their own idea out loud. It’s important to gather the ideas first and then let people speak, so that they cannot retract their ideas under peer pressure – there are no stupid ideas! Questions can only be asked to clarify the idea, but not to doubt it (see rule 1.) – be ruthless about not starting any discussions or passing judgement. Actively encourage people to add ideas to the board based on what they heard so far – make it an iterative process. Stop only when you run out of cards to read. And again – no discussions, no judgement!

3. Identify solutions (aka the How?)

Action: Pick the winners and start brainstorming on how to make them happen. No one leaves the room without an action to do.

Cluster all the ideas based on their commonality. Depending on how much time and ideas you have left, you can vote on the top X ideas by simply putting a marker as a vote or giving votes to distribute. To do that efficiently ask a question – which of these ideas you think is the most promising in outcome? Again – avoid discussions or questions of feasibility.

Pick the selected ideas and start discussing. And here’s the trick – discuss not with the aim decide on the idea, but start scaling, reforming and remixing to generate solutions that are possible. Ask – what can we do to make this idea possible? As long as the core outcome stays the same, your idea can evolve into multiple solutions or experiments.

Assign everyone a follow up action to every solution and start doing it, because now you have no excuse not to.


Brainstorming can be a validated experience of its own. As Osborn claimed:

‘(…), a group of four or five properly led people can continually find new ideas for anything for a half-hour to an hour, producing 50 or 100 ideas before running out of steam’.

How many ideas has your brainstorm generated? Have you ran out of steam?


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