Brainstorming is an essential practice for creative thinking and problem-solving. At its most basic, brainstorming simply means identifying a problem, and then coming up with as many fresh ideas as possible that may help solve that problem. In practice, however, brainstorming needs to be structured to be successful.
No matter which brainstorming method you try, be sure to keep these tips in mind:
- Outline a problem or topic that needs further examination and group feedback for your brainstorming session.
- Use a shared digital space to conduct your brainstorming. This not only makes brainstorming easier, but also ensures you don’t lose any ideas and have a document to refer to in the future.
- Encourage quantity over quality. Participants can often get hung up on having the “best idea” but this often leads to creative blocks. Instead, focus on generating a high number of ideas first. Once you have a lot of ideas, you can start refining the best ones. However, if you have fewer ideas, you’ll have fewer options to choose from.
- You don’t always need a facilitator, but having one can help to have somebody guiding a group of people through the ideation process. If needed, assign a team leader or facilitator before the idea generation begins to keep track of time limits and record the most creative ideas.
10 brainstorming techniques for better idea generation
Question brainstorming is a method where participants come up with as many questions about the problem as possible. In this activity, participants should only come up with questions, not answers. This method is great because it helps the group try to understand the problem completely without the pressure to have the single best solution.
How to try this technique:
- Decide on the central topic or problem you want to brainstorm for.
- Each group or individual then takes 10-15 minutes to write as many questions about the topic or problem they have without trying to come up with an answer to any of them.
- After 10-15 minutes, the group gets back together to share, group, and prioritize the questions.
- Go through the full list of questions and start answering each one to better understand the core topic or problem.
Need inspiration? Check out these 25 brainstorming questions for effective brainstorms.
The best way to get the most out of your brainstorming efforts is to combine the best of async and real-time idea generation. This technique starts off with individual brainstorming and ends with a collaborative, group brainstorming session.
How to do it:
- Chose the top 5 questions you want the brainstorming session to be based around.
- Have each participant begin brainstorming in their own dedicated space.
- Next, have everyone share their ideas so you have one central repository of all the ideas.
- Go through each question and discuss any questions that arise.
- Vote on the top ideas to focus on.
- Turn the top ideas into action items and celebrate your successful ideation session.
Mind map brainstorming
Using the mind mapping brainstorming technique helps your team use the central focus of your project as a starting point, explore all the potential variables tied to that project, and build an understanding of how those variables relate to the main topic, as well as to one another.
How to do it:
- Add a central topic or question to the center of the mind map.
- Add branches and nodes based on secondary thoughts to the primary topic.
- Keep adding branches and nodes based on additional ideas until you have a satisfactory number of related ideas.
The starbursting method involves asking a series of questions, typically using the 5 W's and 1 H (Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How) to explore the different aspects of the problem or topic. Starbursting is a divergent thinking approach focused on asking questions about the topic in order to generate a wide range of ideas.
How to run a starbursting exercise:
In Mural, Add six sticky notes around a central idea or problem and label them “Who,” “What,” “Where,” “When,” “Why,” and “How.” For each question, encourage participants to generate as many ideas as possible.
Once the ideas have been generated, the facilitator can use other ideation techniques to further refine the ideas and identify potential solutions to the problem. Try clustering similar ideas together, categorizing the ideas into different groups with tags, or prioritizing the ideas based on their potential impact or feasibility.
The 'crazy eights' brainstorming technique is a great way to explore a wide range of ideas by encouraging quantity and time-boxing every exercise for efficiency. Brainstorm 8 different solutions in just 8 minutes. Once you’re ready, you can review the ideas and agree on the most effective solution.
How to do a crazy 8s brainstorm:
- Have each participant take a piece of paper (or use an online whiteboard) and divide it into eight parts.
- Sketch or detail eight ideas, spending one minute for each panel.
- Have each participant share their own ideas.
- Vote on the top ideas and turn them into actionable next steps.
Round robin brainstorming
A round robin is a great way to encourage your team members to think critically about a problem or challenge, as well as build on one another's ideas. The format calls for dividing your team into small groups, and having each person pass their ideas along to the following teammate, who then offers counterpoints or further suggestions, helping identify potential weaknesses or spurring innovation within the session.
How to run a round robin:
- Set the brainstorming topic or problem you’re looking to solve.
- Divide your group or participants into four teams, or add more panels to accommodate more participants.
- Have each group or participant write down a proposal and move to the next panel
- Looking at what the other group or participant suggested, write down reasons why their proposal might fail then move to the next panel.
- Based on the proposal and weaknesses, have each participant or group craft a final concept using the weaknesses as feedback.
6-3-5 brainwriting is a group brainstorming method that involves creating a lot of ideas and building on the ideas of the other participants to give a total of 108 ideas in a short amount of time.
To run this exercise, you'll need 6 participants to create 3 ideas each within 5 minutes. Run this exercise for 6 rounds for a quick, half-hour brainstorming exercise.
How to do it:
- Have each participant select one panel and begin writing ideas related to the topic or problem statement on the first row of sticky notes.
- After five minutes, participants move to a different panel and do another round of ideation, using the previous row of ideas for inspiration.
- Run four more rounds of this exercise, or stop when you have enough ideas.
- Cluster and vote on the winning ideas with your team.
Reverse brainstorming involves looking at a problem from a different angle for generating ideas. Instead of asking, "What can we do to solve this problem?" the goal becomes, "How can we create this problem or make it worse?"
By focusing on the opposite of the problem or goal, team members can uncover new insights and approaches that they may not have considered otherwise. Once the "reverse" ideas have been generated, participants can then work to flip them around and find ways to turn them into positive solutions.
How to run a reverse brainstorm
- Draft a problem statement or starting topic for your team to brainstorm on
- Instead of posing the question: “How can we fix this?” ask “How can we make this problem worse?
- Participants will instead find more root causes driving the problem that you can start to address and dig deeper into
- Review and prioritize the ideas by severity or impact
The silent circuit is a quiet brainstorming activity helps groups ideate across multiple topics while still being inclusive for quieter participants. This method is great for large groups, hybrid teams, and teams with introverts. This method is also great for getting different points of view.
How to run a silent circuit:
- Write "how might we" questions or a different prompt at the top of each brainstorming section.
- Set a timer and encourage participants to pan around the canvas and silently add as many ideas on sticky notes as they can under each prompt.
- When time is up, participants return to their original question and share all the ideas for each category.
- Review the questions and create action items for the best ideas.
Brain-netting is a traditional brainstorming session conducted online. Online brainstorming isn’t a new concept, but recent shifts in remote work and collaboration tools have made this a much more common exercise. The main benefit of a brain-net is that it can be done asynchronously, meaning collaborators don’t have to.
Brain-netting is more common among remote teams, where asynchronous communication and video calls are the norm. However, any team can leverage brain-netting to take a brainstorming activity online, generate innovative ideas, and get the creative juices flowing.
How to run a brain-netting exercise:
- Kickoff the session and warm-up your team with a virtual icebreaker that can be done asynchronously
- Add a problem statement or define a topic to ideate over
- Brainstorm together or set a deadline for when team members should have added their ideas to the brainstorming platform
- Synthesize the ideas together, or summarize them and share the common themes
- Prioritize the ideas, pick a winner, and/or define next steps
Related: How to Facilitate a Brainstorming Session
Why brainstorming is essential for innovation
Brainstorming fosters creative thinking
If you’re facing a difficult problem, brainstorming can help you to generate potential solutions that you might not have thought of otherwise. The free-flowing nature of brainstorming is meant to encourage exploration and a diversity of ideas — even those suggestions that seem tangential or unrelated at first may wind up forming the basis for effective solutions later on, or as inspiration for new products or features.
Brainstorming puts your best ideas in one place
Brainstorming helps you to organize your team's thoughts and feedback on any project. By structuring your brainstorming sessions so that everyone is engaged and all ideas are recorded, you can later organize your feedback by theme, using tools like tags for sticky notes and filtering. This can help you to better assess which ideas are worth pursuing and which ones are not, and begin to quickly and easily outline actionable next steps.
Types of brainstorming
There are three main types of brainstorming. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages, though hybrid brainstorming (enabled by platforms like Mural) mitigates the issues of by synchronous and async brainstorming.
Individuals are presented with a question or topic to consider on their own. Later, team members contribute their ideas to a shared document for further discussion and organization. The main advantage with asynchronous brainstorming is that it inherently avoids issues like groupthink since each individual completes the exercise independently.
A team gathers together to brainstorm in a meeting, with everyone sharing ideas and grouping suggestions by theme. The main advantage of synchronous brainstorming is that it allows your team to build on one another's ideas in real time, making your session potentially more productive and speeding up innovation.
A hybrid approach to brainstorming combines elements of both asynchronous and synchronous ideation. By establishing a basis of psychological safety, as well as taking advantage of modern, cloud-based collaboration tools and features built to avoid groupthink, it's really possible to get the best of both worlds.
Tips for productive brainstorming
Establish an environment of psychological safety
One of the most important elements in unlocking effective brainstorming is establishing a culture and environment of psychological safety. A brainstorming session should be one where everyone feels comfortable contributing without self-editing — in this phase, ideation shouldn't be interrupted by critiques or pushback. It's simply about collecting as many ideas and different perspectives as possible.
Psychological safety also means you are less likely to be impeded by groupthink — if the brainstorming session is characterized by a wide array of ideas and even constructive disagreement, you will have a much better basis upon which to formulate potential solutions than if everyone agrees or one line of thinking dominates your discussion.
Use private brainstorming within the context of a group meeting
To achieve this, you'll need to make people feel safe to share what they may think are outlandish or controversial ideas, which can be difficult to achieve. If you're not sure how best to begin, tools like Private Mode when using Mural can help you avoid groupthink by hiding the feedback that others are providing. Alternatively, when using a shared digital space like Mural, asynchronous brainstorming is also a viable solution — this allows people to reflect on their own, and bring their unique perspectives without outside influence into the meeting at a later date for discussion and organization.
Related: 7 Key Rules for Brainstorming
Follow-up after the brainstorming session
Brainstorming ideas is only the first step. After the brainstorming session is over, the team moves into the implementation phase. Be sure to define next steps and the roles of each team member so everyone understands the workflow and what’s expected of them. By following up, you ensure that the ideas you captured don’t get forgotten and a solution can be implemented.
Define a strategic goal for your brainstorming meeting
Once you've established the approach for your brainstorm, it helps to give greater context to your ideation by defining an overarching, strategic goal. Are you at the very outset of a problem with a lot of variables, and trying to better understand how they relate to one another? Is the purpose of your meeting to discover new ways to improve user experience for a given product or feature? Each use case requires a different basic framework for your brainstorming meeting.
Use these techniques to run better brainstorming sessions
Brainstorming is an essential part of the innovation process, but it can be difficult to come up with new ideas if you’re not sure where to start. The techniques we’ve outlined in this post should help you structure your brainstorming sessions in a way that makes them more effective and helps you produce actionable insights and takeaways.
If you want to make your brainstorming sessions even more productive, using a shared digital space like Mural not only unlocks visual thinking and online collaboration, but also builds in strategies to combat issues with groupthink and allows for hybrid brainstorming sessions that combine the best of asynchronous and real-time meetings.
Mural offers a host of brainstorming templates to kickstart more effective and meaningful (not to mention fun) sessions. Get started today with a Free Forever plan, and invite unlimited guests so you can build the next great idea together with your whole team.
...Click button to generate icebreaker
About the author
About the authors