Generally speaking, brainstorming isn't nearly as effective as people think it is. Why? Because most groups go about it all wrong. Find out why, and how to run a PRODUCTIVE brainstorming session. By Michelle Villalobos.
"The Perfect Brainstorm" – Breakthrough Brainstorming Guide By Michelle Villalobos
Breakthrough Brainstorming: A Guide
“Brainstorms are fun to lead and attend. They build teamwork. They feel productive.
But, they usually don't work.” (Alan Rosenspan)
From our criminal justice system to our judicial processes, our educational structures to our political
system, the value of “teams” is possibly one of the most deeply ingrained beliefs in American culture. In
corporate America, teamwork involves brainstorming sessions and team-based project management; our
criminal justice system relies on a jury of peers deliberating and arriving at a unanimous decision; Harvard
Business School requires incoming MBAs join teams of people with whom they will work throughout their
entire course of study; and few of us would argue the merits of democracy as the best way to run a
In terms of “conventional wisdom,” most of us wholeheartedly buy into the notion that the best results arise
when we get together as a team, receive loads of input and reach a consensus. So why is it that “people
brainstorming individually produce more and higher-quality ideas than the same number of people
brainstorming together.”? (Alan Rosenspan)
Consider the following excerpt from “What’s Next: The Idiocy of Crowds” by David H. Freedman (as
published in Inc.com, June 4, 2007):
The effectiveness of groups, teamwork, collaboration, and consensus is largely a myth. In many cases,
individuals do much better on their own.... In fact, the notion that individuals outthink and out-decide
groups is so well established among experts that they don't bother to study it anymore. Instead, the hot
question among psychologists and organizational behaviorists is why the rest of us persist in keeping
this wrong-headed notion alive. ‘We've been trying to ﬁnd out what seduces us into thinking teams are
so wonderful,’ says Natalie Allen, a psychologist at the University of Western Ontario who has studied
what she calls ‘the romance of teams.’….
Consider that paragon of group magic, the brainstorming session. Bernard Nijstad, a psychologist at the
University of Amsterdam, explains that if you take a group of 12 people and have half brainstorm
together on a topic while the other six go it alone, all 12 will usually agree that the group experience
was more productive – even though those working alone almost always end up with more good ideas….
Things only get worse when a team is charged with actually making a decision. One of the biggest
problems is that it's easy for a few members of a group who think the same way – but who may be
ﬂat-out wrong – to sway the opinions of others. Consensus steadily grows until a majority is reached, at
which point even people who have conﬁdence in their dissenting, higher-quality opinion are likely to bow
to the group. If you've ever wondered how Enron's managers could have convinced themselves they were
running a good company, or how a jury could have found O.J. Simpson innocent, now you know. Of
course, you could bring independent thinkers to your groups – but then you'll run into the problem of
deadlock. ‘About half of all groups don't reach any conclusion at all,’ says Nijstad.
As David Ogilvy once said, "Search the parks and search the cities. You’ll ﬁnd no statues of committees."
Sometimes, however, there’s just no getting around the need to get lots of ideas and opinions in order to
develop a project. In these cases, there are ways to make the brainstorming process more effective and
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First, let’s examine some of the usual problems with brainstorming (these are taken from two main sources:
Alan Rosenspan’s “The Perfect Brainstorm” and “Effective Brainstorm Techniques,” from Microsoft.com):
• Production blocking. Working in a group can actually inhibit some people’s contribution and
creativity. For example, “I’d better shut up for a minute and give someone else a turn. Shoot. What
was my idea again? I forgot….”
• Free riding. This is also known as “social loaﬁng” and is the opposite of “social energizing” whereby
personal creativity is boosted rather than inhibited by the presence of others. For example, "Heck,
other people are coming up with all the great ideas. They don’t need me. Let me check my
Blackberry to see if Nicole wrote me back – we’re supposed to go to the beach tonight.”
• Evaluation apprehension/Loss of face. For example, "I know there’s no such thing as a bad idea,
but did you see George roll his eyes on that one? I’d better keep quiet." The fear of being judged
or made to feel foolish can inhibit individuals during an idea-generating session.
• Performance matching. "That was my idea an hour ago! Damn, I’m doing all this work and spending
all this time – for nothing. Meanwhile Michelle hasn’t come up with a good idea yet. This is a waste
of time." When people are worried more about what each person contributes rather than what the
• Hot-housing/Pressure. The time pressure that is supposed to energize the process can instead
produce a stressed state. On the other hand, leaving the session to run too long can create a
feeling of “running in circles” and not making progress. This can make people shut down and
withdraw. "Did she actually say we’re not leaving until we solve this problem? I’m not missing my
dinner party. I’m not going to add any more – maybe we’ll get out quicker if we stop discussing
every little thing.”
• Anchoring. The creativity of the group can be reduced to producing variations of the ﬁrst theme
that emerges in the session. This can prevent individuals from coming up with new ways of
approaching the problem.
Each of these problems – among others - can cause brainstorms to fail. So what is “the right way” to
handle a brainstorming session? First, you must have the right individual, a mediator, to run the
session. Second, use the following guidelines on successful brainstorming, culled from several
resources and integrated here. The basic steps involve:
I. Preparation – 15 to 30 minutes
II. Ideation – 30 to 45 minutes
III. Evaluation – 15 to 30 minutes
IV. Conclusion – 15 minutes
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There seem to be two main schools of thought regarding idea preparation. One, that it should be minimal
(to keep people open-minded) and the other, that individuals should prepare alone because individuals tend
to come up with more and better quality ideas on their own. Here’s a breakdown of each perspective:
• Don’t prepare: Preparations should be minimal because people get “attached” to ideas, and this is the
opposite of what a brainstorming session should accomplish. You want people to enter the session with
fresh minds unprejudiced by pre-planning. Since meetings often have to be scheduled way in advance,
sometimes it is helpful to inform people of the topic, but not the speciﬁc issue.
• Prepare: Since we know that individuals come up with more and better-quality ideas, we should ask group
members to think of a set number of ideas before the session and then repeat the process during the
session. This results in greater total output. (Kal Bishop)
Because of the above seemingly conﬂicting theories, a good compromise is to encourage people to prepare
ahead of time (i.e., come up with 10 great ideas), and ask them to put them up on the board right in the
beginning, and then move on. Insist that they think of new ideas in the group session. This has the added
beneﬁt of “breaking the ice” and getting shy people used to opening up in front of the group.
There are other things that you need to do before getting started that will also help you during the
brainstorming session. For example, it is important to stress, at the invitation stage, that certain things will
not be tolerated during the brainstorming session. For example: no mobile phones, email or leaving the
meeting for any reason short of global catastrophe... Interruptions seriously disrupt the ﬂow of the meeting
and lead to poor results, while ﬁddling with a cell phone or email is disrespectful to those who are
contributing wholeheartedly. If everyone’s ideas command equal attention and respect, everyone is more
likely to contribute their very best. In addition, let people know that they must arrive on time. A brainstorm
session cannot start until all are present.
Note that many sources say that getting away from the ofﬁce can help inspire imagination and ignite
ideas. A fresh environment can lead to fresh thinking. Remember, however that the space should be isolated
enough to ensure no interruptions. In addition, it is helpful to have fun snacks for munching and a
whiteboard or other visual recording device for recording ideas.
The session should have one clear facilitator/mediator whose only job is to focus the brainstorming and
encourage positive dialogue and enforce the “ground rules” of engagement (below).
In addition, one person should be chosen to record all ideas, even the far-fetched or even bizarre ones. This
person should be able to type/write quickly and keep an accurate/complete record.
In order to be truly effective, brainstorming must gather all ideas on a speciﬁc topic in an atmosphere of
constructive suggestion. Later, the group explores and prioritizes the ideas that have been put forward, and
usually creates new solutions using elements from several suggestions. The key is that you need to separate
the “creation” process from the “evaluation” process in order to fully release creativity. Writing and editing
cannot happen simultaneously.
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The ﬁrst step for effective brainstorming is for the mediator to introduce the issue, as narrowly deﬁned as
possible, and write it on a whiteboard (ideally it should be stated in the form of a question). Below that,
write: ABSOLUTELY NO QUASHING and explain that quashing can be everything from obvious criticism
(“that’ll never work”) to even seemingly innocuous (even if true) remarks (“we tried that last year”). The
word “quashing” is good because it can be humorous and is not as harsh as “no criticizing” or “don’t be
negative”. So calling people on it is not as hurtful and not as likely to disrupt the session or cause tension.
Quashing is not conducive to brainstorming because it immediately tells everyone in the session that ideas
will be criticized; this in turn causes brainstormers to be more cautious about proposing ideas, and fosters
negativity. Quashing is the worst thing that can happen to a brainstorming session. Ensure that everyone
Let people know how long the ideation portion of the session will last. 30 to 45 minutes is ideal. More than
that and the meeting loses momentum and gains little in additional creativity. Having a timer helps and so
does reminding people periodically of how much time is left.
Some ground rules for ideation:
• SUSPEND JUDGEMENT: Don’t judge your own or other people’s ideas while they are being shared. There
are no dumb ideas. Period. This is not the stage (yet) at which only serious, comprehensive solutions should
• DON’T CRITICIZE IDEAS: This isn't a debate, discussion or forum for one person to display better
knowledge or superiority over another.
• BUILD ON OTHER PEOPLE’S IDEAS: Listen to what others are saying and try to build on thoughts rather
than replace them. It is this building of ideas that leads to “out of the box” thinking and fantastic ideas.
• QUANTITY over QUALITY: Reverse the thought of “quality over quantity.” Here we want quantity... the
more creative ideas the better. See who can come up with the most ideas. Employ “Power Brainstorming”
by challenging the team to come up with the most ideas they can, within a certain time limit (i.e., 10
Put a sequential number next to each idea. Numbering helps participants see how brainstorming is
progressing and helps people keep track when jumping back and forth between ideas.
The ﬁrst ideas proposed will almost inevitably be obvious ideas. Once people run out of obvious ideas, they
will begin stretching their minds more. This is when you begin to see more creative ideas come up. This is
also when inevitably someone will attempt to quash an idea. At this point it is absolutely essential that the
mediator step in and remind this person that ABSOLUTELY NO QUASHING is allowed. Otherwise, the
creativity of the session will be seriously undermined.
This technique should help to strip all ideas of biases stemming from the skill of the presenter, because
often passion and skillful presentation can augment an otherwise dull idea while shyness can inhibit the
reception of a great one! Furthermore, people’s status in a group may make others more open or closed off
to ideas they generate. Writing everything down ensures “all ideas are treated equal.”
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From time to time, the moderator should inform the brainstormers of the time remaining. If good ideas are
still ﬂowing quickly during the last few minutes of the session, the mediator can extend the session by a
few minutes. However, usually this is neither necessary nor helpful. Once time is up, inform the
brainstormers and compliment their ideas and their participation. Inform them that the next step is the
III. ESTABLISHING EVALUATION CRITERIA
Once the ideation process is ended (notice it needs to be “ended,” not just ﬁzzle out or else the energy will
be gone for the evaluation portion), the next step is to evaluate the ideas.
In order to effectively evaluate, we need to establish evaluating criteria. The criteria should reﬂect the
intended implementation of the ideas. For example, if you are brainstorming a new tagline for a product,
criteria could include: “connotes quality,” “is a manageable size,” “works in Spanish and English,” “ﬁts within
existing branding initiatives,” or “includes a call to action.”
Each idea will be evaluated by each criterion, so it is helpful to use criteria that can be evaluated on a
continuum. For example, “can we launch this product by the end of the year?” is a poor criterion as it takes
a yes or no answer, whereas “speed of bringing to market (ideally before end of year)” is a better one.
Criteria may sometimes reﬂect lack of negative attributes, such as “low price without connoting lack of
Having 5 evaluating criteria is a good number because it enables a detailed evaluation within a reasonable
time frame. Nonetheless, a few criteria more or won’t matter too much. The mediator can also contribute to
these criteria. To save time/make the process more efﬁcient, it is instead okay to let the mediator/team
leader deﬁne the criteria beforehand and introduce them to the group and encourage input.
The ﬁrst step of the evaluation is simply to clarify any ideas in question and choose those that are feasible
solutions for the issue. Ask the brainstormers to review the ideas and consider (on their own) which are
good solutions and which are not. Group ideas together if they are similar or “go together.”
Open up discussion to talk about ideas that may or may not be workable. Cross out the ones that are
clearly not. Note that because we’re crossing ideas out now (rather than during ideation), people have
generally dissociated from who came up with which idea, and the group “owns” them all.
Continue until you have between three and eight strong ideas. If the mediator sees that the brainstormers
have missed ideas that he or she believes has potential, he or she should circle them.
Once this has been completed, select the ﬁrst chosen idea and take it through each of the criteria, rating
how well the idea meets the criterion on a scale of zero to ﬁve, where zero indicates the idea does not
meet the criterion at all and ﬁve indicates it meets the criterion completely.
There are two great approaches to calculating the scores:
• Discuss the scores as a group and reach consensus for each score. Write those scores on the whiteboard.
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• Have each brainstormer write her own evaluation scores for each idea. The moderator can then take a
survey of all scores, calculate the average value for each idea and write it on the whiteboard. This has
the advantage of not “poisoning” an idea and letting each person truly express his/her opinion,
Continue in this fashion until all ideas have been evaluated and have a score. The higher the score, the
better the idea in terms of meeting the criteria you set for the brainstorming session.
When you are done, you will have a list of ideas each with a score reﬂecting how well it meets the
criteria. Generally the top three to ﬁve ideas will be the most suitable.
To conclude, the moderator and the brainstormers should discuss the top ideas noting additional feedback
regarding the issue. Any relevant comments should be noted.
Then, agree to what the next steps are and assign actions to relevant team members (it helps if you let
people volunteer for what sections the want to work on – this way they feel “ownership” of their items).
Important: Establish Deadlines.
Overall, the entire brainstorming session should take about 90 minutes to 2 hours. 15 minutes of
introduction, 30-45 minutes for ideation, 30 minutes for evaluation and discussion and 15 minutes to
VI. REPORTING & FOLLOW UP
Finally, it helps to write a report and send it to the participants in order to reinforce that their time and
effort was appreciated and that their contribution will have been worthwhile. A report should include:
• The issue.
• The evaluation criteria.
• The top ranking ideas and their scores.
• Any relevant comments from the conclusion of the session.
• Follow up plans/deadlines/assignments.
• List of all ideas raised (optional).
Following these guidelines should help make brainstorming sessions more efﬁcient, effective and even more
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