Brainstorming - Techniques for Idea Generation

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Brainstorming is the first ever technique of idea generation. This article looks at 1) what is brainstorming?, 2) history: Alex Osborn gives birth to brainstorming, 3) steps for effective brainstorming, and 4) 12 fantastic brainstorming techniques.


Brainstorming is an individual or group idea generation technique to find a solution for a particular problem by generating multiple solutions. In fact, importance is attached to the quantity of ideas and not quality at the generation stage. Even strange ideas are welcome in a brainstorming session. Frequently, far-fetched ideas become practical ones with slight modification. Ideas may be blended to create a single great idea as implied by the motto “1+1=3.” Structured brainstorming that proceeds in the right manner utilizes the human brain’s abilities of free association and lateral thinking.


In the 1940s, an advertising executive by the name of Alex Osborn came up with the technique of brainstorming following his frustration at the inability of employees to come up with innovative ideas for advertising campaigns. The technique was the result of his attempts to fix rules that would provide people with the freedom of action and mind to trigger and reveal fresh ideas. The original name he gave to this ideation process he invented was “think up” before it later came to be called brainstorming. According to Osborn, brainstorming is a conference technique through the practice of which a group endeavors to come up with a solution for a particular problem by collecting all the ideas spontaneously contributed by the participating members.

Osborn’s argument was that two principles: 1) defer judgment and 2) reach for quantity helped in achieving ideative efficacy. These principles were followed by Osborn’s four rules of brainstorming which may be outlined as follows:

  • Put the emphasis on quantity of ideas (as the maxim goes, “quantity breeds quality”);
  • Hold back criticism or judgment;
  • Be open to bizarre/strange ideas;
  • Blend ideas to enhance them (1+1=3).

These rules were established with the objective of lessening social inhibitions if any among the group members, boosting overall group creativity and of course, fueling idea generation.

Osborn was of the opinion that brainstorming should only address one specific question because he believed that sessions that tried to tackle many questions were unproductive.


A brainstorming session may be carried out in any of many different ways. Given below is a 7-step process.

Step #1: Decide on a suitable place and facilitator

The brainstorming has to be conducted in a comfortable environment so that you can get the best output from the participants. A well-lit conference room would be good. It should be possible for the facilitator to take notes – make use of flip charts, a computer or white board (whichever would suit your group). If you expect the session to last a long time, you might want to arrange snacks and refreshments. Ensure that there is adequate paper and stationery.

Appoint one person as a team manager/leader and another as an idea recorder. It would be difficult for one person alone to handle both responsibilities.

Step #2: Decide on the participants

Devote some time to deciding who should be called to participate in the session. A simple rule to apply here would be to choose the people who would have the answers to the question you intend to put forth. This may seem obvious but very frequently, the selection of participants is based more on their position in the organization’s corporate ladder than on their specific knowledge. You can also consider including people with different thinking styles or associated with a diversity of disciplines.

Step #3: Specify the problem for which possible solutions are to be found and the goal

It is important that the problem for which brainstorming is to be done, be stated clearly. A good way to ensure this would be to write the problem lucidly at the head of the board. Everyone should comprehend the objective of the session. With the topic in full view all through the session, there is a greater likelihood of the session staying focused. Also remember that the participants should be given the necessary background information before the brainstorming. The best time is before the session though sometimes it may have to be shared while the session is in progress. Here’s an example: Suppose the problem is how to make sure employees always register their time of arrival at and exit from the office. For that you can provide background information such as:

  • Why the irregular clocking in and out is a problem;
  • Which are the groups forgetting to do so;
  • How the business is losing because of this and so on.

Last of all, it is also important to delineate the solutions space. Come up with rules, boundaries and criteria for the ideas that are to be generated. This will ensure that time doesn’t go to waste checking out ideas that don’t fit the bill.

Step #4: Set a time limit

State the time limit at the very beginning. 5 or 10 minutes may do but sometimes more time may be required. Whatever you decide, state it up front.

Step #5: Diverge prior to converging

This is a suggestion. Allow everyone to pen down their ideas prior to the start of the session so that there is no time lost in talking about just one or a few ideas. This would help you to bring in a little argument into the discussion whenever it is possible.

Step #6: Let the brainstorming begin

Start the brainstorming. You can expect some bad ideas but members of the team/group should be instructed in advance not to criticize/comment negatively till after the session is over, however dumb or strange the idea sounds. The person in charge of note taking should note down all the ideas as they come, bereft of any criticism or comment. Breaks are permissible in case the brainstorming session gets too long.

Step #7: Choose the best ideas (based on pre-determined criteria)

Select the best ideas after short-listing the ones that meet the pre-determined criteria. One way to make things easier is to score each of the ideas a number from 0 to 5 depending on the degree to which it satisfies each of the pre-determined criterion. Once that’s done, add up the scores. The one with the highest score can be taken as the best idea. However, if this best idea is not practical, in spite of the scores, you can look for the second best one.


Stepladder Technique

Invented in 1992, the stepladder technique of brainstorming motivates each individual member of the team to make individual idea contributions prior to being influenced by other members in the team. To start the session, the facilitator shares the question or topic with the entire team. Once this is done, barring two members of the team, all other members leave the room. Once the remaining members have left, the two members inside the room proceed to talk about the topic and share their ideas. Once that is done, an additional member must join the group. He presents his individual ideas, hears the ideas of the other two members and then all three in the group inside the room once again engage in a discussion. The process is repeated till all members from the original group have entered the room. This method of idea generation is especially beneficial for teams easily swayed by a member or two, resulting in group think. The method also helps to shed inhibitions of people who are uncomfortable in a group.


This is a written method of brainstorming. The principle behind this technique is to consider idea generation separate to discussion. The leader of the team/facilitator reveals the topic to all the members of the team and each of the members pen their ideas. The process does away with anchoring and motivates all team members to individually come up with ideas and share them. One of the advantages of brainwriting is that the participants get more time to ponder over their ideas and this is particularly beneficial if there are any introverts in the team. The technique is particularly suited for teams who appear to be considerably influenced by the opening ideas put forth during a meeting.

Six thinking hats

Six thinking hats, a thinking process developed by Edward de Bono is one of the most well-known thought tools. The process involves dividing thinking into six solid roles and functions distinguishable by a specific color of symbolic “thinking hat.” The six color hats and the key words they represent are given below:

  • White Hat – facts known or required;
  • Black Hat – judgment of how/where something could possibly go wrong;
  • Yellow Hat – optimism and brightness (exploration of the positives);
  • Green Hat – creativity (alternatives, possibilities, new ideas);
  • Red Hat – hunches, intuition and feelings;
  • Blue Hat – management (making certain that Six Thinking Hats rules are adhered to).

By imagining oneself wearing and changing hats, it is possible to redirect thoughts or focus and to explore a problem from different angles, providing insight that may not be apparent otherwise.

Round robin brainstorming

This method starts by getting the members of the team to organize themselves into a circle. After giving the topic, the facilitator goes to each member in the circle one by one, asking each of them to furnish an idea. He stops after everyone’s turn is over. The facilitator should record each idea so that all ideas can be discussed after the idea sharing is over. If any member in the circle has no idea to offer, he may pass. This method ensures the participation of all members (unless of course, one or more decide to pass).

Online brainstorming

Online brainstorming is an electronic technique of brainstorming with a document saved on a central server or an online central location through which members of the team can collaborate. An example of an online central location could be an online collaboration tool or cloud-associated document storage. In addition to making collaboration easy, the central location enables archiving of ideas there for hassle-free reference later.


The word SCAMPER is an acronym and the expansion of each letter is as follows:

  • S – Substitute
  • C – Combine
  • A – Adapt
  • M – Modify
  • P – Put to another use
  • E – Eliminate
  • R – Reverse

The basis for the technique is the assumption that everything new is an alteration of something already in existence. Utilization of the SCAMPER technique starts by stating the problem that needs to be solved, the topic, or the product, service or topic that has to be improved. Once that’s defined, the next step is asking questions using the letters in SCAMPER as basis.


The focus of this kind of brainstorming is on developing questions and not answers. Thus, the technique challenges the team to generate as many questions as possible pertaining to the topic. To make the process easier, the session can be started by listing questions that are associated with who, when, why, what and where (Wh questions). This format makes certain that all facets of the project are looked into prior to execution. It is a helpful technique if the team is one that is inclined to neglect certain facets of a project resulting in a last minute hurry to get things done.


The cubing approach is similar to six thinking hats. It enables the participant (s) to look at the topic from six diverse directions, leading to six approaches or sides to the topic (just like the six sides of a cube). The participant should consider the topic and respond to the following six commands on a sheet of paper.

  • Describe;
  • Compare;
  • Associate;
  • Analyze;
  • Apply;
  • Argue in support of and opposition to.

Three to five minutes can be spent on the first five sides/approaches but a full five minutes should be spent for the final (sixth) side.

Rapid Ideation

The facilitator/team leader shares the context/topic beforehand and/or questions pertaining to the topic, deadline, budget and so on. After that, a time limit is fixed for the individual members to pen down as many ideas or thoughts pertaining to the topic as possible, utilizing any available mediums. The time limit for a particular session can range from 5 to 45 minutes, varying with the complexity of the topic. Rapid ideation is a great technique to limit the time for brainstorming sessions that tend to prolong, and for teams who are inclined to sidetracking. Two other advantages of this technique are:

First, it can be fully tailored to suit the requirements of the project and team. A number of varied mediums may be utilized such as pen and paper, Post-Its and whiteboards, to activate the creative juices. Secondly, the time limit means ideas are produced because the team doesn’t have time to over think or filter.


Rolestorming, a method invented in the 1980s by Rick Griggs is a simple brainstorming technique that calls for a group of employees or members of a team to assume other people’s identities and start sharing ideas in those identities. By assuming someone else’s identity, a person’s idea may be introduced without worries of how other people may view the presentation. This is because assuming another role distances the person from owning an idea and therefore helps to reduce inhibitions associated with putting ideas forward in a group. The method is very useful for brainstorming discussions on enhancing service and quality or other meetings.


Mindmapping is a technique to graphically represent connections among key concepts using lines, links and images. Each fact or idea is penned down and then connected to its minor or major (previous or following) fact or idea, thereby resulting in a web of relationships. As mindmapping engages both the artistic and analytical faculties of a person’s brain, the brain is put to richer use. The technique was developed by Tony Buzan, a UK researcher.

Altering your attributes

Altering attributes is about changing one’s attribute, whether gender, race or some other attribute and changing the way one sees a challenge accordingly. Whenever a person changes an attribute in this manner, it causes a crack in the subconscious which in turn opens a fresh door that could lead to a new idea/answer/solution.

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