Does brainstorming ever feel like a waste of time? You believe it is necessary to get your team’s input on a topic, but the session usually turns into a few people bickering, and the other participants remaining silent.   What’s going wrong?

When Advertising Executive Alex Osbourn developed this specific technique in the 1950s, the concept seemed obvious and simple – toss out as many ideas as possible without regard for being right or fear of criticism.  As it turns out, there are inherent problems with the design.  Psychology Professor Art Markman draws on research which shows that people who follow his method come up with fewer good ideas, compared to if individuals were to generate suggestions alone. 

Here are some challenges with basic brainstorming:

1. When people work together, their ideas tend to converge early on.  When one person throws out an idea, an anchoring bias occurs, where others tend to affix their ideas to the first ones.  Their minds are influenced as they start to think in similar ways about the problem.  In contrast, when they have time to work alone first, they diverge in their thinking because everybody takes a slightly different path when working through the problem while not being shaped by other ideas.  To reach the most creative solutions, it is much better to start with a large number of proposals and winnow down as opposed to having the first few thoughts dominate the process, thereby starting with a smaller sample in which to work.

2. Only some voices are heard.  According to Rebecca Greenfield of Fast Company, only a few people do 60%-75% of the talking, which can prevent other fresh ideas from surfacing. Even worse, if one of those people happens to be the boss, others could rally to support that view as a way to curry favor. Some may even censor themselves because they may feel like their ideas are not as worthy as those of the boss.

3. This method favors extraverts over introverts.  It is a natural tendency for many extraverts to blurt out ideas, even if they might not be fully formed because as they are sharing, they are processing and arriving at what they really want to say. It is their style. Contrastly, most introverts usually like to take time thinking more deeply about an issue and may go through several internal edits before they feel comfortable sharing.  The domination of a few loud contributors can cause others to remain silent because of fear of looking stupid by contributing an idea that has not gone through their personal vetting process or because they do not feel comfortable sharing freely in this way since they yearn for that uninterrupted thinking time.

In my experience in working with teams, not many people take the time to set up guidelines before they engage in a brainstorming session, they want to jump in and figure it out on the go.  With just a little bit of structure, the process can yield much higher efficiency. 

Here are some helpful steps to make the most out of your sessions:

1. Organize the logistics.  According to Author Brian Tracy, the ideal size of groups is 4-7, and the optimal length should be about 30 minutes.  Chose a facilitator to ensure that each person can have the same amount of contributions and to step in when guidelines are not being followed. Be sure to create those norms that work best for your team. Elect a recorder to capture all the ideas for revision and reflection.

2. Go for quantity.  The goal is to generate the greatest number of ideas in the time allowed.  There’s a direct relationship between the number of ideas and quality. In the book Originals, Adam Grant argues that creative people are no more creative than anybody else, but what separates their effectiveness is the number of ideas they put together and while many of them may fail, they just need that one from the bunch. Do not aim for 3-5, go for 15-20, or whatever may seem like a stretch for your team. Sometimes the last idea offered in the final minute is the breakthrough one.

3. Be positive and build. It is essential to avoid criticizing or judging. When you treat every idea as a good one, even seemingly absurd ones, it creates a safe space for people to give freely.  Always be thinking about how you can encourage and build on other’s ideas because it could take you to interesting and surprising places. This is the approach of improvisation, which is called, “YES, AND.” The idea is that when your partner introduces a crazy idea or scenario, instead of rejecting it, you go with it and make it even crazier. Essentially accepting what they say as truth and building on the reality that they set however asinine you think it may be.

4. Go for the ridiculous ideas. It is not uncommon for one bizarre idea to be combined with another crazy one to create a revolutionary third idea.  Lighten up, this process should be fun, silly, and at times, have you stitched over in laughter. After all, if we can’t laugh when in an imaginary and creative space, when can we?

When we put careful thought into brainstorming, we can create an environment that extracts the best quality from the team, while also fostering a feeling of fun, connection, and being a part of a powerful creative process which can deliver untold meaning and purpose.

Quote of the Day: Creativity is contagious – pass it on” -Albert Einstein

Q: What other guidelines would you add to maximize effectiveness in the brainstorming process? Comment and share below, we would love to hear from you!

The next blog will explore the different types of brainstorming for maximum team performance.


As a Leadership Development & Executive Coach, I work with teams to facilitate processes for brainstorming & creativity. Contact me to learn more.

How do you spark creativity on your team