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Brainstorming: What do do and what NOT to do

Mastering the art of the perfect brainstorm

Running a successful brainstorming session takes a lot of skill and practice. The key is to set the ground rules at the beginning and to reinforce them.

One of the most important rules is to expand upon the ideas of others. With this approach, at the end of a good brainstorming session, multiple people feel that they created or contributed to the best ideas to come out of the session. And, since everyone in the room had a chance to participate and witnessed the emergence and evolution of all the ideas, there is usually shared support for the ideas that go forward toward implementation. If you have participated in brainstorming sessions, you know that they don’t always work like that. It is hard to eliminate the natural tendency for each person to feel personal ownership for their ideas, and it can be tough to get participants to build on others’ suggestions.

Patricia Ryan Madson, who wrote Improv Wisdom, designed a great warm-up exercise that brings to life these two ideas: there are no bad ideas and build on others’ ideas. You break a group into pairs. One person tries to plan a party and makes suggestions to the other person. The other person has to say "No" to every idea and must give a reason why it won’t work. For example, the first person might say, “Let’s plan a party for Saturday night,” and the second person would say, “No, I have to wash my hair.” This goes on for a few minutes, as the first person continues to get more and more frustrated trying to come up with any idea the second person will accept. Once this runs its course, the roles switch and the second person takes on the job of planning a party. The first person has to say yes to everything and must build on the idea. For example, “Let’s have a party on Saturday night.” The response might be, “Yes, and I’ll bring a cake.” This goes on for a while and the ideas can get wilder. In some cases the parties end up under water or on another planet, and involve all sorts of exotic food and entertainment. The energy in the room increases, spirits are high, and a huge number of ideas are generated.

This is the type of energy that should be present during a great brainstorming session. Of course, at some point you have to decide what is feasible, but that shouldn’t happen during the “idea generation” phase. Brainstorming is about breaking out of conventional approaches to solving a problem. You should feel free to flip ideas upside down, to turn them inside out, and to cut loose from the chains of normalcy. At the end of a brainstorming session you should be surprised by the range of ideas that were generated. In almost all cases, at least a few will serve as seeds for really great opportunities that are ripe for further exploration.

It is important to remember that idea generation involves exploration of the landscape of possibilities. It doesn’t cost any money to generate wild ideas, and there is no need to commit to any of them. The goal is to break the rules by imagining a world where the laws of nature are different and all constraints are removed. Once this phase is complete, it is appropriate to move on to the “exploitation” phase, where you select some of the ideas to explore further. At that time you can view the ideas with a more critical eye.

These two short videos are priceless! They were created by students at the Stanford Design Institute. The first one shows how NOT to brainstorm and the second one shows HOW to do it effectively. They picked a fanciful problem to solve - saving your chewing gum when you go to class. The worst case example, unfortunately, happens all the time.

Here is a video summary of what NOT to do:

Here is a video showing how to brainstorm well:


- Defer judgment
- Capture all the ideas
- Encourage wild ideas
- One conversation at a time
- Build on other people's ideas
- Be visual - use words and pictures
- Use headlines to summarize ideas
- Go for volume - the more ideas the better!

The description of brainstorming above is an edited excerpt from What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20.