Other BrainStorming Techniques:

Delphi Decision Making

Dialectic Decision Making

Return to Leadership Site




Brainstorming by iStock

"Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." -- Thomas Alva Edison

What is Brainstorming?

Brainstorming is a process for developing creative solutions to problems. Alex Faickney Osborn, an advertising manager, popularized the method in 1953 in his book, Applied Imagination. Ten years later, he proposed that teams could double their creative output with brainstorming (Osborn, 1963).

Brainstorming works by focusing on a problem, and then deliberately coming up with as many solutions as possible and by pushing the ideas as far as possible. One of the reasons it is so effective is that the brainstormers not only come up with new ideas in a session, but also spark off from associations with other people's ideas by developing and refining them.

While some research has found brainstorming to be ineffective, this seems more of a problem with the research itself than with the brainstorming tool (Isaksen, 1998).

There are four basic rules in brainstorming (Osborn, 1963) intended to reduce social inhibitions among team members, stimulate idea generation, and increase overall creativity:

Brainstorming Steps:


Brainstorming Variations

Selecting a Solution

When you are sure the brainstorming session is over, it is time to select a solution:

Generated Idea Low Cost Easy to Implement and is Feasible Will Help Other Processes TOTAL
Outsource it to a vendor.        
Hire a new employee.        
Share the extra workload.        
Generated Idea Low Cost Easy to Implement and is Feasible Will Help Other Processes TOTAL
Outsource it to a vendor. 2 2 2 6
Hire a new employee. 3 1 1 5
Share the extra workload. 1 3 3 7

Radical Thinking and Successful Brainstorming

Once your team or company grows by more than one individual, ensure the new individual is one who truly thinks differently than you — to encourage radical thinking and effective brainstorming is truly diverse thinking styles on your team.And when you get another member, ensure that person's thinking style is different than yours and the other team member. And so on down the line. This is the first step in remaining competitive. Do not full into the trap of hiring someone like you or your favorite employee — this leads to group-think.

Doug Hall, who specializes in new business development, training, and consulting had this to say about team diversity, "The more diverse you are, the more likely you are to have loud and sometimes obnoxious debates. This is good. It means that all the folks have passion and a pulse. Remember, real teams are more like the family on the television show 'Roseanne' than they are like the Cleavers in 'Leave It to Beaver.' Real teams fight to make their point, yet they still have respect for each other."

The Ablene Paradox book - click to reviewIn the Abilene Paradox, Dr. Harvey uses a parable to illustrate what he believes is a major symptom of organizational group-think: the management of agreement — as opposed to the management of disagreement or conflict. When we fail to engage in deep inquiry and in self-disclosure, we tend to agree with others, no matter if it is the best way to do so or not. Part of the reason this "management of agreement" comes about is that each individual's style is similar to other team members. When our interests our too similar, radical discourse fails to take place. For more information, see the section labeled, "Abilene Paradox"in Creativity.

Real team members should not be afraid to disagree, but once a decision has been made, they all need to be on the same bandwagon. They ensure their ideals and opinions are heard, but once it is time to go forward, they concentrate on getting there, not going back.

Cranium - click to review gameOne often used technique for generating new ideals in a brainstorming session is to pick up a dictionary and toss out a random word. However, there is a better way to provide a climate of creativity. There is a game called Cranium that does a good job of using the various parts of the mind. You sketch, sculpt, draw with you eyes, use your knowledge, unscramble words, spell, hum, whistle, impersonate, etc. in order to get your team member(s) to discover the secret word or phase. You do these activities by drawing a card and then performing the activity before the timer runs out. For example, one team member might draw the word "Measure." The card tells her what type of activity to perform, such as drawing clues on a paper (no talking, letters, or symbols) with her eyes closed.

To use this game in brainstorming, play the game normally, except that after each card drawing activity has been performed, have all the participants generate x number of ideals before moving on to the next activity (normally 10 to 20 ideals). Normal brainstorming rules also apply. This may sound like a slower process than the regular brainstorming sessions we are used to, but remember, radical ideals are important for you organization to survive! And radical ideals come from creative activities. You cannot expect people to be creative by sitting in a room staring at four blank walls. The ideal is to get their creative juices flowing.

The Cranium game also performs an important function for radical thinking -- reducing the fear factor by providing fun. Fear is a barricade for new ideals. By providing fun and laughter, you create a pathway for radical ideals to emerge.

Out of the Box

"Thinking out of the box" is often used over and I hate it when I'm told to "get out of my box" (I'm on the shy side). However, as the steps to radical thinking and brainstorming show, you need radical thinking generators to reach a high creative level:

This is truly "thinking out of the box" as it provides an environment that uses everyone's thinking styles, rather than telling them to change their thinking style. When you tell people "to come out of the box," you are basically saying that you want them to be the same box as you. Now why would we go to all that trouble of getting a diverse workforce and then cloning everyone into the same style? When you provide a creative environment, instead of trying to change a person, you get the real person! When you get real persons into open, trusting environments with creative activities, you get radical thinking. And when you get radical thinking, you get the next great ideal for your organization!

How to Stop Great Ideas

"Inventions reached their limit long ago, and I see no hope for further development," - Julius Frontinus in the first century A.D.

"A cookie store is a bad idea. Besides, the market research reports say America likes crispy cookies, not soft and chewy cookies like you make." - Response to Debbi Fields' idea of starting Mrs. Fields' Cookies.

"Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You're crazy." - Drillers who Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil in 1859

"The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a 'C,' the idea must be feasible." - A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith's paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.)

"Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?" - H.M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927.

"We don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out." - Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962.

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." - Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

"640K ought to be enough for anybody." - Bill Gates, 1981

"This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us." - Western Union internal memo, 1876.

"The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?" - David Sarnoff's associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.

"I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won't last out the year." - The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957

"But what ... is it good for?" - Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip.

"Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons." - Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949

"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." - Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977.

"Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action and reaction and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react. He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools." - 1921 New York Times editorial about Robert Goddard's revolutionary rocket work.

"I assure you, Marlon Brando will not appear in this film, " said a Paramount Studio exec about the casting of The Godfather.

"This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us." - Western Union internal memo, 1876.

After Fred Astair's first screen test in 1933, the MGM testing director wrote a meme saying, "Can't act. Slightly bald. Can dance a little. " Astaire got the memo and kept it over his fireplace.

An expert said of football coach Vince Lombardi, "He possesses minimal football knowledge. Lacks motivation."

"So we went to Atari and said, 'Hey, we've got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we'll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we'll come work for you.' And they said, 'No.' So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, 'Hey, we don't need you. You haven't got through college yet.'" - Apple Computer Inc. founder Steve Jobs on attempts to get Atari and H-P interested in his and Steve Wozniak's personal computer.

"I'm just glad it'll be Clark Gable who's falling on his face and not Gary Cooper," explained Gary Cooper on his refusal to take the leading role in "Gone With The Wind."

"If I had thought about it, I wouldn't have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said you can't do this." - Spencer Silver on the work that led to the unique adhesives for 3-M's Post-It notes


Isaksen, S. G. (1998). A Review of Brainstorming Research: Six Critical Issues for Research. Buffalo: Creative Problem Solving Group. Monograph 302. Retrieved March 5, 2010: http://www.cpsb.com/resources/downloads/public/302-Brainstorm.pdf

Osborn, A.F. (1963) Applied imagination: Principles and procedures of creative problem solving (3rd Ed.). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.