Great brainstorming is one of the most powerful and one of the most misunderstood methods in the in the innovators toolbox. It‰Ûªs a special kind of collaboration with specific rules of behavior designed to maximize idea generation. While many say they know how to brainstorm, few do it really well. In some ways, brainstorming is like volleyball. If you know the rules, you might be able to survive a social game at the neighborhood picnic. But this is a far cry from the kind of volleyball you watch on TV. No matter what level you‰Ûªre at, you can always up your game. As such, below are some of the rules of brainstorming and how to set up your own brainstorming session.


Defer judgment: Separating idea generation from idea selection strengthens both activities. For now, suspend critique. Know that you‰Ûªll have plenty of time to evaluate the ideas after the brainstorm.

Encourage wild ideas: Breakout ideas are right next to the absurd ones, and usually result from the combination of a couple absurd and offbeat ideas.

Build on the ideas of others: Listen and add to the flow if ideas. This will springboard your group to places no individual can get to on their own.

Go for volume: Best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.

One conversation at a time: Maintain momentum as a group by saving side conversations for later.

Headline: Capture the essence quickly and move on. Don‰Ûªt stall the group by going into a long-winded idea.


Recruit the best people: Brainstorming is all about different bits of knowledge coming together, thus involving people with different areas of expertise is useful. Also, watch out for groups of eight people or more because it can stunt the flow of a group.

Set the Stage

Bring toys and props: Related and unrelated things can help inspire connections and ideas for people.

Provide muchies: Sugar goes with new ideas

Be mindful of seating and layout: The team should not be too far apart, should be facing each other, and should have the ability to stand and pace or walk around.

Pick a space where there‰Ûªs lots of writing space on the walls: Floor to ceiling whiteboards or tons of large post-it pads are ideal.

Bring lots of paper and markers: Put them on the table and encourage everyone to use them. You get to keep all the ideas on the whiteboards, the post-it pads and on all the paper on the table.

Review the rules and ask group to self enforce them.

Remind participants to use the paper in front of them: If you have an idea stuck in your head, get it out on paper so you can move on and participate in the brainstorm at hand.

Warm Up

To put people in the right mindset, set the tone with a quick warm up activity. Do something physical (e.g. barnyard animals, jumping jacks, etc.) or run a 2 minute funny brainstorm (e.g. how to sell more pantyhose to men, etc.).


Prepare yourself: Know what you want out of the brainstorm. Prepare a draft of initial brainstorm questions that you think will help guide the group. Have a few crazy ideas in your pocket that you can contribute when needed.

Be mindful of the scope and specificity of the leading brainstorm questions you use: Too broad (e.g. ‰ÛÏHow to save the world‰Û?) and the group will wander. Too narrow (e.g. ‰ÛÏwhat color should I dye my hair‰Û?) and there‰Ûªs no room for unexpected ideas.

Write fast & be visual: Practice writing and sketching fast.

Use humor and be playful.

Monitor and lead the productivity of the brainstorm: Be aware of and affect the following:

  • Framing ‰ÛÒ scope, specificity and scale of questions posed and how these contribute/drive the ideation level.
  • Fluency ‰ÛÒ pace, tone, and overall flow of ideas
  • Flexibility ‰ÛÒ range and variety of ideas
  • Fundamentals ‰ÛÒ the basic rules
  • Fun ‰ÛÒ group energy level, use of humor, level of participants‰Ûª engagement, who adds energy and when.

Ways to affect the above and reframe the brainstorm on the fly:

  • Pose a more specific question
  • Rephrase a question
  • Follow a thread that seems promising
  • Shift gears and offer a whole new question
  • Lob in a crazy idea
  • Encourage people to move around, pace and play
  • Say something funny

Know when to stop: Call the match when you feel you‰Ûªve got what you need or when group runs out of steam. In general, think about 45-60 minutes for actual brainstorm time. Warm up and wrap up can take ~15-30 minutes. The actual time spent can vary according to a group‰Ûªs level of brainstorm proficiency and endurance.

Wrap Up

Start the selection and synthesis step with the group: A couple of narrowing tools we have found effective include:

  • Post-it voting: Give every participant 4 stickers and have everyone put stickers next to their favorite ideas. Clustering of stickers indicate possible strong design directions.
  • Group review and discussion: Ask everyone to review the boards of ideas, and talk about the specific ideas or directions they like and why.


Continue the selection and synthesis step in a small team (1-2 people) offline. Capture your big ideas in new sketches, one page write-ups, storyboards, headlines, etc. Your goal is to synthesize your ideas into concepts or concept directions that act as springboards to a final product.


And finally, how do you know if you‰Ûªve run a successful brainstorm?

Fluency: You leave with a lot of good ideas. A good brainstorm can result in about 100 ideas in an hour.

Flexibility: You have a wide variety of different concept directions hidden in the mess of ideas.

Springboards: You leave with a handful of great springboards that you can start to prototype.


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