Brainstorming 101 - How to Stretch Your Team's Capacity for Innovation


by Peter B. Grazier
Originally Published at Teambuildinginc.com January 25, 2007

Editor's Note: Through the years we have had the opportunity to work with teams and other groups needing to find new solutions to problems or innovative approaches to their work. We are always impressed with the results. We have also been surprised that, even today, there seem to be few groups who really understand the basics of brainstorming, sometimes called Nominal Group Technique. So we have decided to make this process available to our readers in the hopes that they will find the same kinds of results we have achieved.


Brainstorming 101 - The Process

In general, the idea behind brainstorming is to have each person in the team offer ideas that pertain to a given topic. Simply sitting together and sharing thoughts is good, but using a good brainstorming process is better. Next I will describe the basic process, and then elaborate on each one further below. Here is the process:

1.  Write the topic to be brainstormed at the top of a flip chart page.

2.  Start with one team member and, in turn and in order, have all team members contribute an idea.

3.  Each person can only give one (1) idea per turn.

4.  Write down ALL ideas on the flip chart page and, when full, hang each page in order on a good blank wall.

5.  If a team member has no idea when his or her turn comes, have them say "PASS," and continue onto the next person.

6.  There is no discussion of ideas beyond that required to accurately capture it on the page.

7.  When everyone passes in succession, the brainstorming is complete.


1. Writing the topic to be brainstormed at the top of a flip chart page focuses the team on the topic and lowers the possibility that people will be offering ideas on multiple topics. The ability to focus the team is important for conducting the activity efficiently. Otherwise, people may ramble, get off track, and generally waste time.

2. Starting with one team member and, in turn and in order, having all team members contribute an idea brings order to the process. Everyone quickly learns that, in each round, they will be asked to contribute an item to the list.

3. Each person can only give one idea per turn so that it gives everyone an equal opportunity to contribute. One person may be sitting there with 10 ideas, and another only 2 initially. If the person with 10 gives them all at once, the other person may now not be able to contribute anything for a while. It just allows for greater participation and satisfaction.

4. Writing down ALL ideas on the flip chart paper and then hanging them on the wall becomes a dramatic demonstration of the power of collaboration. As the list gets longer, the team is inspired by its ability to go way beyond what was expected at the outset. This is highly motivating to all team members.

5. Allowing team members to "pass" if they have no idea is really a safety outlet for those rounds where someone has truly come up dry. It creates comfort in the process. It is important to note, however, that they should be reminded to say "pass" rather than using some gesture or other way of communicating. Occasionally there are team members who do not want to participate or otherwise are "tuned out" of the team's activities. Having to say the word "pass" has its own discomforts, especially if it is said repeatedly. We seldom see anyone pass more than three times in succession.

6. There is no discussion of the items. Brainstorming is a "divergent" process. That means that you are seeking the largest number of thoughts possible. There will be plenty of time to narrow the list later. Additionally, gathering a large number of thoughts and ideas will trigger new thoughts. Team synergy results when its results are bigger than the sum of the parts, meaning, that ideas were generated that nobody had considered prior to the brainstorming.

7. When everyone passes in succession, the brainstorming is complete. This is generally the rule for finishing the process, but you also need to consider if you generated enough results. If not, you may want to continue the process by using various techniques for re-energizing the team's creativity (see below).Using the above process can result in 50...75...100...150 or more ideas on the wall. It's a powerful process. 

Brainstorming Tips and Techniques

There are many ideas to enhance the brainstorming process. Here are a few.

Tip #1 - Strive for many ideas. If the group "hits the wall" too early or, in other words, simply runs out of ideas, try a technique called Forced Connections. Ask the group to associate their topic with an unrelated word such as "frog." Or bring along some pictures (for example, a bathtub) and ask the group to associate their topic with this. The brain will always attempt to make an association, spawning new ideas that may kick-start the group to more creativity.

Tip #2 - Encourage the group to "get crazy" with their ideas.  Allow members to play with the topic ---stretch a little--- to generate even more creative ideas. The general work environment tends to be overly logical, forcing people to operate from the logical part of the brain. Creative brainstorming involves shifting into the more creative parts of the brain, something that may be uncomfortable for some people when at work. Also consider performing an icebreaker exercise prior to the brainstorming to further relax and energize participants.

Tip #3 - Use multiple scribes to increase speed. If you have a group of 10 or more participants, you may want to use two or more of them in writing down the thoughts. This is especially helpful if you have a very large group (I once facilitated 135 people in a brainstorming process, using three scribes and one additional person to "hang paper."). It speeds up the process significantly.

Tip #4 - Use sticky dots to prioritize the list quickly. A large list can quickly be reduced to a few by giving each participant a strip of 4-8 colored dots (which can be found in the label department of most office products stores) and having them place the dots on the list items that they like best. Frequently there are some clear-cut winners that show up immediately.