Best brainstorming techniques for productive work
Last updated on: December 22, 2021
Whether you brainstorm to solve a problem, get new ideas, or expand on an existing one, it’s good to know which technique works best for each situation. Similarly, some techniques are more suitable for groups, while others are for solo work. Here is our list of some of the best brainstorming techniques for productive work, and how to make the most of them.
Brainstorming techniques for individuals
Brainstorming is inherently a group activity. It invites input from different people because a new perspective can give our own brains a nudge. That way, we get to see the same problem or information in a new light, which boosts our problem-solving thinking.
But, should you find yourself needing to brainstorm alone, the following techniques could replace the presence of other people.
Mind mapping method
Best for: Visual types, easy breakdown of information
Mind mapping is a brainstorming technique that employs diagrams. A mind map works literally like a map, where you take a central idea and deconstruct it by writing down associations and important keywords, or questions.
For example, a literature teacher can break down a novel in a mind map where the central node is the title of the novel, the surrounding nodes contain main characters, and other subnodes elaborate on character motivations, characteristics, struggles, etc.
The goal of such a mind map would be to provide a skeleton for an easier book analysis for the students, for example. From there, it’s much faster to say, get ideas for book reports, essays, discussions, etc.
In the same way, you can take a central idea, issue, or a question, and break it down into smaller nodes, to help you see the connections between the smaller parts that make the whole. It’s a popular learning technique among students, as well. The most important elements for a successful mind map are:
- Central idea/theme/problem;
The more colorful the nodes and connections, the easier it will be for your brain to absorb information.
SWOT analysis method
Best for: identifying and analyzing the inner workings of an idea, feature, or an aspect of a project
SWOT is an acronym for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. The analysis is used to lay out these four aspects of an idea, a project, or even a business. It focuses on the internal and external factors that can affect your idea. For example, if a software company wants to implement a new feature, and wants to see all the possible benefits it could bring, but also the ways in which the feature could harm their current product.
SWOT brainstorms give the best results when they’re done in a matrix, like the one below:
Presented like this, SWOT has a great visual backup that makes all the information clearly visible, and “within reach”. It’s perfect for solo brainstorms, and equally effective in groups.
The rubber duck debugging method
Best for: Solo brainstormers who have one person to help with feedback, a coworker, team lead, or manager. Also for quick ideations when deadlines are tight.
You’ve probably heard of it time and time again now — a person gets trapped in an idea loop they can’t get out of, and simply needs an outside observer to air them out to.
The most famous example is perhaps the “Rubber Duck Debugging”, coined in 1999. by Andrew Hunt and David Thomas. In their book “The Pragmatic Programmer”, Hunt and Thomas anecdotally described a programmer who solved a bug in the code by explaining his debugging process, line by line, to a rubber duck on his desk. Since then, it has become a staple not only in programming, but everywhere in the knowledge economy.
If you find yourself stuck in your own head, explaining the problem out loud (to a rubber duck or a person) will give that information a new perspective. Voicing your thought processes will help you catch the cause of the loop, and you’ll be able to find the solution much quicker than if you continued silently.
Brainstorming techniques for groups
Group brainstorms are much more common than individual brainstorms, but at the same time — much trickier to accomplish. They have more people, a meeting facilitator, there’s changes in conversation dynamic, and even openings for conflict.
In order to achieve peak office productivity, a constructive exchange of ideas and creative disagreements that lead to solutions, here are our picks for top group brainstorming methods.
The brainwriting method
Best for: New teams, teams with introverts or with members who have wildly different personalities
Usually, when there is a brainstorming session, most of us will know right away how the session will go. We know who will be active and talk the most, who will interject, and whether or not our input is even needed.
Because of this, you will have situations where the same people always talk, while the others just sit back and scribble in their notes, or tune out. Brainwriting aims to eliminate this with one simple change — all initial communication is nonverbal.
As a meeting facilitator, you give everyone a piece of paper, and have them write three ideas or strategies (depending on what you’re doing) related to the theme of the brainstorm. After five or six minutes, everyone passes their paper to the person next to them, and then that person expands on their neighbor’s ideas. This is done until the papers return to their owners. The second part of the session includes analyzing the findings each paper brings.
For example, finding common themes, issues that are often pointed out, similarities and differences between each idea.
Through brainwriting, everyone is involved, and there is no risk of having certain people be unable to voice their opinions. Everyone contributes.
The eidetic image method
Best for: Visual types, building on existing ideas rather than coming up with something new or problem solving
The biggest proponent of using the eidetic image method was psychologist Jacqueline Sussman, who worked with — among others — Mattel and Google. She notes that eidetic images are vivid images stored in our brain, based on previous experiences, and gives the example of wanting to make a salad. The moment you read the ingredients list, you’ll imagine each one, and assemble them in your head.
In the same way, a brainstorming session with eidetic imagery would be used when you want to build on or improve an existing feature. One example often used with this method is a smartphone. People are asked to imagine a generic smartphone, and then to start building better features into it — a different color, size, more space, etc. Then, when the session is over, one member is singled out to present their improved design, and discuss it with others.
To facilitate this kind of creative problem solving, try the following order:
- Have everyone present imagine the company’s current product;
- Have them visualize specific improvements to it (size, feature, logo, etc.);
- Guide them through each possible improvement, and see which ones they picked in the end;
- Have everyone open their eyes, and discuss their results.
In this way, each person is given an opportunity to do their own brainstorming, collect their thoughts and think through each feature. When the presentation time comes, they will have an easier time elaborating. Less time is spent finding the right words or brainstorming on the spot.
The rapid ideation method
Best for: People who hate brainstorm sessions and meetings, tight deadlines, quick thinkers.
Rapid ideation is my personal favorite, as it was the first one that really struck a chord with my procrastination. A team lead advised me back in the day to “write out as many ideas as I could, no matter how dumb they were”. Because, in his own words, out of 30 or so ideas, at least 10 of them would be good enough to elaborate on.
In the same way, rapid ideation in groups has you setting a time limit between 5 and 10 minutes, and people having to write down as much as they can in that time. It’s important that they don’t take themselves seriously, and to tell them that not all ideas will be great.
After the 10 minutes are up, you can start filtering through the ideas together, singling out the best ones.
The gap analysis method
Best for: Problem solving, step-by-step analysis.
The core of the gap filling or gap analysis method is: “How do we get from here to there”. The facilitator of the session needs to lay out where the team is now, and where they need to be. Think of it as a roadmap: you want to get from point A to point B, so you need to know where you can make pit stops for food and rest, where to refuel, and how to divide your driving hours.
In much the same way, you show the team where you would like to be with the project or a product, and then fill in that large gap with small steps that will take you there.
The 5 Whys method
Best for: Problem solving, future feature/product analysis.
The 5 Whys method relies on the childlike incessant “why why why” to anyone older than them.
“Why is the sky blue?”
“Why can’t animals eat human food?”
“Why do we do X or Y?”
Its aim is to delve deep into the reasoning behind specific decisions, to ensure they’re there for solid reasons, and to prevent potential problems. The “5” in the name is given as a simple limit on how deep you should take the analysis. Here’s a simple example:
Feature: The ability to close a DM in our chat app.
- Why? So it doesn’t clutter the side of the user’s chat window.
Why (is that a problem)? It gets crowded and more difficult to find people.
- Why (is it difficult)? Because the user needs to scroll down a list of people, and it takes away time from work.
- Why (does it take away time)? A lot of people rely on fast and easy communication, and this is a proven issue.
- Why? Bumps in communication, even this small, add up to wasted time, and just frustrate the user.
Five isn’t the only limit, though. You can go even deeper. The best visual aid for this kind of brainstorm is the Ishikawa (or fishbone) diagram, made by Japanese organizational theorist Kaoru Ishikawa.
On the far right, where the “fish head” should be, you write down the problem, product, or feature, and to the left, you branch out into the potential causes of the issue — “the fish bones”.
It’s important to mention here that 5 Whys has been met with criticism. Namely, that it’s not a good method to use for brainstorming root causes and results in a problem.
So, when you do use it in your own teams, remember to do so in order to understand why you should implement a new feature, or come up with a product, etc. The “Why’s” here are used as a support to an idea, rather than tools for identifying a problem.
The stepladder method
Best for: Helping less extroverted team members express themselves more freely and avoid people conforming to each other’s opinions.
Stepladder brainstorming has an interesting execution:
- The group is introduced to the brainstorm session topic, and asked to spend a few minutes working alone on ideas and suggestions.
- Two participants are left alone in the room and asked to discuss their ideas. Everyone else waits outside of the room (they can even go back briefly to their workstations to avoid awkward standing around).
- After a few minutes, a third person is introduced, and they contribute their own ideas and opinions.
- Another few minutes later, you add a fourth person, and so on.
- When all the members have been gradually introduced, there is a collective discussion of conclusions. See how far you’ve reached as the group gradually grew in number.
The stepladder method ensures everyone is heard and gets a chance to speak their mind. What’s more, this method can easily help participants who otherwise have a problem with large groups slowly adapt from communicating with one or two people to more.
Techniques for brainstorming meetings
In the end, let’s take a look at a brief guideline on how you can organize your meeting to make the most out of your brainstorming session.
Set a clear agenda
Before the meeting even starts, you want to send out an email with the meeting outline. People should come somewhat prepared, or to at least know what to expect. Let them know what is the goal of the session, and maybe even inform them on the brainstorming technique you aim to use. This alone could be a good conversation starter to break the ice.
Do your best to avoid groupthink
Brainstorms cause one big issue if the meeting facilitator isn’t guiding it properly, and that is groupthink. When people spend too much time in a single conversation bubble, sharing and exchanging ideas, there is a risk they’ll begin to conform to a single line of thinking. Very quickly, individuals stop asking questions or challenging ideas, and the session becomes a big echo chamber.
To avoid causing group think, either encourage opposing arguments, or voice them yourself, if you notice groupthink starting to form.
Don’t take too long
Keep brainstorming sessions short and sweet. Anything longer than an hour is too much, no matter how interesting the problem-solving process is. Divide the brainstorming plan into several sessions to keep the momentum going, over a week or several weeks.
That way, everyone will also get the opportunity to “sleep on” new information, increasing their retention.
Schedule the meeting at an optimal time
This goes without saying — meetings need to be at an optimal time. Not too early, too late, or especially after a hefty lunch. You want to aim for late morning, or a few hours after lunch. Encourage people to bring their snacks or afternoon coffee, so you’re less likely to have to take a break in an already short meeting.
Split up into small groups
Joris Janssens of IDEA Consult facilitated a few large-scale remote brainstorm sessions remotely, and even documented his remote brainstorming experience. He had a total of 60 people to moderate, which he immediately broke up into teams of 6 or 7 members. In between brainstorming sessions, he would meet with the plenary to discuss findings.
Following his example, you should aim for groups between 5 and 10 people, with 10 being the absolute most. This is to avoid individuals talking over each other, fatigue, conflict, and disinterest.
Implement tools for remote sessions
Since a lot of companies are working remotely now, meetings have become trickier to navigate. And as we’ve seen in Janssens’s experience, online collaboration tools are a must. Since there is a wide variety, take your time in choosing the perfect one.
Focus on those that employ drawing, typing, synchronous work, and screen sharing. You want people to have as much freedom as possible when sharing ideas online.
Plan meeting members carefully
Not all teams will brainstorm with the same success. To achieve optimal results, take the time to assess the personalities of employees who you want to attend the sessions. If necessary, work with HR managers who can be of immense help in this aspect. If you have two strong, extroverted personalities, there are odds they will clash in opinion, or indirectly start to compete. Similarly, too many introverted members can stall the session, or require you to step up and do most of the talking for them.
Provide a good atmosphere
There is a checklist you should go through before moderating any brainstorming session. It’s to ensure that all participants feel included, safe, heard, and respected, regardless of the method you use.
✅ Compliment good ideas;
✅ Let people know their input is appreciated;
✅ Shut down conflict (as in finger-pointing, assigning blame, etc.);
✅ Respect introverts’ space (don’t force them into speaking up if they’re not comfortable);
✅ Implement visuals (a PowerPoint presentation, colorful post-its, markers, whiteboard, images).
Including some color, life, and casualness into these brainstorms will cause them to be more fruitful. Leave any talk of deadlines and pressures outside of the room. Stressed brains will cause lower quality ideas, and the entire session will turn out to be more of a waste of time.
Brainstorming can be an extremely effective tool, not only for problem solving, but for improving upon existing ideas, and boosting your critical thinking. Brainstorms are often better in small groups, rather than alone. Opposing arguments and new perspectives significantly improve your own problem-solving process. However, there are also risks that come with larger groups, unbalanced personalities, and if the sessions aren’t properly moderated. To get the most out of your brainstorming sessions, work on finding the method that is best for your project needs, the size of your team, and the type of people involved.
✉️Which brainstorming techniques have proved useful for you? Can you recall any situations where brainstorming sessions failed, or simply didn’t give results? Share your stories with us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we may feature you in one of our future articles.