Guidelines for Brainstorming Success

Brainstorming Rules

A New York Times article suggested that group brainstorming isn’t an effective method for generating creative solutions. That assertion, however, is erroneous for a variety of reasons. Groups can—and do—successfully brainstorm creative and useful solutions.

But research does show that effective brainstorming requires adherence to some specific guidelines. If it’s done casually, without guidelines, and the sessions are run by people with no knowledge of how to do it well, it will be significantly less effective than it could be. It will either result in unrestrained chaos with no momentum to move the project forward, or it will just be plain boring (which also results in no momentum).

So, how do you set up your brainstorming session for success? Follow the brainstorming rules. They will see you safely through the necessary level of chaos, to the strategic momentum you’re hoping for.

For those of you who know that “brainstorming” is actually just one specific technique within a multitude of idea generation methods, forgive the short cut. Most people use the term “brainstorming” as a catch-all for all these techniques, and that’s how it's used here. 

So, here they are, 10 Brainstorming Rules for Success.

1. Free Them From the Fear

It's very difficult for people to share ideas if they’re concerned about possible negative consequences. A process and a setting that help people get past the fear are critical for brainstorming to be effective. One key principle in creating this setting is to prohibit any evaluation (even positive evaluation) during the idea generation. Negativity Bias tends to influence people's decision making, which in turn stifles the creativity of ideation output. So deferring any judgment up front allows all ideas to be generated without criticizism, leading to more ideas to choose from.

2. It's a Numbers Game

The more “at bats” you have, the more likely you are to hit a homerun. So drive for quantity of ideas. Ensure the session is long enough to generate lots. If you only spend 10 minutes on brainstorming, don’t expect great results. Think of ideation like photography: the more photos you take, the more likely you are to find that perfect picture for everyone to see. Just remember that the more you diverge on an idea, the more important the convergence process is as well.

3. Get Some Outside Stimulus

Asking the same group of people to sit in the same room and review the same information they’ve seen before is unlikely to result in exciting, new ideas. Talk to your customers, talk to outside experts, and explore how other industries are doing it. Have the brainstorming session in the park or in a museum. Bring some toys into the room. There are countless ways to shake things up; try something new every time, because new experiences lead to new ideas.

4. Encourage the Crazy

At the beginning of a brainstorming session, often someone will say, “every idea is a good idea.” And then there’s a collective eye roll because no one believes it. While it’s not true that every idea is a practical idea, it is true that every idea can offer useful stimulus for additional ideas. Sometimes those ideas that are tossed out as jokes can be the spark that leads to a new direction and a winning idea. Maybe one piece of that crazy idea is extremely practical and solves a critical problem nobody had thought of before. So allow, encourage, and use every idea, even if only for creative fodder.

5. Use the Power of the Group

Build, combine, and create new ideas in the moment. Don’t just collect ideas that people have already had. The building and combining is where the magic happensOccasionally break up into pairs or small groups to build of each other's thoughts and momentum. Use what someone else says as fodder for a new and unique idea. Continuously add and refine. This will encourage even more sharing and combining of ideas.

6. Laugh a Lot

Humor stimulates creativity, so let it happen. One easy way to start off a session; have everyone introduce themselves by answering a fun or silly question.  One we recently used in one of our sessions was “What’s something you DON’T need more of for the holidays?” The resulting answers were hilarious, and started the session off on the right note.  Some of the answers even started sparking real ideas for the session!

7. Homework is Required

Both individual and group efforts are critical for success. So expect and insist on individual preparation in advance and follow-up afterward. Ensure everyone knows the goal in advance of the brainstorming session, and ask them to do some homework before they arrive. By thinking about the goal prior to the start of the session, the incubation and passive thought of the project can lead to the perfect spark that ignites a fire full of new possibilitiesWhen the session is over, create an action plan that allows ideas to continue to be shaped and added to as you move forward. 

8. It's Not for Amateurs

Effective brainstorming requires knowledge and skill, both to participate, and especially to facilitate. It’s a completely different set of techniques and expertise than running other meetings, so don’t assume you can do it well just because you can run a great meeting. If you don’t have a facilitator in your team who has the skill to train the group and run the session, hire an external one, or get some training to develop the skills internally.

9. If it Looks Like a Duck, But Doesn't Act Like a Duck, It's Not a Duck

If you can’t, or don’t intend to, follow the guidelines for successful brainstorming, then don’t call it brainstorming. For example, a meeting that just becomes a stage for one person to spout their ideas isn’t useful or engaging. And if a brainstorming is not organized and structured appropriately, everyone in the room will feel how ineffective it is, and they’ll be sure to skip your next session. So, either set up for success, or don’t bother.

10. You're Not done Until You Decide

We've all been in this situation; it’s the end of a brainstorming session, we’ve created a long list of ideas, and someone volunteers to type up and distribute the list. And…. that’s the end. There’s no action, or at least not that we’re aware of. It’s fairly demotivating to spend time and energy generating ideas and then feel they went nowhere. So, plan time for, and require the group to do, some prioritizing of ideas during the session. In our work, we spend at least an equal amount of time on converging as we do on diverging. Yes, you read that right. If you generate ideas for an hour, also spend an hour on selecting, clarifying, and refining ideas at the back end. If you leave the meeting with a huge list of potential ideas, that’s not success.  You want to leave the meeting with a short list of clear ideas, and a plan for action on each of them.

Brainstorming: You're Doing It Wrong

For more brainstorming guidelines, watch this great video from HubSpot. It includes the history of brainstorming, the importance of generating lots of ideas, deferring judgment (see Forness® thinking) and more. Check out the video below!

Now that you've learned these 10 brainstorming rules that will propel you to success, learn 10 Ways to Make Your Environment More Creative. Or learn how to be more creative!


Ideas To Go is an innovation agency that works with Fortune 500 companies in ideation and concept development to incorporate the voice of the consumer.

©2017 Ideas To Go, Inc. All rights reserved.

Ideas To Go

Ideas To Go is an innovation agency that works with Fortune 500 companies in ideation and concept development to incorporate the voice of the consumer.