Brainstorming sessions are productive

Brainstorming: 4 rules, 6 tips & methods for more ideas

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Just sit down, think and count the flashes of inspiration: brainstorming is not that easy. Finding good ideas is often hard brain work. More frustration than pleasure. Brainstorming can help to stimulate new and innovative ideas, to collect and evaluate many ideas. An important method, especially in meetings: researchers working with social psychologist Wolfgang Stroebe from the University of Utrecht found that groups often produce less good ideas than individual thinkers. For brainstorming to work, fixed rules are required. Tips on how to brainstorm more successfully ...

➠ Content: This is what awaits you

➠ Content: This is what awaits you

Brainstorming: definition and process of the method

The brainstorming method was developed by Alex Osborn as early as 1939. In the advertising agency BDO (later BBDO), which he co-founded, there were dozens of meetings that were anything but inspiring: They lasted forever, tiring and inhibited any form of creativity. In short: You were the worst case scenario for a company that makes its money by being creative.

Osborn was aware of the threat and remembered the more than 400 years old Indian creativity technique of "Prai-Barshana". From their mantra - "using the brain to storm a problem" - he derived today's brainstorming. Brainstorming is now THE classic among creativity methods - and basically works very simply: During the brainstorming session, the participants in a meeting (five to eight people have proven themselves) spontaneously submit their ideas for solving a specific problem for a while.

The 2 essential phases in brainstorming

Because the exchange of ideas takes place publicly and in the group, numerous new combinations of ideas emerge. So more solutions and results are suggested than are actually needed. But that doesn't matter. Because after the brainstorming, there is usually a discussion and type of filter, in which the good ideas are separated from the bad ones and the latter are discarded. Such a brainstorming session therefore always consists of two essential phases:

  • Brainstorming (30 to 45 minutes)

    In the first part, the actual brainstorming, the exchange of ideas, takes place. Ideas are collected from all participants over a specified period of time. Either together or by a moderator, all contributions are compiled and collected.

  • Idea evaluation (30 to 60 minutes)

    The pool of (hopefully) numerous ideas now has to be turned into an ordered list. For this purpose, the collected suggestions are analyzed, filtered, rated and sorted. The goal of brainstorming is to end up with a list of the most promising ideas, suggested solutions, and ideas.

The creativity technique is not only suitable for brainstorming, but also for product development, for breaking up deadlocked situations or problem solving. It can also be a preliminary stage for further creative techniques.

Brainstorming needs 4 basic rules

Brainstorming as a method is very simple at first and seems to be completely self-explanatory. Due to the popularity and distribution, it is sufficient for the boss to say "Let's do a brainstorming session ..." and we can start immediately. The resulting storm of thoughts can be enormously productive, bring numerous excellent ideas and lead to good problem solutions and strategies. However, practice shows that this is not always the case and a lot can go wrong with brainstorming. The reasons for this can be different:

  • Sometimes the question is not clear to the participants at all.
  • Or the problem is far too complex to brainstorm.
  • There are no time limits or moderation, so that the storm of thoughts grows into a hurricane.
  • The participants do not dare to put forward their ideas.
  • Very few ideas come together.

Brainstorming therefore only works if fixed rules are observed in the method. Otherwise you will sit together brainstorming, waste a lot of time and end up frustrated because no significant result has been achieved. In order to brainstorm successfully, four basic rules must be followed. We briefly introduce these rules for the method and explain why they are so important for brainstorming:

1. Brainstorming rule: no criticism

Any idea - no matter how crazy - is initially welcome. No evaluation takes place during the process. Discussions, homicide arguments and criticism are strictly forbidden. This includes both verbal and non-verbal criticism. It is therefore forbidden to criticize someone else's idea as “difficult to implement” or “completely ignoring the problem” while brainstorming. Rolling your eyes, sighing or other forms of non-verbal criticism also have no place in brainstorming. Unfortunately, many participants do not adhere to this rule. The result: For fear of criticism, ideas remain unsaid - possibly even the best. In addition, the atmosphere suffers immensely.

2. Brainstorming rule: quantity instead of class

What counts in the beginning is the sheer number of ideas. The more the better. Quantity over quality. Even if you are not one hundred percent sure whether your suggestion is really a good one, make it a first. Of course everyone wants to have the perfect flash of inspiration right away, the brilliant idea with which all problems can be solved at once - unfortunately that rarely works. By brainstorming as many ideas as possible first, you are not limiting the number of suggestions in advance. So there is no such thing as "Oh, that will definitely not work" or "The others will definitely find the idea stupid". Instead, all ideas are collected and written down wherever possible for everyone to see. Often, in the further course of the brainstorming, new ideas and further thoughts emerge from this. It is therefore always worthwhile to focus on quantity first.

3. Brainstorming rule: no copyright

As just mentioned, spinning on other people's ideas is not only desirable, but an important aspect of brainstorming. There is no copyright protection or something like “my idea”. The aim of brainstorming is to find the best solution to a problem as a team - in the end everyone worked on it together. It may be difficult, but when it comes to brainstorming, participants have to put their own ego on the back burner. Otherwise, work is not done together, but against each other. Anyone who now fears that the laurels for their own proposal will be harvested by a colleague rarely needs to worry. The boss is often present during the brainstorming session and can easily see who had which idea - but it is detrimental to the process to insist on it.

4. Brainstorming rule: Think outside the box

Free association, but also wandering, spinning and fantasizing is also expressly desired during the storm of thoughts. Let your mind wander, think outside the box and approach a problem in an unconventional way. You can also try to transfer solutions from another area to the current question. This is not always possible directly, it may require some adjustments - but you do not always have to reinvent the wheel from scratch. This can have several advantages: In any case, you enlarge the solution field, because even seemingly absurd ideas are collected. And you stimulate creativity further. New lines of thought arise, the other participants also expand their own approach and so you get closer to the best solution.

6 tips for successful brainstorming

So much for the basic rules. Of course that's not enough. In order for the process to work smoothly, the creative technology must be managed and moderated. Otherwise it remains more of a storm in a water glass. The social component and silo thinking do not play a negligible role: "Why does the colleague always have such good ideas?" "Do I prefer to keep the supposed crazy idea to myself?" "Does the colleague always have to shout like that when he presents something?" - Such thoughts steer, choke off and nip the generation of ideas in the bud. It is therefore crucial:

  • Create climate
    The power of the collective exchange of ideas lies in the fact that everyone can gush uninhibited. If you think you will be reprimanded for your suggestions later, shut up. A climate that evaluates suggestions must also be avoided. Even after brainstorming. Awards for the best idea must therefore be avoided at all costs. The result is always a team effort!
  • Create diversity
    Using brainstorming only to stir up ideas is one-dimensional. If different departments or specialists from different disciplines take part, they can also learn from each other and reduce resentments. This colorful composition of the brainstorming group in particular ensures better ideas and more group dynamics (keyword: diversity).
  • Moderate the process
    That sounds paradoxical, since brainstorming is all about thinking completely freely. A short circuit: freedom without borders does not exist. The task of the group leader is to maintain freedom by restricting others - such as frequent speakers or critics. It is also important to motivate and encourage quieter participants during the session. Or - if the group got stuck at one point and got lost on detailed issues - to break up the situation again. For example, through a change of perspective, as with the Osborn method. Incidentally, it also comes from Alex F. Osborn.
  • Visualize a collection of ideas
    This does not mean that everyone paints colorful pictures (which - depending on the topic - could also be allowed), but rather that the suggestions are visibly collected so that they don't fade away again in the storm. A pin board, for example, is ideal for this. Or a mind map. Ultimately, the aim is for everyone to be stimulated by the suggestions listed, and for new ideas to be generated from them. The participants should also be able to write down their own thoughts immediately (have pen and paper ready!). If the participants have to keep their own thoughts in mind while someone else throws their idea into the room, they cannot concentrate properly on one or the other.
  • Limit time
    Brainstorming sessions should be limited from the outset - but at least the actual storm phase (“brainstorming”). A duration of 30 to 45 minutes has proven itself for this. You should also allow another 30 to 60 minutes for the subsequent evaluation phase ("idea evaluation"). These time limits are sufficient for an extensive brainstorming session - after all, the method should not degenerate, but rather deliver results.
  • Implement ideas
    The difference between a firework of ideas and an innovation lies in productivity. Brainstorming promotes creativity, but in the end it must at least result in prototypes. Without follow-up, such meetings degenerate into coffee parties and have a demotivating effect: When people notice that nothing of their suggestions is being implemented, they stop thinking at some point.

To be very clear: without such rules, without a moderator and a specific question, brainstorming cannot really work. The importance of the rules should not be underestimated. Otherwise the storm of thoughts will lead to a sheer waste of working time - despite numerous advantages (see graphic).

Brainstorming moderator: That's how important he is

The moderator plays a crucial role in brainstorming. It should motivate, stimulate, focus, structure. A big responsibility! But it doesn't work without it. A brainstorming session that is not professionally moderated gets out of hand, becomes wild and at some point becomes bizarre slapstick. People may have fun with each other, but the exchange is no longer effective.

The moderator of a brainstorming session should therefore be someone who can think and spin along, but at the same time maintains an overview and remains independent. That means: He is also not allowed to promote ideas just because he personally likes them. The moderator is obliged to be neutral - perhaps more than anyone else. Ideally, the boss does not take on the role. The following tasks are part of moderating a brainstorming session:

  • Prepare for brainstorming: Make the question and goal transparent for everyone.
  • Formulate the agenda: The process, duration and times must be specified.
  • Set rules: The rules should be set out clearly in advance and binding for everyone.
  • Ensure compliance: The best rules are of no use if ignored. This is the moderator's most active task: slowing down gossips, animating silencers, separating brainstorming from evaluating ideas.
  • Structure analysis: Once the storm has subsided, the ideas need to be evaluated. Not easy either, since some souls always take criticism personally. The more the idea evaluation (as well as vanities) has to be moderated and structured.
  • Document the result: In the end, of course, the results should be collected, bundled, sorted, logged or documented and distributed to everyone. This can also be imposed on the moderator. However, it is usually fairer to appoint a recorder for this.

Quite complex as you can see. The main task of the moderator, however, remains to ensure that everyone has their say, that no one is discriminated and that the process or the working group does not stall.

5 alternatives to brainstorming

In the meantime, numerous alternatives and modifications have developed to classic brainstorming. Because in addition to many supporters, brainstorming also has many critics who identify some disadvantages in the method. First and foremost: Not all participants are equally involved in the brainstorming and the results - despite the above-mentioned basic rules - are often not very imaginative. If you run into problems with the original brainstorming session or if you want to add variety to your creative methods, you can use the following alternatives to brainstorming:


The very term reveals the similarity of the two methods. The brainswarming was developed by the American Tony McCaffrey, because during brainstorming he found time and again that it is the extroverted team members in the group who prevail. You dominate the brainstorming process, come up with more suggestions, and you also do a lot of the discussion. Shy participants in the brainstorming session go under - including their suggestions. In brainswarming, self-portrayal takes a back seat. The decisive difference: the generation of ideas does not take place orally in a group, as in brainstorming. All participants first write their ideas on small sticky notes (post-its) - each one on their own, for themselves, without any pressure. In the next step, the notes are pinned to a shared pin board in order to link ideas with one another, to spin them further and ultimately to analyze and evaluate the best proposed solutions.


Brainwriting has identified the same weak point in brainstorming and bypasses it in a similar way. With this alternative, too, the collection of ideas does not take place openly and verbally, but each participant writes his ideas on a piece of paper at the beginning - this should be larger in brainwriting as a note, for example a DIN A4 sheet. After the first phase of brainstorming, the suggestions are then passed on to each other. So everyone has the opportunity to expand and supplement the ideas of other participants.

Method 635

Method 635 is a special form of brainwriting. The basic idea is retained, but using a precise process, method 635 can generate more than 100 ideas within a short period of time. The name is made up of the most important cornerstones of the method: At the beginning, six participants write three ideas on a piece of paper and then the idea sheets are passed on a total of five times. Each participant has every single sheet of paper and complements the existing suggestions with their own input and other additions.

Headstand method

Normal brainstorming doesn't get you anywhere or does it need more variety? Then the headstand method can provide new insights. Fortunately, you don't have to turn yourself upside down, just turn your mindset upside down. Instead of asking yourself: “Which idea has the best chance of success?”, The headstand method is about “What definitely doesn't work?” It is often easier to imagine such worst-case scenarios. In addition, this type of brainstorming stimulates creativity because you have to rethink. Finally, the anti-suggestions found can then be turned around again in order to develop strategies.

Provocation technique

You also have to rethink the brainstorming technique when it comes to provocation techniques. At the beginning, targeted changes, falsifications, exaggerations, reversals or ideal cases are identified - so-called provocations - which apply to the collection of ideas. Almost everything is allowed, so natural laws can be reversed or other facts can be omitted.

An example could be: Every employee has twice as much vacation as before. This is of course not true, but it is thought-provoking. How would the way of working change? Would there be staff shortages or would the vacation be spread out? Are employees more motivated as a result or is the attitude decreasing? Such changes can generate numerous ideas in order to find unusual solutions. The challenge of the method is to ultimately derive meaningful and implementable strategies that can exist in reality.

Brainstorm alone: ​​use personally

Of course, the brainstorming method can also be used when you are alone. With a few tricks you can stimulate the brain cells and help your own creativity on the jumps. Incidentally, the weekend is ideal for this. We have therefore put together a few more suggestions here. By the way, the ideal solution is to combine as many of them as possible ...

  • Work hard
    Brainstorming is not a fun event in between, but requires concentration and discipline. Only those who make serious efforts to turn their brains will be rewarded in the end.
  • Be alone
    The constant bombardment of emails, cell phones, Facebook and Twitter makes it impossible to concentrate on one thing. You should therefore, at least temporarily, eliminate the various disruptive factors. The golden rule for brainstormers: Isolate yourself completely for a while, think deeply, all alone and in silence.
  • To go for a walk
    Those who look at the same gray wall day in and day out are not particularly inspired. New places produce new impressions produce new ideas. A walk through the woods and fields creates new associations, awakens a wealth of ideas and inventiveness. Just a few months ago, researchers at Stanford University confirmed the creative power of a walk.
  • Set limits
    Don't chew on a mediocre idea for too long. If you notice that the path leads nowhere, you'd better turn to another.
  • Write down ideas
    Take a piece of paper with you and write down everything you can think of on the given topic. From the disordered snippets of thought, useful approaches can be filtered out afterwards.
  • Take breaks
    It is well known that breaks increase productivity. Several sprints are therefore more effective than a laborious brainstorming marathon.
  • Dampen expectations
    A brainstorming session does not lead to a finished product. First comes the basic idea, then the fine and hard work. Realize that brainstorming isn't all of the work.
  • Produce scrap
    The fact that most ideas end up in the trash shouldn't be a cause for frustration. The more ideas, the greater the likelihood of a hit. So even with brainstorming alone, you should initially rely on quantity instead of quality.

Bad idea: how you react to it

Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come. Unfortunately, some flashes of inspiration are either way ahead of their time (at best) or totally wrong. Especially in debates, panel discussions and brainstorming sessions, it happens again and again that you are confronted with an objection or suggestion that, well, couldn't be more unconventional. Then, coram publico, to tell your counterpart what you really think of it would be tactically unwise. So what do you do when you are in a meeting (but not a brainstorming session!) Or workshop and a colleague makes a suggestion that is as ingenious as “renting firewood on the Internet”?

Sure, you could say, “What a stupid idea! What a bullshit! ”Or“ Hahahahaha ”and then move on. But you don't do it. In addition, there might still be a good idea lurking beneath the surface that you are mercilessly ironing out. Fortunately there are alternatives ...

  1. Ask for details
    A suggestion is quickly ventilated. How well thought out this is is only revealed in the concrete and its consequences. So ask, for example, how this idea should be implemented in a very pragmatic way, how it works and why. This also acts like a valve - and lets the hot air out of many ideas.
  2. Ask for evidence
    Especially if your counterpart formulates a steep and suggestive thesis that sounds very plausible at first, you should ask for evidence: “Has that already worked somewhere? Where? Why? ”If you get a good answer to this, you have definitely learned something - or your calm.
  3. Clarify the variables
    What initially looks like a clever idea often only works under certain conditions (like these tips, which is why they don't all apply at all times). In order to appear less confrontational, accept the suggestion, but also ask about the decisive variables: “A good objection! For this to work, however, X must be given and Y must actually be present. Is that so? And what if not? "
  4. Combine a goal
    First, thank you for the suggestion and then connect it with a goal: “Thank you for the suggestion. We're here together today to increase our sales by ten percent. How do you think that will bring us closer to this goal? ”In particular, participants who constantly get lost in sideline scenes will quickly get you back on track.
  5. Ask for a rating
    It is particularly elegant if you first ask the audience to rate the suggestion: “How do the others think?” This not only gives you time to think about it, but also collects arguments before you express yourself and take a position.

And last but not least, you can of course always go back to your feelings. So you are not saying that you think the idea is gross nonsense, but instead: “That all sounds very good. But I still have a stomach ache at this suggestion. My feeling tells me this is not yet fully developed. Let's discuss that a little longer. ”If the other person snaps back immediately, he will disqualify himself. Otherwise you give both of you the chance to see what is really in the idea - and continue with a brainstorming session, for example.

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[Photo credit: PROKOPEVA IRINA man by]