We live in an extremely fast-paced business environment where innovation is no longer an option. If you want to stand out from the crowd, you must innovate. And to innovate effectively, you need a constant flow of new and original ideas to increase your chances of finding the right ones.
For companies that aim for continuous innovation, brainstorming is a must-have tool to generate ideas. Groundbreaking concepts and products, like Post-it notes, the iPhone, or Google Adwords, are proof that brainstorming can lead to revolutionary ideas.
In this article, we’ll explore the pivotal role of brainstorming in driving innovation and explain why every company should implement brainstorming into their routine.
What is Brainstorming?
A room filled with people sitting around a table, pens in hand, trying to come up with as many brilliant ideas as possible - that’s what you picture when you think about brainstorming.
But what really is it? How do you define it? Let’s talk about that.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines brainstorming as “the action or process of making a concerted attempt to solve a problem, usually by a group discussion of spontaneously arising ideas.”
That’s quite a complex way of saying that brainstorming is the creative process of coming up with ideas. The concept was initially introduced by Alex Osborn, the co-founder of an advertising agency called BBDO, in 1953.
Osborn established four main rules for brainstorming.
The first brainstorming rule was to come up with as many ideas as possible. It was more about the quantity rather than the quality of ideas. The second rule was to refrain from judging ideas during the brainstorming process. The third rule encouraged even the most unconventional and illogical ideas, and the fourth allowed people to build upon each other's ideas.
While Osborn’s brainstorming was meant to be conducted in small groups of 5 to 12 people, modern brainstorming can happen in many ways.
There’s no one-size-fits-all brainstorming approach. Typically, brainstorming happens in a group setting, but there are instances where it can happen individually in an asynchronous way. We’ll talk about that later in the article.
To a degree, the goal of brainstorming is to come up with as many ideas as possible. However, its main purpose is to find a solution to a previously stated problem. And the more ideas we can come up with to solve that problem, the higher the chances that we’ll stumble upon the right solution.
Structured and Unstructured Brainstorming
Brainstorming can happen in both a structured and unstructured way.
On the other hand, unstructured brainstorming facilitates a more open environment and encourages everyone to come up with out-of-the-box ideas.
But even though unstructured brainstorming has fewer rules and guidelines than structured brainstorming, it doesn’t mean it’s aimless. It’s less systematized, meaning it doesn’t package creativity into a neat little box but rather lets it wander in the right direction.
Unstructured brainstorming implements techniques like blue sky thinking, which assumes multiple ideas stem from one initial concept. It also supports the concept of idea meritocracy, which focuses more on the idea itself rather than who came up with it in the first place, creating a culture of collective and collaborative idea generation.
3 Approaches to Brainstorming: Online, Offline, and Asynchronous
You can run a brainstorming session in three settings: online, in-person, and asynchronously. The choice will depend on your specific needs, objectives, and resources.
Each approach has its merits, and you may even combine elements from different settings to create a hybrid brainstorming experience.
Let's explore these brainstorming settings in more detail.
Offline Brainstorming sessions
Offline or in-person brainstorming sessions typically occur in a physical meeting room or workspace.
This setting fosters immediate and direct communication, allowing team members to bounce ideas off each other in real time. In-person sessions lead to strong team bonding and offer fast feedback on ideas.
However, in-person brainstorming comes with challenges, like scheduling conflicts, time constraints, organizational chaos, and altercations between team members.
What’s more, in face-to-face settings, more vocal team members tend to dominate the discussion, leading to quieter voices being overlooked.
✅ Pros: quick feedback, collaborative process, team bonding
❌ Cons: scheduling issues, organizational chaos, disagreements among team members
Online Brainstorming sessions
Online brainstorming sessions are an excellent solution for geographically dispersed teams or when meeting in person isn't feasible.
Online brainstorming allows flexibility and convenience, enabling participants to join from home. Plus, video conference tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams offer features like virtual whiteboards and document sharing to facilitate idea generation.
However, online sessions may lack the interpersonal dynamics and immediate feedback that in-person meetings provide. What’s more, many participants can face distractions in the home environment, which may affect their creative thinking process. We've all seen videos of cats sitting on the keyboard or kids bursting into a room during a Zoom meeting.
✅ Pros: geographic flexibility, convenience, access to digital tools
❌ Cons: technical issues, distractions, lack of interpersonal dynamics
Not everyone works at the same pace or within the same time zone. Asynchronous brainstorming accommodates those differences by allowing participants to contribute ideas at their convenience.
It's an excellent choice for teams with busy schedules or working across multiple time zones. It’s also great for more introverted team members who prefer thoughtful reflection before sharing their ideas in front of everyone else.
With asynchronous brainstorming, you can eliminate common issues like fear of judgment and social anxiety that prevent the quieter members from contributing their ideas.
This way, you’re not missing out on ideas that can potentially contribute to your business growth. Because who knows? Maybe that quiet IT guy has the next groundbreaking idea.
To facilitate asynchronous brainstorming, you need an idea management tool that allows each team member to share their idea from anywhere, at any time.
✅ Pros: flexibility, diverse ideas, inclusivity, convenience
❌ Cons: lack of spontaneity, lack of real-time collaboration, delayed feedback
Why Brainstorming Should Be a Part of Your Company’s Routine
Innovation isn't just a switch you can flip on and off. It's not just about having occasional brainstorming sessions whenever a problem arises or a few clever ideas here and there. It's about creating a company culture that breathes innovation and implements brainstorming as part of its routine.
To achieve this, you can either plan frequent brainstorming sessions, opt for asynchronous brainstorming, or adopt a hybrid approach that combines both. Either way, you must establish a strong idea management and session planning process and designate people to oversee it.
It might sound like a lot of work, but it's worth the effort. It's how you stay ahead of the game and avoid the same fate as Nokia - dying a slow death due to a lack of innovation and fear of change.
Getting started is often the toughest part of anything new. Planning your first brainstorming session and setting up your first brainstorming thread in Ideanote might feel like a big mountain to climb.
But once you conquer it the first time, it gets easier - and before you know it, it becomes a habit.
Benefits of Having Allocated Time for Brainstorming
Allocating time for brainstorming during the workday brings multiple benefits, and they go beyond simply collecting ideas.
Aside from idea generation, incorporating brainstorming into your routine fosters a company culture of continuous and collaborative innovation. It encourages employees to openly contribute their unique ideas and opinions, creating a sense of belonging and validation.
To make room for continuous innovation, Google implemented its famous “20% Time” rule - a policy that allowed employees to dedicate a fifth of their workweek to work on side projects they were interested in pursuing and thought would most benefit Google.
Brainstorming is a way to generate ideas and solve problems collaboratively. When brainstorming is used, teams use “How Might We” questions to freely come up with a host of innovative ideas. Ideas and people can inspire each other and you can find new and surprising solutions to your problems.
It encourages open and creative collaboration.
It helps build stronger teams and strategies.
It helps generate new ideas quickly.
It enables consensus-based decisions.
Common Brainstorming Problems & Mistakes
As with any creative process, brainstorming isn’t always smooth sailing. It may present a few challenges that can lead to complete chaos and lack of results if not handled properly.
Luckily, these common brainstorming problems can be easily overcome with the right preparation, techniques, and brainstorming tools.
Here are some of the main issues you may experience during your next brainstorming session:
Top-down management approach: Many people may feel uncomfortable voicing their opinions in front of individuals positioned higher in the organizational hierarchy. They may also adjust their ideas to align with higher-ranking colleagues' expectations, hindering open and unbiased brainstorming.
Groupthink: This is a phenomenon that occurs in close-knit groups, where members tend to conform to what they perceive as the majority's opinion, even if they have reservations about the idea, which stifles diverse thinking.
Social anxiety and fear of rejection: Introverted team members may not feel comfortable speaking up in a large group, mainly due to social anxiousness and fear of being instantly criticized, having their ideas rejected, or openly labeled as "stupid."
Dominant voices: Some more extroverted team members may dominate the discussion, making it difficult for quieter members to be heard or causing them to shut down completely.
Brainstorming Best Practices to Drive Innovation
Like a well-tuned engine propels a car forward, there are a few brainstorming best practices that propel innovation within any organization. Here they are.
Try different brainstorming techniques to find the best one
In the past, brainstorming was pretty straightforward: get together in a room, follow a few simple rules, and start coming up with ideas. Now, there are many brainstorming techniques you can use to ensure productive and efficient idea generation during the sessions.
Every team works differently, so you may need to try many different techniques before you stumble upon a few of the right ones.
Depending on the group dynamics, you may go for the more collaborative techniques like Six Thinking Hats or round robin or the more individual ones like brainwriting or rapid ideation. You may also go for the more creative methods that inspire more out-of-the-box thinking, like reverse brainstorming.
Always prepare your brainstorming sessions in advance
Preparation is the key to productive brainstorming, regardless of whether you’re running your brainstorming sessions in person, online, or asynchronously. Coming to your session unprepared can lead to a lack of direction and general chaos, the two main factors to blame for unproductive brainstorming.
Create a set of guidelines and send them to your team.
Write a problem statement that clearly explains the problem at hand. This will give your brainstormers a sense of purpose and direction.
Decide which brainstorming techniques to implement.
Select and gather the right tools to facilitate brainstorming and idea collection.
Set a brainstorming space for introverts
Many people don’t feel comfortable sharing their ideas in a group setting. Factors like fear of judgment and social anxiety may cause the more introverted team members to remain quiet during the brainstorming sessions.
To make sure you don’t miss out on any brilliant ideas, set up a space for your introverted team members where they can share their ideas independently.
➡️ With Ideanote, your employees can easily access the platform from anywhere and share and track their ideas without social pressure.
Make brainstorming fun
Positivity leads to productivity. In other words, when we enjoy doing something, we perform better. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a renowned Hungarian psychologist, finding joy in one’s work is the key to reaching a state of creative flow.
So, make your brainstorming sessions fun. Implement creative brainstorming techniques like visualization, role-playing, drawing, freewriting, or a change of scenery to inspire creativity and make brainstorming feel more like fun and less like work.
Promote openness and psychological safety at all times
Unless your employees feel safe voicing their opinions, they won’t contribute their ideas. In fact, lack of psychological safety is one of the main factors that hinder collaborative brainstorming.
And beyond that, there’s fear: fear of being judged, fear of being criticized, fear of not being promoted, fear of disagreeing with the boss.
That’s why a truly innovation-led company should support idea meritocracy rather than a top-down approach. With idea meritocracy, it doesn’t matter where the idea comes from or who contributed it - what matters is the idea itself.
The best ideas win, but it’s a collaborative process rather than a “criticize and shoot down” or a “it came from the boss, so it must be good” approach.
Choose your brainstorming tools carefully
To brainstorm effectively, you need various brainstorming tools. From whiteboard, flowchart, and mind-mapping software to idea management platforms and even AI writing tools, there’s an abundance of choice.
Depending on your chosen brainstorming approach and techniques, you may need one or more of these tools. However, regardless of how you brainstorm, you’ll need a place to store all new ideas.
➡️ With Ideanote, you can not only collect ideas in real time but also take them through all the stages of their lifecycle.
When you brainstorm quickly, you prevent distractions from derailing the process. Fast and dynamic brainstorming ensures that the initial enthusiasm and energy around your goals remain high and that your team maintains focus and motivation to generate ideas.
Plus, fast-paced brainstorming encourages spontaneity and prevents overthinking, allowing for more creative and diverse ideas. In other words, don’t leave brainstorming on the to-do list of things you never get around to. Instead, get to it fast and build momentum.
Ask for help if necessary
When leading a brainstorming session, you may run into challenges like maintaining engagement and focus, handling conflicts, and staying on topic.
If you need help, consider hiring an external brainstorming session facilitator, such as an idea management consultant or agency.
Always follow up on ideas
If you want to foster an environment of continuous innovation, you need to make everyone feel that their voice matters. Unless your employees feel their ideas are heard and carefully evaluated, they won’t bother sharing them.
With an idea management tool like Ideanote, you can turn brainstorming and idea management into a collaborative process. This way, everyone can evaluate and improve each other’s ideas in a transparent way while idea contributors can see what happens to their ideas.
FAQs about Brainstorming
What is asynchronous brainstorming?
When coordinating with remote teams, it is often difficult to find a time that not only works for everyone but creates the most efficient meeting. Asynchronous brainstorming is an excellent way to work around this problem and provide maximum benefits for all participants. With asynchronous brainstorming, conversations do not conclude at the end of live meetings - instead, a goal driven idea collection is opened which allows anyone to answer questions and iterate on the ideas given by others while everyone can keep on working focused in their own time.
Unlike the common brainstorming meeting, this process is asynchronous. You can explore your creativity without worrying about deadlines or deadlines for ideas.
How to evaluate the effect of brainstorming?
The effectiveness of brainstorming is difficult to determine because the process of generating ideas is not linear. There are many factors involved, such as the number of people in the group, how they are assigned to groups, and the quality of their ideas.
If you want to be sure that your brainstorming session was effective, you can measure it by how many new ideas each person has contributed or if any of the inputs ended up being used in a real-world project. The impact of working with brainstorms and other techniques might also be seen in employee engagement and happiness.
What is the role of the facilitator in brainstorming?
Don't hesitate to assign a group leader to give all idea contributors motivation and make sure everyone is having fun. When someone suggests something, they encourage him or her to speak up so others can share their thoughts.
Brainstorming, which requires a free-flowing, creative process for ideas, has its own rules that should be followed to achieve success. The most important of these rules is that people must avoid evaluating ideas during the process: quality and focus come at a later time.
Where can brainstorming be used?
Brainstorming is an excellent tool to use in order to tackle any problem or issue. It can be utilized for anything ranging from marketing, to product development, to even just problem-solving for everyday problems.
Brainstorming should always be used when you cannot find a solution on your own but it can also be used to build consensus and help with decision making even when you have a set path already.
When does brainstorming fail?
Without clear goals and some guidance by the host brainstorming can devolve into chaos, groupthink or a conversation dominated by the few. Setting clear goals for your brainstorm session helps make sure that the creative output is genuine and complements a larger goal, even if it does not serve as input to the larger project.
For big company decisions, or policies that might disadvantage one group in favor of another, a quick brainstorm session can lead to a bad outcome.
Brainstorming is best for those lingering, medium-sized problems that have already hung around longer than they should.
Ready to Unleash Your Creative Power?
Having explored the power of brainstorming in innovation, it's time to put theory into practice with Ideanote: