Follow Us

Your Personal and Professional Development: Plans, Tips and Lists

Powered by Bookboon, your personal eLibrary with 1,700+ eBooks on soft skills and personal development

The pleasures and perils of brainstorming

Posted in Articles

Creativity at Work
This is a guest post by Alan Barker.

We’re paid to think.  We think when we want results that are better than they would be if we didn’t think.

So: let’s think about thinking.

We can imagine two types of thinking: having ideas, and making use of them.  Most of our thinking – at work, at home, in social situations – is a messy mixture of the two.  Our first response to an idea is often to judge it: to evaluate or criticise it.  But ideas are born drowning, and new ideas rarely survive harsh criticism.

If we want to have new ideas, we need to protect them from judgemental thinking.  And that’s what brainstorming is designed to do.

Brainstorming was invented in the late 1930s by Alex Osborn, an American advertising executive.  He saw how ideas suffered in business meetings and set out to find a method of releasing people’s creativity.


[bookboon-book id=”da5849eb-651b-4363-b019-a23c0097d899″ title=”This article was written by the author of this eBook”]

The four rules of brainstorming

Osborn established four famous rules of brainstorming.

1. Criticism is ruled out. 

Ideas are to be judged later, not during the session.

2. ‘Freewheeling’ is welcome.

The wilder the idea, the better.  It’s easier to tame down than to think up.

3. We want more!

The more ideas, the more the likelihood of a good new one.

4.Combine and improve.

As well as contributing ideas, team members should suggest ways of improving, combining, or varying others’ ideas.


Why most brainstorming isn’t

Brainstorming hasn’t always has a good press.  The assumption that brainstorming is ‘free-form’, ‘blue-sky’ thinking with no discipline or structure has done more harm than good.

Alex Osborn’s four rules are as useful now as when he invented them.  To brainstorm properly, all we need to do is apply them.


Applying the four rules

1. Be on the lookout for any judgemental comments, or talking about ideas. Gently guide people back to generating new ideas.

2. Encourage people to make their ideas wilder, less realistic, more fantastical.

3. Ask for more ideas, rather than better ones.

4. Take some of the ideas suggested and combine them, or turn them upside down, to create new ideas.

Developing your brainstorming skills

As well as following the basic rules, we can develop our brainstorming sessions in various ways to make them more productive and enjoyable.


Setting Targets

The discipline of ‘scoring’ can produce more ideas and help crazier ideas to surface.  A target of between 50 and 100 ideas in 10 minutes is not unreasonable for a competent team of about 7 people.


Varying the Structure

Change the way the session runs by:

  • briefing the team with the problem a day beforehand, to allow for private musing and ‘sleeping on the problem’;
  • beginning the session with a warm-up exercise, unrelated to the task in hand; or
  • taking breaks between techniques, to allow people’s minds to relax and discover new ideas.


Separating individual and group brainstorming

Ask people to generate ideas individually to begin the process.  Gather them anonymously, to encourage the wilder ideas to surface and counter any politics or inhibitions in the team.  Then use group brainstorming to group the ideas, build on them, combine them, vary them, develop them and transform them. 


Yes, we can call it ‘brainstorming’

Every so often, the story resurfaces that the word ‘brainstorming’ is politically incorrect, mainly because it may offend people with epilepsy.

Local authorities, government departments and other organizations are sometimes quoted as banning the word ‘brainstorming’ in favour of other terms.  The phrase ‘thought showers’ is often mentioned.

According to a survey carried out by the National Society for Epilepsy in 2005, 93 per cent of people with epilepsy don’t find the term derogatory or offensive in any way.  Indeed, many felt that this sort of political correctness singled out people with epilepsy as being easily offended.

So, brainstorming it remains.


If you want to learn how to find more about brainstorming and how to do it properly, take a look at my eBook, Creativity at Work.

About the author: Alan Barker is Managing Director of Kairos Training Limited, a training and coaching consultancy that helps people communicate and think more effectively.  Alan is a member of the UK Speechwriters’ Guild and the European Speechwriter Network.  He’s the author of Creativity at Work and How to Write an Essay.

[bookboon-recommendations id=”da5849eb-651b-4363-b019-a23c0097d899″ title=”You might also find these books interesting…”]