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Brainstorming is a group creativity technique designed to generate a large number of ideas for the solution to a problem. The method was first popularized in the late 1930s by Alex Faickney Osborn, an advertising executive in a book called Applied Imagination. Osborn proposed that groups could double their creative output by using the method of brainstorming.[1]

Although brainstorming has become a popular group technique, researchers have generally failed to find evidence of its effectiveness for enhancing either quantity or quality of ideas generated. Because of such problems as distraction, social loafing, evaluation apprehension, and production blocking, brainstorming groups are little more effective than other types of groups, and they are actually less effective than individuals working independently.[2][3][4] For this reason, there have been numerous attempts to improve brainstorming or replace it with more effective variations of the basic technique.

Although traditional brainstorming may not increase the productivity of groups, it has other potential benefits, such as enhancing the enjoyment of group work and improving morale. It may also serve as a useful exercise for team building.


There are four basic rules in brainstorming.[5] These are intended to reduce the social inhibitions that occur in groups and therefore stimulate the generation of new ideas. The expected result is a dynamic synergy that will dramatically increase the creativity of the group.

  1. Focus on quantity: This rule is a means of enhancing divergent production, aiming to facilitate problem solving through the maxim, quantity breeds quality. The assumption is that the greater the number of ideas generated, the greater the chance of producing a radical and effective solution.
  2. No criticism: It is often emphasized that in group brainstorming, criticism should be put 'on hold'. Instead of immediately stating what might be wrong with an idea, the participants focus on extending or adding to it, reserving criticism for a later 'critical stage' of the process. By suspending judgment, one creates a supportive atmosphere where participants feel free to generate unusual ideas.
  3. Unusual ideas are welcome: To get a good and long list of ideas, unusual ideas are welcomed. They may open new ways of thinking and provide better solutions than regular ideas. They can be generated by looking from another perspective or setting aside assumptions.
  4. Combine and improve ideas: Good ideas can be combined to form a single very good idea, as suggested by the slogan "1+1=3". This approach is assumed to lead to better and more complete ideas than merely generating new ideas alone. It is believed to stimulate the building of ideas by a process of association.
File:Activity preperation.svg

Diagram of a brainstorming session

Outline of the method

Set the problem

One of the most important things to do before a session is to define the problem. The problem must be clear, not too big, and captured in a definite question such as “What service for mobile phones is not available now, but needed?“. If the problem is too big, the chairman should divide it into smaller components, each with its own question. Some problems are multi-dimensional and non-quantified, for example “What are the aspects involved in being a successful entrepreneur”. Finding solutions for this kind of problem can be done with morphological analysis.

Create a background memo

The background memo is the invitation and informational letter for the participants, containing the session name, problem, time, date, and place. The problem is described in the form of a question, and some example ideas are given. The ideas are solutions to the problem, and used when the session slows down or goes off-track. The memo is sent to the participants at least two days in advance, so that they can think about the problem beforehand.

Select participants

The chairman composes the brainstorming panel, consisting of the participants and an idea collector. Ten or fewer group members are generally more productive than larger groups. Many variations are possible but the following composition is suggested.

  • Several core members of the project who have proved themselves.
  • Several guests from outside the project, with affinity to the problem.
  • One idea collector who records the suggested ideas.

Create a list of lead questions

During the brainstorm session the creativity may decrease. At this moment, the chairman should stimulate creativity by suggesting a lead question to answer, such as Can we combine these ideas? or How about a look from another perspective?. It is advised to prepare a list of such leads before the session begins.

Session conduct

The chairman leads the brainstorming session and ensures that the basic rules are followed. The activities of a typical session are:

  1. A warm-up session, to expose novice participants to the criticism-free environment. A simple problem is brainstormed, for example What should be the next corporate Christmas present? or What can be improved in Microsoft Windows?.
  2. The chairman presents the problem and gives a further explanation if needed.
  3. The chairman asks the brainstorming panel for their ideas.
  4. If no ideas are coming out, the chairman suggests a lead to encourage creativity.
  5. Every participant presents his or her idea, and the idea collector records them.
  6. If more than one participant has ideas, the chairman lets the most associated idea be presented first. This selection can be done by looking at the body language of the participants, or just by asking for the most associated idea.
  7. The participants try to elaborate on the idea, to improve the quality.
  8. When time is up, the chairman organizes the ideas based on the topic goal and encourages discussion. Additional ideas may be generated.
  9. Ideas are categorized.
  10. The whole list is reviewed to ensure that everyone understands the ideas. Duplicate ideas and obviously infeasible solutions are removed.
  11. The chairman thanks all participants and gives each a token of appreciation.
File:Activity conducting.svg

Process of conducting a brainstorming session

The process

  • Participants who have an idea but no possibility to present it are encouraged to write down their idea and present it later.
  • The idea collector should number the ideas, so that the chairperson can use the number to encourage quantitative idea generation, for example: We have 44 ideas now, let’s get it to 50!.
  • The idea collector should repeat the idea in the words he or she has written it, to confirm that it expresses the meaning intended by the originator.
  • When more participants are having ideas, the one with the most associated idea should have priority. This to encourage elaboration on previous ideas.
  • During the brainstorming session the attendance of managers and superiors is strongly discouraged, as it may inhibit and reduce the effect of the four basic rules, especially the generation of unusual ideas.


Nominal group technique

The nominal group technique is a type of brainstorming that encourages all participants to have an equal say in the process. It is also used to generate a ranked list of ideas.

Participants are asked to write down their ideas anonymously. Then the moderator collects the ideas and each is voted on by the group. The vote can be as simple as a show of hands in favor of a given idea. This process is called distillation.

After distillation, the top ranked ideas may be sent back to the group or to subgroups for further brainstorming. For example, one group may work on the color required in a product. Another group may work on the size, and so forth. Each group will come back to the whole group for ranking the listed ideas. Sometimes ideas that were previously dropped may be brought forward again once the group has re-evaluated the ideas.

It is important for the moderator to have received training in this process before attempting to take on the moderating task. The group should be primed and encouraged to embrace the process. Like all team efforts, it may take a few practice sessions to train the team in the method before tackling the important ideas.

-- This technique is also used by therapist working with e.g. traumatized people. Maybe talking is not yet possible, but writing something is... even a simple line. The papers are put in the middle and redistributed at random. One can then write a comment or thought to what is already on the paper. e.g. :"My sister got shot in by a sniper in Sarajevo" Reply: "I can imagine that must be terrible. I lost my mother in a car accident and I survived." This can create a basis for reaching out, breaking out of isolation, find comprehension, feeling that other do understand, ... maybe even have solutions. e.g: "Yes, I suffered from the same so I put myself on sick-relief and went back to a place where I was happy as a child and lived there for 1 yr, doing stuff I liked to do when i was a kid... horsbackriding, ... until I was better and could feel the sun was also shining for me."

Group passing technique

Each person in a circular group writes down one idea, and then passes the piece of paper to the next person in a clockwise direction, who adds some thoughts. This is repeated until everybody gets their original piece of paper back. By this time, it is likely that the group will have extensively elaborated on each idea.

A popular alternative to this technique is to create an "Idea Book" and post a distribution list or routing slip to the front of the book. On the inside cover (or first page) is a description of the problem. The first person to receive the book lists his or her ideas and then routes the book to the next person on the distribution list. The second person can log new ideas or add to the ideas of the previous person. This continues until the distribution list is exhausted. follow-up "read out" meeting is then held to discuss the ideas logged in the book. This technique takes longer, but allows individual thought whenever the person has time to think deeply about the problem.

Team idea mapping method

This method of brainstorming works by the method of association. It may improve collaboration and increase the quantity of ideas, and is designed so that all attendees participate and no ideas are rejected.

The process begins with a well-defined topic. Each participant creates an individual brainstorm around the topic. All the ideas are then merged into one large idea map. During this consolidation phase, the participants may discover a common understanding of the issues as they share the meanings behind their ideas. As the sharing takes place, new ideas may arise by the association. Those ideas are added to the map as well. Then ideas are generated on both individual and group levels. Once all the ideas are captured, the group can prioritize and/or take action.

Electronic brainstorming

Electronic brainstorming is a computerized version of the manual brainwriting technique. It can be done via email. The chairman or facilitator sends the question out to group members, and they contribute independently by sending their ideas directly back to the facilitator. The facilitator then compiles a list of ideas and sends it back to the group for further feedback. Electronic brainstorming eliminates many of the problems of standard brainstorming, such as production blocking and evaluation apprehension. An additional advantage of this method is that all ideas can be archived electronically in their original form, and then retrieved later for further thought and discussion. Electronic brainstorming also enables much larger groups to brainstorm on a topic than would normally be productive in a traditional brainstorming session.

Other forms of electronic brainstorming could be browser based, client / server, or peer to peer related software.

Directed brainstorming

Directed brainstorming is a variation on electronic brainstorming (brainwriting) described above. It can be done manually or with computer technology. Directed brainstorming works when the solution space (that is, the criteria for evaluating a good idea) is known prior to the session. If known, that criteria can be used to intentionally constrain the ideation process. In directed brainstorming, each participant is given one sheet of paper (or electronic form) and told the brainstorming question. They are asked to produce one response and stop. At that point all of the papers (or forms) are randomly swapped among the participants. Each, then, has possession of someone else's form containing a single response. The participants are asked to look at the idea in front of them and create a new idea that is better than that idea on the first criterion dimension. For example, if the first criterion was "low cost" the participants might be asked to improve upon the idea in front of them by creating an idea that is lower in cost. The forms are then swapped again and respondents are asked to improve upon the ideas against the second criterion. The process is repeated for three or more rounds.

In the laboratory, directed brainstorming has been found to almost triple the productivity of groups over electronic brainstorming.[6]

Political correctness

It is an urban myth that the term "brainstorm" is offensive to those people with epilepsy.[7] A survey in 2005 by the UK charity National Society for Epilepsy found that 93 per cent of people with the condition do not find the word offensive.[8]


Brainstorming is a popular method of group interaction in both educational and business settings. Although it does not appear to provide a measurable advantage in creative output, brainstorming is an enjoyable exercise that is typically well received by participants. Newer variations of brainstorming seek to overcome barriers like production blocking and may well prove superior to the original technique. How well these newer methods work, and whether or not they should still be classified as brainstorming, are questions that require further research before they can be answered.


  • Molecular Thinking Website for brainstorming with friends and other Molecular Thinkers in an online community.
  • XMIND is a commercial cross-platform mind-mapping/brainstorming software.

See also


  1. Osborn, A.F. (1963) Applied imagination: Principles and procedures of creative problem solving (Third Revised Edition). New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  2. Nijstad, B. A., Stroebe, W., Lodewijkx, H. F. M. (2003). Production blocking and idea generation: Does blocking interfere with cognitive processes? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 39, 531-548.
  3. Diehl, M., & Stroebe, W. (1991). Productivity loss in idea-generating groups: tracking down the blocking effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 392-403.
  4. Mullen, B., Johnson, C., & Salas, E. (1991). Productivity loss in brainstorming groups: a meta-analytic integration. Basic and Applied Social Psychology. 12, 3-23.
  5. Osborn, A.F. (1963) Applied imagination: Principles and procedures of creative problem solving (Third Revised Edition). New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  6. Santanen, E., Briggs, R. O., & de Vreede, G-J. (2004). Causal Relationships in Creative Problem Solving: Comparing Facilitation Interventions for Ideation. Journal of Management Information Systems. 20(4), 167-198.
  7. 'Brainstorming' is politically correct
  8. Epilepsy NSE

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