The Best Brainstorming Techniques for Making the Most of Your Brainstorms
Hey friends! Many of you have heard of the methodology of design-thinking that creatives all around the world use today. This way of creating was made popular by the famous design firm, IDEO. One of the main components of design thinking is the process of coming up with ways to solve a problem, or brainstorming. I’ve gathered some of the best brainstorming techniques here for you to read up, enjoy, and use for yourselves!
Brainstorming in theory sounds like a ton of fun – and it usually is! The hard part of a brainstorm is often keeping everyone engaged, focused on the task at hand and actually producing good ideas. It can be especially difficult when you have individuals outside of creative fields who are participating on the brainstorm. When I first became a UX designer, I didn’t know this… and sometimes by ‘brainstorms’ just turned into ‘storms’!
Before we dive in, let’s chat about brainstorms themselves for a moment. Why is brainstorming important? My favorite part about brainstorms is that you get to utilize not just one brain but several brains! You get to bring in different perspectives, experiences and viewpoints into the mix which then creates more diverse solutions – which is great because you have a better chance of getting to the best solution! Brainstorming is also extremely beneficial because it is a conversation that individuals can build off of. Often when one person gets an idea, it sparks an idea in another person which then causes another new idea to form. Basically, the group can feed off of this and synthesize new ideas that no one would have thought of by themselves.
Ok now let’s get to the good stuff! Since I know y’all are brilliant and do your research before diving into things, I’ve rounded up some techniques to keep in mind when putting together a group brainstorm.
Limit Group Size
Most brainstorms benefit from having a handful of people participate and contribute ideas. I recommend keeping group sizes between 2 and 8 people. This range is generally the sweet spot and when you want to keep everyone on the same page and are hoping to facilitate discussions with the group later on. If you must, you can host brainstorms with groups of 10 people or more, but in those cases, it’s important to keep the activities extremely structured and contained. It’s generally harder to keep the group on the same page and ensure quality ideas with larger groups like this.
Set Expectations Beforehand
When you invite team members to brainstorms, it’s always useful to let them know beforehand what they should expect. Let them know you need their undivided attention for a period of time and encourage them to leave their laptops (and even phone) behind so that they can fully focus on the brainstorm. It’s sometimes helpful to send out a brief overview of the topic you’ll be covering so that the brainstorm team can generally understand the topic before they join the brainstorm itself.
Set the Scene
Make sure you have the right space for a brainstorm. Make sure there isn’t anything distracting going on in the space during your brainstorm activities. Ensure that you have large wall space to put sticky notes on or tape papers to. Bonus points if you have a whiteboard and dry erase markers! Basically, you want a large surface that you’ll be able to stick things on and write on.
I also recommend you gather your supplies and set them out in the room. I generally like to have several pads of sticky notes or post-its along with thick markers (Sharpies, FTW!). The reason sticky notes are so useful is because they can be positioned and then re-positioned on a wall. This becomes extremely helpful during certain brainstorm activities. I prefer thick markers for my brainstorm exercises because I don’t want the team to write an essay on their sticky notes. With a thick stroke you’re forced to be concise, capture the idea in just a few words and then move on to the next idea.
Lay Down the Law
Once the group arrives, have them sit down in an space where everyone can see the whiteboard. Have everyone positioned so that they can easily walk up to the whiteboard and hear each other clearly when talking. You may also want to set up a few ground rules with the group before starting:
- Tell the team there should be only one conversation going on a time. You don’t want to have side conversations and let good ideas slip through the cracks!
- Wild ideas are good ideas! Encourage your team to be bold and write down the craziest things that pop into their heads. Sometimes the strangest ideas turn out to be the best ones.
- Quantity matters here. More ideas is always better in a brainstorm, so make sure the group knows not to get caught up in the nitty gritty and to just communicate the basic idea on a sticky note – they can always elaborate later!
- There is no bad idea. Do NOT shoot down anyone’s idea, no matter how weird it seems. The brainstorming space is a sacred space. You want to make sure everyone is nurturing one another’s creativity and being open-minded to the brilliant epiphanies to come. You may need to shepherd the group to stay on track, but belittling anyone’s idea will cause a brainstorm to go sour quickly.
Plan Activities Ahead
I always recommend that brainstorm facilitators should prepare appropriate activities ahead of time in order to make the most of the time the brainstorm team has set aside. This means doing the research in advance, gathering materials and learning the exercise. There are hundreds of techniques out there, so it’s important to find the right one for your team and for the task at hand.
Here are a handful of my go-to brainstorming techniques:
Thirty Circles Exercise
This exercise is pulled from a book called Creative Confidence (I’ve linked the book below!) and it’s a great way to get the brain juices flowing before you begin your actual brainstorm. All you need is blank paper and pens (or pre-printed paper). The object of the exercise is to spend 5-7 minutes making as many recognizable objects out of a circle as you can. This exercise is great because it illustrates the importance of having many ideas and helps your mind practice ideation.
Borrowed from Google Ventures’ book, Sprint, this exercise, each member takes a sheet of printer paper, folds it in half 3 times to get 8 rectangles. They then have 5 minutes to sketch out ideas for a specific feature or flow in a product. After they’re done, they share with the team. This brainstorming technique is great for teams that are developing mobile applications because of the size and form factor of the brainstorm output. It also helps the individuals think quickly and be nimble with their ideas.
Finally, my go to method of brainstorming is using affinity clustering (I picked this up in the Luma Institute book I’ve mentioned below). What I do here is write a guiding question for the team on the whiteboard as a starting point for the process. For example, in one of my recent brainstorms at Favor, I wrote, “How might we encourage customers to share Favor with other potential customers?” This allows the group get into the frame of mind for the exercise. Next, the team gets about 8-10 minutes to write down their ideas on sticky notes individually. When the time is up, each person comes up to the board and puts their ideas up. As more people place their ideas on the board, the team starts to cluster them if they are similar or related. This allows patterns to emerge which the team can then analyze.
Like I said earlier, there are so many ways to brainstorm, so this is in no way a complete list. Two of my favorite books to get brainstorm ideas from are Innovating for People Handbook of Human-Centered Design Methods by the Luma Institute and Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All by David Kelley and Tom Kelley, the founders of IDEO. If you haven’t already read them, I highly recommend it!
Remember, brainstorming isn’t a sacred technique only reserved for designers. Anyone can facilitate the brainstorm if they have the right tools and techniques in place. In fact, every team can brainstorm from a brainstorm or two!
What’s your favorite brainstorming exercise? Comment below and let me know!