5 brainstorming strategies for any group

In the 1940s – shortly after Slinky made its retail debut – advertising guru Alex Osborn invented collaborative brainstorming to determine what on Earth you’re supposed to do with that springy, metal coil. His findings were inconclusive1, but his brainstorming strategies revolutionized boardroom and classroom culture, and continue to shape discussions today.

  • No criticizing
  • No self-censorship
  • Build on others’ ideas
  • Quantity before quality

Before Osborn, “brainstorming” meant yelling “WHY!?” into a thunderstorm, traditionally from atop a cliff or tall building, while shaking both fists in the air. After Osborn, brainstorming became a safer, more productive method of generating ideas, one which researchers continue improving upon today. Here are their top findings.

1. All we know for sure is that it can go down stairs.

Five brainstorming strategies for your next session

1. Criticism is your friend

When colleagues wrap their minds around an opposing view, they suddenly see their own ideas in a new light.

Charlan Nemeth, who published a much-quoted study on the efficacy of Osborne’s four rules, found that groups who were encouraged to debate and question one another produced better ideas more frequently. She theorized this is because participants were forced to challenge their own assumptions, and open up to the perspectives of others. Breakthroughs happen when you expand your thinking.

2. Make suggestions, not rules

In 2008, Nemeth, together with Matthew Feinberg, revisited her research on Osborne’s four rules. They found that groups who were ordered to follow Osborne’s rules to the letter were remarkably less effective than groups that were given the same rules as soft suggestions. Guidelines and suggestions can help guide discourse, but don’t force your participants to adhere to a certain style at all times. In other words, don’t be a jerk.

3. Write down everything

Publish ideas in real time, on paper or on a screen. Feinberg writes, “These approaches allow one to generate ideas at any time without having to wait one’s turn in the discussion process.” Writing things out gives group members time and space to think independently, while the brainstorming session keeps moving.

4. Keep it short and sweet

Wordy explanations and anecdotes distract everyone, and detract from the point of the exercise. Nemeth’s colleague – Vicky Putnam – found that output increased substantially when the facilitator asked groups to stay away from storytelling. A brief, to-the-point idea leaves everyone’s imagination open to new possibilities.

5. Pause for Solitaire

All it takes is five minutes of silence for everyone to process their notes and form new conclusions.

Psychologists have proven time and again that individuals often outthink the group during brainstorming sessions. But some problems – such as multi-disciplinary questions faced by scientists and business analysts – require a group solution. You make the most of your time, and your group, by doing nothing every now and again.

Osborn’s lessons, expedited with live polling

Your brainstorming time and venue are set. Participants are invited. The agenda is prepared. Now it’s time to sit down and work out your presentation. How do these brainstorming strategies translate into polling design?

Let’s find out.

Ask brief, manageable questions Don’t try to tackle the entire issue at once. If you need your group to focus on ways to cut costs for a new project, use Q&A polls to tackle the problem one step at a time: How can we save on materials? How can we save on labor? How can we save on transportation? Research has found this to be a more efficient solution.

brainstorming strategies

Enable anonymity This is the perfect tool to prevent one of Osborn’s classic brainstorming no-no’s: self-censorship. Check the “Make responses anonymous” box when creating any poll to encourage participants to take risks, reduce anxiety, and draw reluctant group members out of their shells.

brainstorming strategies

Be smart with the stopwatch Give everyone a chance to work those brains in peace and quiet. Schedule a time to stop receiving responses, so that your group has a chance to mull the responses on the screen, and come to individual conclusions. Then start things up again, and let the new ideas into the fray.

brainstorming strategies

Get more from your reports Often the best breakthroughs happen once everything has had a few days to settle. Reporting offers exactness, rather than vague impressions of others’ input. Create a report of the most salient points from your session, and give your participants something to take home and work on privately, or in smaller group sessions.

brainstorming strategies

The creative power of an engaged group is astounding – but too often our need to steer the conversation ends up stifling it. When you combine the latest brainstorming strategies with the most innovative tools available, you can direct your group’s creative powers to greater heights than ever before.

Give it a try the next time you have to solve a challenging problem – and reach out if you think Poll Everywhere can help. We have some experience engaging large groups in real time.

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