Brainstorming is a group creativity technique designed to generate a large number of ideas for the solution of a problem. The method was first developed by Alex Faickney Osborn in 1953 in his book Applied Imagination. Here he claimed that groups could double their creative output with brainstorming, although this assertion has been frequently disputed, since researchers have not found strong evidence of its effectiveness for enhancing either quantity or quality of ideas generated. Putting these controversies to one side, let’s now turn to how brainstorming actually works.

The Ground Rules

There are four basic rules in brainstorming, which are intended to reduce social inhibitions among group members, stimulate idea generation, and increase overall creativity of the group.

  • Focus on quantity: Generate as many ideas as possible. The assumption is that the greater the number of ideas generated, the greater the chance of producing a radical and effective solution.
  • Withhold criticism: In brainstorming, criticism of ideas generated should be put 'on hold'. This is because, by suspending judgement, participants will feel free to generate unusual ideas.
  • Welcome unusual ideas: To get a good and long list of ideas, unusual ideas are welcomed. These new ways of thinking may provide better solutions.
  • Combine and improve ideas: Good ideas may be combined to form a single better good idea, as suggested by the slogan "1+1=3"

The Method

  • Define the problem: the problem must be clear, not too big, and captured in a specific question. If the problem is too big, the facilitator should break it into smaller components, each with its own question.
  • Select the participants: the facilitator composes the brainstorming panel, consisting of the participants and an ideas collector. A group of ten or fewer members is generally more productive.
  • Session conduct: the facilitator leads the brainstorming session and ensures that ground rules are followed.

The steps in a typical session are:

  • The facilitator presents the problem and gives a further explanation if needed.
  • The facilitator asks the brainstorming group for their ideas.
  • If no ideas are forthcoming, the facilitator suggests a lead to encourage creativity.
  • All participants present their ideas, and the ideas collector records them.
  • When time is up, the facilitator organizes the ideas and encourages discussion
  • The whole list is reviewed to ensure that everyone understands the ideas.
  • Duplicate ideas and obviously infeasible solutions are removed.
  • The ideas are evaluated by the group and they select the most feasible one for future action

This is how employees at Google in New York brainstorm. I thought this would be useful as it clearly illustrates the methods they use to solve problems and also shows how effective it can be.

Practical Advice:

Stroebe et al (2010) concluded their study with some 4 pieces of practical advice that should be remembered when brainstorming:

  1. Avoid large (verbally) interactive groups. They may appear effective, but are not. Any advice on Web sites or in other places suggesting an optimal group size of more than three is likely to be wrong (and distrust any other advice they might give). Keep these groups as small as possible (e.g , use dyads), and break up larger groups into smaller ones. When larger groups are used, use ways of interacting that do not require turntaking among group members. If you have a computer system that allows for idea sharing (EBS), that is fine. However, do not buy such a system: exchanging slips of paper (brainwriting) is just as effective and alot less expensive.
  2. Having access to ideas of others in general seems to be helpful. Thus, provide access to ideas of others (e.g., in the form of written notes) and make sure that people actually pay attention to others’ ideas. The potential for cognitive stimulation is likely to be greater in groups that consist of members with different areas of expertise, because they are likely to come up with different perspectives on a problem, leading to the generation of ideas in more categories. Sequential interactions between people from different backgrounds in dyadic conversations may also be very helpful.
  3. Break up larger problems into smaller ones. There are usually several approaches (e.g., categories of ideas) one can take to a problem, and idea quantity increases if all of the approaches are considered separately and sequentially. Furthermore, generating more ideas within each category is likely to lead to better ideas within that category.
  4. People tend to select conventional ideas (ideas that are feasible but not original) out of the pool of ideas generated during a brainstorming session. Therefore, in a first selection round, select only for originality. Include other quality dimensions only later, because otherwise you will end up with the same old boring ideas, which would imply that the brainstorming session was a complete waste of time.


  1. When we did the brainstorming exercise in class, did it work? How do you know that it was effective?
  2. Can you think of other methods that might produce similar creative results from a group? We explored Open Space Technology which in many ways is similar to brainstorming, but are there other similar techniques?
  3. What features of group might stop brainstorming from being effective?


STROEBE, W, NIJSTAD, B.A, AND RIETZSCHEL, E.F. 2010. Beyond productivity loss in brainstorming groups: the evolution of a question. Advances in Experimental and sociological psychology. M.P. ZANNA AND J.M OLSEN eds. San Diego: Elsevier. 157-203.