Better Brainstorming


—Bite-sized advice for better business writing—

Better Brainstorming

“I sometimes compare my brainstorming on paper to the drilling of oil wells. The only way to strike oil is to drill a lot of wells.”

— Tom Monaghan

We’ve all been in brainstorming sessions that don’t work: A few people dominate, or everybody clams up. Ideas get criticized until they dwindle to nothing.

When brainstorming isn’t fun, it’s not working.

What makes brainstorming work?

Use these tips to get your group off to the right start.

1. Choose a space.

People need to be comfortable and able to see and hear each other. A circular arrangement of seats can help. Participants also need to be able to see a common screen or board where their ideas will be listed.

2. Invite well.

Having a diverse group means having diverse ideas. If everyone brainstorming is an engineer, you’ll get engineering solutions. If everyone is in sales, you’ll get sales solutions. Having multiple backgrounds provides a wider range of options.

3. Start with a question.

It can be broad, like “How can we increase sales in the summer months?” Or it can be focused, like, “What changes do we need to make to our middle school handbook?”

4. Let participants prepare.

Give five minutes for everyone to write down as many ideas as they can. Without this time, extroverts and quick thinkers will dominate the discussion, drowning out other voices.

5. Welcome all answers.

Do not stop to judge. The purpose of brainstorming is to rapidly spin out ideas. It is a process driven by creative thinking, which produces a surplus of possibilities. Keep them flowing—the good, the bad, and the ugly. You’ll have time later to sort through possibilities.

6. Record answers.

Make a list or a cluster in a place where everyone can see the ongoing thought process. For example, here is a cluster of a brainstorming session about ways to reduce expenses in a department.

7. Take it further.

After you have gathered a healthy set of options, ask the group to choose one idea to explore further. Ask the 5 W’s and H about it—who? what? where? when? why? and how? Then do the same with another option. This allows the group to think more deeply about its ideas.

How can I take it even further?

Try one or more of these special brainstorming techniques:

Round-Robin Brainstorming

Go around the room and have each participant offer one idea. Participants are not allowed to take a pass or say that their idea was taken. Also, no one can provide a second idea until everyone has offered an initial one.


Each person writes down three ideas on a piece of paper and then passes the paper to the left (or right). The next person reads the three ideas and elaborates on them, adding more ideas. Again the papers get passed, and the ideas grow. In the end, the group gathers the best ideas from the various pages.

What Would ________ Do?

Choose a well-known person, real or fictional, and brainstorm how that person would answer the question or solve the problem. Work through as many possibilities as you can, and then choose another person to fill in the blank.

Gap Analysis

Start by identifying your current situation (“We have one weak sales season”) and then identify where you want to end up (“We want all sales seasons to be strong”). Afterward, challenge group members to fill the gap between the two. What has to occur to get you to your goal?

SWOT Analysis

When considering any of the ideas that you generate, you can analyze its Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Brainstorming responses in each of those categories can help you dig deeper into the idea.

5 Why’s

This technique simply refers to asking the question “Why?” many times over. Answering it differently each time helps you examine the causes of a situation.


This acronym suggests ways to modify or improve something.

  • Substitute (What other materials or resources could we use?)
  • Combine (How can we make this work with that?)
  • Adapt (How might this work in a different context?)
  • Modify (What changes would make this better?)
  • Put to Another Use (What else can we do with this?)
  • Eliminate (What part of this can we get rid of?)
  • Reverse (How could we get this to do the opposite?)

What about remote teams?

A team with members that work from a distance can still brainstorm over the Internet. Team members can meet virtually through video conferencing or through messaging. They can create a Google doc that all team members can contribute to, providing their ideas in real time or at their own pace. Even a chat room can host a brainstorming session.

Are we having fun yet?

Remember that if brainstorming isn’t fun, it isn’t working. That’s because creative thinking is energized by fun and play.

So make your brainstorming sessions gamelike. Divide the room into teams and challenge each to come up with the most ideas in five minutes. Or ask the whole group to think of the most outlandish way to solve a problem. Getting people smiling and laughing will also get them talking and thinking.

And sometimes the most ridiculous ideas lead to the best solutions. As Albert Einstein once said, “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”


Get More Support

Check out the Write for Business Guide, Courses, and eTips for more support with brainstorming and creative thinking.