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Brainstorming – always a good idea

The creative technique brainstorming is turning 80 years old. Can a relatively old method lead to new ideas? Yes, if all the right rules are followed.

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Have you just come from another brainstorming session that did not produce any results? That is most likely not down to the subject, but rather the way you use this creative technique. Here, you can find rules for the method and tips on how to implement them. If everybody sticks to them, any team can produce great ideas.

Some tasks and problems cannot be resolved in just a few minutes, and especially not by one person alone. So management invites everyone for a brainstorming session. In most cases, everyone comes together, sits down in a room, looks on expectantly – and nothing happens.

If someone does make a suggestion, it soon vanishes into thin air: ‘We tried that already. We’ll never get that implemented. Do you think that’s creative? We don’t have the resources to make that happen.’ In the end, the team leaves empty-handed. Even worse, all the participants are disappointed. Time wasted, no creativity shown, no results produced.

Sound familiar? Then the next paragraphs might be just what you need. You can find rules, tips and guidelines on how to get the most out of your brainstorming sessions, and find out which mistakes you should definitely avoid.

When does brainstorming make sense?

The best time to use this method for idea generation is when you have a task for which everyone initially thinks: ‘I can’t think of anything.’ Use brainstorming methods for challenges that the participants don’t come up against every day.

For example: a company is lagging behind its sales and profit targets and wants to know which new target groups it can target for its product.

How successful brainstorming works

Moderator: Every brainstorming session needs a moderator. Their job is to motivate, stimulate, focus and structure. It is important that this is a neutral position. Promoting ideas out of personal interest damages the process and the result. Therefore, ideally this role should not be taken on by the boss.

These tasks are part of moderation:

  • Preparing the brainstorming session – everyone must be aware of the question and the aim
  • Establishing the agenda: communicate the process, duration and start time
  • Writing out the rules and bringing them to the brainstorming session
  • Ensuring the rules are adhered to; clearly separating idea generation and idea evaluation
  • Providing analysis, moderating and structuring idea evaluation
  • Documenting results and distributing them to everyone

Duration: Limit the time for brainstorming. And communicate the timeframe in advance. Participants will then work in a more focused way. Anything from five to 30 minutes is sensible. If things are going well, you can add on a few minutes. You should take another half hour to evaluate the ideas. A brainstorming session should not last longer than an hour in total.

The question matters

Formulate a clear, unambiguous question or task. Without this, you will not achieve a good result. No participant should lose sight of the question at any point during the meeting, so write it in large lettering on a flip chart.

Your brainstorming needs these four stages

Find ideas

Each participant has a sheet of paper and a pen to hand so they can write down their ideas if they can’t voice them because others are talking.

Record ideas

All the ideas are noted down on cards and hung up by the moderator.

Evaluate ideas

Everything unimplementable is immediately discarded. This leaves a list that only contains promising ideas.

Develop ideas

Even the greatest idea is no use if no one follows up on it. During evaluation, identify together which ideas you will develop further. Assign responsibility and establish in writing what steps are now necessary to implement the ideas and find a solution.

Four basic rules for traditional brainstorming

This is perhaps the most important aspect of this creative technique: brainstorming sessions require clear rules and always the same workflow. You make it easier for all participants to generate new ideas if you make these rules visible at the start of the meeting on a flip chart or whiteboard.

  • Criticism is forbidden

Do not judge the ideas, regardless of how absurd they seem. Always give everyone in the group a chance to say their piece. And avoid sentences like ‘That doesn’t work.’ They inhibit creativity.

  • Quantity before quality

Encourage everyone in the team not to hold back in the idea generation. Everyone wants to shine, but it is not yet time for evaluation. Get it all out. Because having a lot helps a lot.

  • There is no such thing as ‘my idea’

Stealing ideas is expressly desired. There is also no such thing as ‘I said that first.’ Ideas are picked up and taken further. Not everyone finds this easy, but it is necessary to get a good result.

  • Always say what you’re thinking – whatever it may be

Brainstorming sessions are meetings that have to differ from ‘normal’ meetings. So if everything seems muddled, it’s going to plan. A comment that seems completely absurd at first glance might help another participant in the group come up with the idea.


Five mistakes to avoid
  1. Don’t use brainstorming to involve the team if the decision was made long before.
  2. Don’t start if you haven’t written out a specific question. Every brainstorming session needs a clear structure.
  3. Don’t stop the idea generation process too early. Endure silence. And then ask for as many other ideas as possible.
  4. As moderator, keep hold of the reins. If no one sticks to the rules, you will never achieve clear results.
  5. Don’t put silent creatives under pressure. Being addressed directly won’t motivate anyone who is yet to speak.

What if brainstorming doesn’t help?

The question is formulated in a comprehensible way, the participants are motivated – but you’re not even getting close to a result.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you have made mistakes in the preparation, implementation or evaluation of your brainstorming. There can be other reasons.

  • The company is so hierarchical that no one is willing to potentially embarrass themselves in front of the boss with a supposedly stupid idea.
  • Introverted participants don’t dare speak.
  • And if someone has to wait to present their idea because someone else is talking, they will eventually give up.

But that doesn’t mean that you should completely discard this technique in order to find creative solutions. Just use a related method.


In brainwriting, ideas are not presented to the group orally. Everyone lets their creativity run free and writes down what they come up with. The idea evaluation can then take place anonymously: ideas on the wall are prioritised with coloured sticky dots. This helps introverted participants who are not keen to speak publicly. Hierarchies lose their significance. No one is intimidated. And no one can be influenced in their thinking by group opinion. Everyone is part of the brainwriting pool.

The 6-5-3 method

This form of group work is even clearer: six participants develop three suggested solutions each in five minutes. Everyone is given a sheet with a table comprising three columns and six lines. In the three top columns, each participant notes their three ideas. They have five minutes to do so. Then the sheets are passed on to the next participant. They take the ideas that have been written down and develop them: in this way, everyone works together on the solution.


In this creative technique, too, the ideas are written out individually and collected – this time on Post-it notes. Then everyone sticks their sheets to the wall. After that, everyone sorts all the suggestions together. Each participant can get involved. A moderator is not needed. Carrying out the idea generation process over several days with different small groups can help find solutions.

Brainstorming and mind-mapping

Often mistaken for each other, there are major differences between the creative technique (brainstorming) and the visual depiction of ideas and thoughts (mind-mapping). Mind-mapping is a fast and effective way to present ideas in mind maps. It requires a large sheet of paper (A3) and coloured pens. The advantage over linear text is that the depiction suits the brain. Mind-mapping often builds on the results of brainstorming. The end result, the mind map, presents a graphical depiction of the thoughts and their connections.

Good luck

Whichever method you decide on to achieve your aim: decide together with the team before you start how many ideas should be generated. That provides motivation and avoids disappointments with this successful creative technique.

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