Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a brainstorming session in awkward silence and with, well, quite an empty brain? This effect is known as a “brainstorming symptom”. Ok, this term we have just invented, but the effect is common.
The idea of brainstorming is simple yet genius: to avoid the fear of a blank page, we just start throwing random ideas to generate something new out of the boiling pot.
Why doesn’t such a simple concept always work? Because, just like all “random” processes, it requires some organization to succeed. Otherwise, the brainstorms turn into a stormless silence or in a monologue of that person who always has too many ideas. That’s where the seemingly obvious question comes up: how to brainstorm?
As a product design agency, we know how important brainstorming is for generating creative ideas. Over the years, we have done lots of sessions, many of them remotely. Here we are sharing our top brainstorming hacks.
Good practice of brainstorms is to listen to the ideas of each team member before starting the discussion. However, when brainstorming with big teams, the meeting can become too long. Also, many people don’t feel comfortable under the pressure of having to come up with an idea in a few minutes.
Using simple online tools can solve all these problems. What is more, online tools allow us to involve more members of remote teams who might not be able to attend live meetings.
Ask every team member to write their ideas in a shared document. Allow a couple of days for it, but not too many. You may lose some of those sudden “stormed” ideas, but team members would feel more comfortable having some time to think without pressure.
To have true independence of thoughts, use forms instead of shared documents. That way no one will see each others’ answers and each entry will be anonymous, so even the shyest people would feel free to share their wildest ideas.
Of course, the brainstorming does not end there. After all the initial thoughts are collected, a meeting should be scheduled for discussion and sifting the ideas.
- Helps to bring in unusual and “weird” ideas
- Fosters the participation of shy team members
Also known as “figuring storming”, this method suggests that participants imagine what another famous person would think of the question of the brainstorm. "What would David Bowie say?" What would Ruth Bader Ginsburg say? "What would our CEO say?"
That way, people don’t feel ashamed of those “silly” ideas that come to their heads and express themselves freely. Also, it helps to get a new perspective: you can’t have Ruth Bader Ginsburg participating in the brainstorm, but you can imagine what she would have said.
- Adds some unexpected points of view
- Perfect for avoiding “awkward silence”
The principle of this brainstorming method is very simple. We ask the team a principal question, adding a condition. We start with “What if…” and continue with any random and unusual condition that the moderator can think of, like:
- What if we had an unlimited budget?
- What if this issue happened on Mars?
- What if the problem was the opposite?
And so on. The questions don’t need to have a specific intention. The objective of this method is to boost creativity and make people look at the problem in new ways.
How to avoid bias and bring diversity to the brainstorm?
- Everybody participates in the brainstorm without being influenced by previous ideas
- Can take a long time if the team is big
Two team members enter the room to share their ideas and discuss them while the rest are waiting outside. After they have discussed their ideas, another team member joins them, shares her ideas, learns the previous ones, and they discuss in three. One by one, the rest of the team joins the initial group.
While many brainstorming methods focus on involving all team members in the brainstorming process, this method goes a step beyond: not only each of the members comes up with their own idea, but also participates in discussion without (hopefully) being outvoiced by more active colleagues.
Silent brainstorming or brainwriting
- Equals the participation of extroverts and introverts
- All the ideas are heard (and written down!)
During a fixed amount of time (5 minutes or so) each team member writes their idea(s) on a sheet of paper. After this, they give their papers to the team member next to them, and each one builds on the given ideas for a few minutes.
Papers can go the whole round or at least pass a few people. After this, each sheet is read aloud and the discussion can be continued in a traditional way or the moderator may collect the papers and choose the best ideas to focus on during the next session.
This brainstorming technique allows bringing different views to each idea. Even if the initial ideas are repetitive, during the brainwriting process such ideas get a chance to grow into something bigger.
Brainwriting combined with brain-netting is a great way to avoid the situation when few individuals take over the discussion by talking loudly and lengthy. Set a brainstorming session remotely and make it a read/write only (optionally with a moderator commenting on the process with voice).
Such a session can be held in chat, in Miro, Google docs, or another online collaboration platform. This way of communication eliminates the problem of some team members interrupting others. Since no one can talk about the problem for long, the meeting would not last three hours.
Inclusivity of the brainstorming is highly important for the ideation process as it allows for a variety of opinions and truly original ideas.
Board and sticky notes
When the brainstorming session is held live, the board is a great tool to note and visualize the findings. Make sure that someone transfers the data into a document before the sticky notes are lost. A photo of the board won’t do the job.
At Eleken, we love using Miro for brainstorming sessions (and many other UX research tasks). It is the equivalent of the board with sticky notes for all the teams like ours that got used to remote work since the pandemic.
Miro allows you to add media, links, and other files to the notes. Each team member can edit the board to specify their idea or add that great thought that they had 15 minutes after the end of the brainstorming session.
When using Miro or another shared document, the moderator has to put it all together afterward. The brainstorming process can be a bit messy and chaotic, but the result should be clear and organized.
As we use brainstorming for product design, using our main design tool for brainstorm visualization feels natural. This allows us to keep all the ideas in the same place as the design itself and make them visually consistent with the project. Here is a sneak peek of our brainstorming with Haven diagnostics (read the whole case study).
Mind mapping is a brainstorming process organized in a tree-like structure. First-level creative ideas start the branches. Looking at each of the first-level ideas, the team comes up with associations to each separate idea (without focusing on the principal issue). Third-level ideas are associations to the ideas of the second level (without thinking of the first level’s).
As a result, you receive a tree of interconnected ideas. Ends of the branches can be very different from the base. Mind mapping is a good way of stepping away from the most obvious ideas (first level). The 5th level ideas might be completely unrelated to the core, but when you look at the mind map as a whole, you see a variety of ideas among which the right one may sparkle.
When you decide to use a mind mapping method for brainstorming, don’t spend time trying to put it nicely on the paper. Online tools like MindMeister will make the process go smoothly and you won’t waste time arranging the branches of the map in a readable structure.
After the brainstorm
We talked a bit about techniques and tools that help to run a brainstorm. However, brainstorming strategies include so much more: from deciding on the list of participants to what to do with the findings of the brainstorm afterward?
First of all, make sure that everything is written down. Don’t rely on the photos too much. Transfer all the findings in a document and share it with all the participants. You can make it open to adding all those ideas that came up the day after in the shower.
Secondly, structure and organize the ideas. We need as many ideas as possible, but it’s easy to get lost among them. Ask the participants to vote for their favorites, group the ones that are similar, define the ones that were repeated various times.
Finally, make an action plan. The plan is what ensures that the brainstorming was not just for the sake of brainstorming. Creative ideas will be lost if there is no clear vision of their implementation.
Brainstorming is a great method of ideation in itself, and by applying creative brainstorming techniques, any team can generate lots of great ideas. Whether you use any of them or not, your brainstorm will be successful if you follow these golden rules:
- Everyone has to be heard, not only the ones who speak louder
- There are no “silly” ideas
- The more ideas, the better
- The more diverse the ideas are, the better
While in most working processes we are used to prioritizing quality over quantity, in brainstorming the situation is exactly the opposite. Do you find some of the ideas unrealistic, irrelevant, totally out of place? Great. Write them down along with the others.
Why do you need so many ideas? Read our article Product Design Process: A Complete Guide to Create a Successful Product to find out.