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5 Critical Brainstorming Rules for Critical Brainstorming Sessions

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Brainstorming rules and sessions

Brainstorming Rules for Critical Brainstorming Sessions

I have had the opportunity recently of observing several brainstorming sessions. Solid brainstorming rules could have made all the difference in these sessions, if the facilitator had been aware of them.

In one brainstorming session I observed the facilitator, in this case the project manager, allowing others to shoot down many ideas in the defense of their own ideas. In another brainstorming session the facilitator, in this case the boss, made a variety of facial expressions for every idea presented. If he didn’t like something, the team knew it.

Clear and agreed upon brainstorming rules are the foundation to creative problem solving and idea generation. Without them the team or groups ideas and problem solving are in jeopardy of mediocrity. All brainstorming sessions must include them.

One sees great things from the valley, only small things from the peak. ~G.K. Chesterton

Here are 5 critical brainstorming rules for your next critical brainstorming session: 

1. Clearly state the problem. If the problem isn’t clear, the solutions won’t be either. People will be less inclined to participate as well. Ensure you check for understanding once the problem has been stated.

2. Create a safe environment. Brainstorming is a risk taking type of adventure. I have been in a number of brainstorming sessions in which the idea that may have sounded silly at first, ended up becoming the idea that was adopted. Participants need to feel safe in providing ideas that they feel the team may not agree with. Creating a safe environment will depend on your reaction as the facilitator and the expectations that you set at the start. Ensure people understand that every idea has potential value and the team and group should not be critical during the brainstorming session phase.

3. Build on ideas. There is great power in building on ideas. Encourage participants during the brainstorming session to build on others ideas and help them understand that it will fuel greater creativity and out of the box thinking.

4. Focus on quantity of ideas over quality. Quality will come as you focus on quantity. The more ideas provided, the better chance that you will produce a more creative and effective solution. Abiding by the three brainstorming rules above will help you generate a greater quantity of ideas from your team or group.

5. Have fun! Brainstorming sessions ought to be fun. Bring out the food, play music or put office toys out on the table. The more fun you have, the greater participation and ideas you will get.

What other ideas or brainstorming rules do you have for better brainstorming sessions? Please comment below. Thanks!

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Leave a Comment

  • Phil Wrzesinski March 22, 2012, 5:55 am

    Two more rules I would add…
    First, announce the topic at least 24 hours prior to the brainstorming session. introverted people need time to process before they will be willing to share. You will get far more out of them if you give them this forewarning.
    Second, send out the results of the brainstorming immediately and ask for individual feedback. Usually the best ideas are ones that piggyback off an idea from the session but get improved by one person thinking it through on his or her own.

  • James Lee March 24, 2012, 2:39 am

    I am perplexed by your post’s title “…Rules for Critical Brainstorming sessions.” The suggested rules are for classic brainstorming. I understand “critical brainstorming” as a different type of brainstorming, namely one that encourages criticism as a means to achieve better ideas.
    The topic is interesting, indeed pressing, because classic brainstorming does not work, and it never has, while debate-centered brainstorming has been shown to produce better ideas.
    Shortly after brainstorming was first proposed by Alex Osborn in the late 1940s, psychologists began studying it. Sixty years later, dozens of studies have almost unanimously shown that classic brainstorming results in fewer ideas (by about half) with no differences in quality (in comparison with individuals working alone). So-called “production blocking” hinders idea generation: I can’t talk or think while others are doing so. Therefore, the overall total is less. See: Diehl, M., and W. Stroebe. “Productivity Loss In Brainstorming Groups: Toward the Solution of a Riddle.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 53, no. 3 (1987): 497–509.
    Susan Cain’s new book “Quiet: the power of introverts” and her New York Times article “The New Groupthink” (Jan 13, 2012) likewise show how brainstorming prevents us from reaching our full creative potential, especially for introverts.
    Finally, a new article by Jonah Lehrer tells us that debating techniques generate better ideas. These techniques happily violate the rule that all ideas should not be criticized during the brainstorming session. With these techniques ideas are taken apart by the group with the goal of improving them. With clear debating rules, criticism becomes part of the game. No one feels personally attacked, since the environment is constructive and safe. See: Lehrer, Jonah. “Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth.” The New Yorker (January 30, 2012),
    I had hoped from your title to read something more about how such critical techniques might work. There is namely a debate running in the German blogosphere on the topic (see: – in German). Here, as in the United States, teams are seeking good techniques to heighten creativity. Brainstorming remains common, but we are seeking to improve it.
    I am interested to hear what you think about debate-style brainstorming.

  • James Lee March 24, 2012, 2:40 am

    The URL for Cain’s New York Times article got lost. It is:

  • Mike Rogers March 25, 2012, 5:14 pm

    James, I am sorry the title misled you. I respectfully disagree with some of your points. The article says: “People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure.” Yes, they probably do in poorly facilitated sessions and dysfunctional teams. I have not read all of the research, but I have a hard time believing groups perform poorer than individuals when it comes to creativity. It is my belief that healthy teams always out perform an individual. Healthy teams don’t fear rejection as the article suggest.
    Thank you for your comments James and bringing the article to my attention. While electronic brainstorming, for example, might be good for dysfunctional teams, I would prefer to do my creative brainstorming in groups with functional teams.

  • Mike Rogers March 25, 2012, 5:18 pm

    Phil your suggestions are spot on. Thank you. Get the brainstorming starting before the brainstorming begins.
    Your suggestions are a bit of a blend of classic brainstorming and what James has suggested in his comments above.
    I like the blend and could see where this could work.
    What do you think James?

  • Phil Wrzesinski March 27, 2012, 1:08 pm

    Mike, I have read and been exposed to the same research James offered about how classical brainstorming does not work.
    But as a leader and team-builder here is something I have yet to see considered…
    Although the primary goal of brainstorming is to come up with creative ideas, the secondary goal is to foster teamwork. What good is a great idea if your team is dysfunctional?
    Classical brainstorming may not bring out the best ideas (the research seems to be clear on that) but it still brings out ideas upon which you can improve. And it fosters teamwork in the process.
    I guess I really have not seen enough of the definition of Critical Brainstorming to understand the process, but I have always believed that healthy debate is fine once the ideas are on the table.
    But it does take a skilled leader to be able to control that debate and shape it into something constructive from which the individuals can then improve.

  • Mike Rogers March 30, 2012, 1:40 pm

    Thanks for your comments Phil.
    I agree with your comments on the benefits of teamwork with such sessions.
    I still don’t believe classic brainstorming isn’t as effective if a team is dysfunctional. I just had the opportunity to facilitate a great session this week where it worked wonderfully. The team was functional though. Everybody participated, no one took disagreements personally or shut down etc… There was great trust.

  • Mike Rogers April 6, 2012, 3:05 pm

    Sherry, yes, a safe environment is a must, as well as a functional team where trust has already been established. I like your suggestion on goals.
    Chris, I read the article (thanks for sharing), and I have seen some of the research on why some feel it doesn’t work. And I don’t agree with it. It works if the team is functional and won’t work if it isn’t. I have participated in so much good brainstorming that it is hard for me to feel differently. I agree with you thought that brainstorming is not the end of the process. At some point ideas do need to be critiqued and put in buckets.

  • Mike Rogers April 6, 2012, 3:22 pm

    Yes, critical to brainstorming that we don’t stifle creativity. I agree with you on asking clarifying questions as well Jim – I do that as well.
    When we get to putting things in buckets is the time to be critical – constructively – with ideas. Thanks for your comments!

  • Sherry LaBoon April 6, 2012, 3:03 pm

    I really emphasize Rule 2: Creating a safe environment. Reserving judgment is key in this process to allow for greater creativity and thus, the best possible alternative (or combination of alternatives) for the situation at hand.
    It is critical that the rules/guidelines are established before the brainstorming session begins. It is also a good idea to set some kind of goal with a time limit. For instance, for the next 20 minutes generate at least 30 potential solutions to….

  • Chris Bennett April 6, 2012, 3:04 pm

    Check out the article by Jonah Leher on creativity and why brainstorming *doesn’t* work from Feb Fast Company: He argues that the problem with brainstorming is the lack of critique, while he thinks all ideas need to be worked over. I think there are ways around this, primarily in the acknowledgement that brainstorming isn’t the end of the process. However, it’s interesting to hear another view.

  • Jim Bendt April 6, 2012, 3:21 pm

    Mike – these are great reminders and I agree 100% that it begins with setting the ground rules for Brainstorming and then the Facilitator must hold the group to this. Additionally, you don’t want to stifle creativity. The one other technique I use in setting the ground rules is that during the brain storming portion is not the time to challenge an idea but rather to ask clarifying questions if you are unclear. The time to discuss comes after the initial brain storming list is built and when individual participants are discussing why they voted the way they did when you begin to narrow the list.

  • Mike Rogers April 9, 2012, 5:14 pm

    Chris, in addition to what Sherry has stated, here are a couple of things I would do.
    First, why not provide the questions ahead of time and allow them time to create responses previous to coming to the brainstorming session. Once they bring their ideas others can expand and build off of them.
    Second, I like to create smaller groups for those that don’t participate well in larger groups. With groups of five for example they will probably feel more comfortable. Once they begin to interact they will feel more better, perhaps, in the larger group as they report out and continue to brainstorm.

  • Sherry LaBoon April 9, 2012, 5:12 pm

    I also do not agree with the article. And I think, perhaps, an important kind of creativity is finding new relationships among old ideas – hence, the value of brainstorming.
    The 3 types of creativity are very limiting.

  • Chris Bennett April 9, 2012, 5:13 pm

    Mike and Sherry, I’m with you – I’ve also seen brainstorming generate amazing results if it’s done well.
    I do have another question, though, one I’ve puzzled over for years. There are people (and I’m one of them) who really enjoy fast, in-the-moment interactions and we tend to thrive with standard brainstorming. However, there are very creative people who like to take longer to think ideas through, may feel uncomfortable with large groups, or feel like they can’t get a word in edgewise. How do you help those people participate successfully?

  • Sherry LaBoon April 9, 2012, 5:14 pm

    Setting ground rules regarding involvement levels can be useful. If you have experienced that particular behavior in the past then as you work with the entire group to establish rules- pose that as a question to them. Ask the group what they can do during the brainstorming session to be sure everyone is involved, and everyone feels comfortable contributing. And then during the session, help the groups remember the ground rules they established.
    And sometimes a facilitator may need to get involved during the session. An effective facilitator who knows a little bit about each of the participants, can certainly help to direct a relevant question to that individual.
    You might also consider asking that person to spearhead a group. If they are an ideas person they can help to ask appropriate questions to bring out a variety of ideas.
    With the best of situations, occasionally you will have participants who are uncomfortable with brainstorming – for various reasons. They may enjoy just watching the group. Or being the recorder. Not ideal, but a reality.

  • Susan Chandler April 10, 2012, 8:19 am

    Just a few comments…I have facilitated many brainstorming sessions and feel strongly about establishing the ground rules up front. Most of the time, it results in a reasonably productive brainstorming session and yields a healthy list of ideas, solutions, etc. But sometimes, in spite of the ground rules and everyone agreeing to them, the dynamics of the team dictate which style of brainstorming works best for them and by which rules–spoken or unspoken–are abided.
    Also, as a facilitator, I rarely have input on the team makeup, so I have to quickly learn who’s introverted/extroverted, who the natural leaders are, and who are the enablers (collaborators and encouragers) and inhibitors (bulldozers and wet blankets). Understanding how to work with these characteristics to the benefit of the team goes a long way toward ensuring the team produces a list of 20-30 diverse, viable solutions versus 5-10 lopsided candidates.
    Additionally, I support the idea of disseminating the session topic ahead of time, but sometimes it’s not a feasible option. In those situations, spontaneous and/or endless flow of ideas may be a strong suit of some, but not others. For those who need to internalize the issue before responding, the uninhibited approach of the more extraverted members can often make them feel railroaded or intimidated and they may not contribute. Facilitators must realize these dynamics and employ a suite of techniques to get the most out of the time spent. I’ve often just started the session with silent brainstorming, allowing a few minutes for everyone to just think, then jot down their ideas on paper, sticky notes, etc. Follow that up with a structured, round-robin type of exercise before advancing to an unstructured free-for-all. By that time, a good quantity of ideas/solutions is listed, and it’s easier—and safer—to introduce discussion, debates, evaluations, and criticism without risk of losing valuable participation.

  • Mike Rogers April 11, 2012, 8:26 pm

    Susan, wonderful points. Thanks for taking the time to provide us your thoughts and tips as a facilitator. You are very right, it is critical to know your participants and how to engage them based on their differences.


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