8 Ways to Brainstorm Better

Idea-generation is the lynchpin of our work. So why are many of us terrible at it? Experts offer tips for improving your creative sessions.

The team gathers in the conference room, white board at the ready, pumped to come up with some cool new ideas. Ten minutes into the session, the group’s strongest personality starts to dominate the conversation. Ideas get dissected, evaluated, kicked around, criticized. The quietest staffer shuts down. The creative director loses energy and relinquishes control over the meeting. An hour later, the team leaves the room deflated and unconfident in any of the concepts they shared.

Why do most brainstorm sessions resemble this scenario? Brainstorming is supposed to be one of the activities that we love most—and that our friends in non-creative professions envy most—about our jobs. We think of brainstorming as the wild-blue-yonder, out-of-the-box, free-flowing development of ideas—a literal turbulent storm of creativity. And this, according to the experts, is exactly the problem with most idea-generation sessions: They lack focus, structure, discipline. We’ll take a look at what typically goes wrong with brainstorming and learn ways to improve this essential element of our work.


“There’s a lot that people get wrong about brain-storming,” says Stefan Mumaw, creative director at ad agency Callahan Creek in Lawrence, KS. The biggest mistake, says the co-author of the “Caffeine” series of creativity books and popular HOW Design Live speaker, is that designers miss the whole point of brainstorming: “They think that the general goal is to leave with a solution, one that’s thought through and vetted and right. That’s not the case. Brainstorming isn’t to solve the problem. It’s simply to offer possibility.

”Setting the wrong goal for a brainstorm session leads to another common problem: Evaluating ideas as they emerge. Teams that focus on finding the “right” solution, especially when they’re under tight time constraints, move too quickly from sharing ideas to critiquing them. Instead of riffing and expanding on one another’s ideas a process that can lead to unexpected possibilities—participants feel they have to justify and defend their ideas. Soon, they simply stop offering them, and the meeting caves in on itself.

“The original definition of brainstorming, where you take everyone, throw them in a room and they’re all shouting over each other, has two problems,” says David Sherwin, author of “Creative Workshop” and “Success By Design,” and interaction design director with frog design’s San Francisco studio. “One, when you come up with ideas as a group, people immediately enter into discussion instead of dialog—defending, steering, blending open-ended idea-generation with thinly veiled critique.”

He also notes another common problem: “You don’t often have any idea of how to focus your attention.” While many brainstorm sessions are free-for-alls, Sherwin advocates for structure and parameters. “Cleverly considered constraints can yield more far-out ideas than free-form brainstorming,” he says. “You have a real target to shoot for.”

If creative teams commonly gather to find the perfect solution, start to critique each other’s ideas and ignore meaningful constraints like business goals and audience needs, then surely there must be a better path toward breakthrough ideas. Are there more effective—and more fun—ways to brainstorm? You bet….

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