How Many Brains Make a Storm?

by Stefan Mumaw
As designers, we covet creative input from others in solving problems. We need the experience and perspectives of others to help us grow an idea beyond our ability to nurture it ourselves. Sometimes, we just need that seed of an idea to open the floodgates of ideation and lead us into creative Valhalla. We call this creative collaboration “brainstorming.” It’s a wonderful process of idea seed planting, ‘what if’ questions and broken pencil lead.

But unfortunately for us, brainstorming has turned into something quite different. It’s been deceitfully transformed into a corporate cattle-call for perfectly formed answers, a haven for naysayers, negatives and ‘just’ people (“why don’t we just do what we’ve always done…”). Brainstorming has become a corporate killjoy, in part due to the people who are involved in the process.

Like anything of value, we get out as much as we put in when we consider the act of corporate idea generation. Brainstorming is as much about the people as the ideas, the minds as much as the solutions. The right mix of experiences, perspectives and attitudes completely changes the experience and result of a brainstorm. What should that makeup look like? Glad you asked.

The Right Number of Stormers
Conventional corporate wisdom would say “the more brains, the more ideas.” The fault with that argument is the apathy shown to the humanity behind the brains. If you put 25 people in a room and tell them to start generating ideas, you’ll get a healthy dose of hiding, distraction, selfishness, fear and quiet. Reduce that number to 5-7 participants. With a more intimate group, everyone has a voice, each perspective equally relevant and each experience of value.

The Right Mix of Stormers
Human beings are naturally adverse to conflict. We seek out acceptance so it’s no surprise that when we assemble a group of thinkers intent on solving a problem, we seek out people that think like we do. Unfortunately, all we’re really doing is amplifying the potential of our own output. Noted creative author Sam Harrison says “Brainstorming should be exactly that—stormy.” Fill your 5-7 stormers with people who think differently than you, people that see the world from an unusual perspective. If you want a diverse collection of idea seeds, you need a diverse collection of gardeners. Bring people in from outside your environment, people who may have an experience with the problem or people who engage in other forms of creative thinking, like musicians, architects, teachers or engineers.

The Right Expectations of Stormers
Brainstorming is not the time to solve the problem, you’re not really looking for a defined solution but rather a host of possible directions. The participants in your brainstorm should be informed a few days ahead of time what the purpose of the time will be, how much time they can expect to engage in the process and what kinds of ideas you are hoping to generate. Letting a participant know that they don’t have to think of every angle of the problem ahead of time gives them the room to come up with more possible directions, the germs of ideas. These beginnings hold the hope of what’s possible and is exactly what an effective brainstorm generates.

Taking the time to plan who will participate in the brainstorm will ensure that the time spent generating ideas is a fruitful time, an enjoyable time and one that represents the effective Valhalla it’s supposed to be.


a group around a conference table

Effective brainstorming is a people issue as much as an idea issue. Planning to have the right number, the right mix and setting the right expectations will ensure you get the right results.
Image by Stefan Mumaw.


Quick Tips
1. Your brainstorm group should be 5-7 people, too many people will encourage hiding, distraction and fear while too few people will limit the experience and perspective being applied to the task.

2. Fill the room with people who think differently than you. Mix creatives with outsiders, either folks with some experience with the problem being brainstormed or other types of creative thinkers, like musicians or engineers.

3. Set expectations for your brainstorm group ahead of time. Let them know what you’re hoping to accomplish, the amount of time they’ll be ideating and the types of ideas you’re looking for.


Dig Deeper!
1. You can check out creative author Sam Harrison and his perspective on the brainstorming and the creative process at www.zingzone.com.

2. To get more brainstorming leadership tips, pick up a copy of Caffeine for the Creative Team by Stefan Mumaw and Wendy Lee Oldfield.


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