A redheaded girl in a baggy sweater smiles and points to sticky notes on a wall.

10 Rules For Effective Brainstorming

New ideas are the lifeblood of any project, creative or not. Sometimes new conditions drive new business ideas but most of the time it’s up to teams to either push for innovation or be overtaken by the competition.

Effective brainstorming not only makes for better business planning. It also creates a better work environment, employer brand, and helps with other initiatives like diversity and inclusion. The right environment for brainstorming is accessible, open, and focused. 

Directionless thought sessions are bound to go nowhere. If you conduct business, you need rules to provoke strong, insightful brainstorming. This guide has ten brainstorming tips that will help creatives and other professionals direct their thinking in new directions. With a more open team and the right conditions, everyone benefits, including the end user.

Rules For Openness

Maybe it sounds a bit counter-intuitive at first, but teams need rules if open brainstorming is the goal. Personalities clash, ideas or philosophies don’t align, and space in the limelight is bitterly pursued. Competition is at the heart of business, but it can really disrupt business planning.

The sorts of rules you need for real creative thinking are the kind that the team can enforce itself. One of the best brainstorming tips we can give is that improper conduct should be called out as early as possible. Let the team determine how they want the planning stages to go, but also make sure that there are some edicts in place to protect open discussion.

What Does Effective Brainstorming Do?

The goal of brainstorming is to translate creative thinking into new business ideas. Usually, work already starts out in this direction because projects arise from conduction business. A new product or rebranding effort, for example, comes with a framework for directing brainstorming from the beginning.

But there are degrees of brainstorming. Is the team running through a few of the same old solutions or are they envisioning something completely different? Exploring possibilities is something you should be doing at the end of the brainstorming process. Before that, imaginations ought to go where they will.

The best brainstorming doesn’t only lead to new business ideas. It goes beyond that. Don’t be afraid to get a bit dramatic about it – brainstorming can endeavor to change the way we live, even if the final product falls short of that lofty goal.

Four people sit around a brown table brainstorming with computers.
Group brainstorming sessions are more productive and dynamic.

10 Rules For Effective Brainstorming

Not all of these rules are hard-and-fast directives that need to be established as written before planning starts. Let the team determine how each of the principles behind these brainstorming tips can be implemented in a given project’s particular conditions.

1. Establish Context

Whether you’re a brand new business or you’re building on years of branding and an extended product line, the team needs to see itself in its present location. Not only will this lay out the problem more clearly for everyone, but it will limit the number of irrelevant contributions and tangents in the overall discussion.

Let’s say you’re working on a new app. The context here is more complicated than just the app. Establish a clear, concise mission statement you can return to and even alter throughout the brainstorming process.

For example, the mission statement could be “Build A Better App.”

Or, it could be something like “What Can Users Do With This App That They Couldn’t Do Before?”

See the difference? Of course, the team can change the reach of the mission statement to accomplish the central goal of the project – if you aren’t focused on new features, you could set a mission statement that addresses a particular pain point.

If you have an existing brand and product line, situating the project within that larger history is vital. It will also save you from having to reshape your project later on.

2. Identify Skills

How much experience does the team share collectively? It’s likely the current project is derivative or a continuation of things that came before it. Perhaps some team members have worked on projects that are ideologically upstream from this one.

Not only will identifying this experience show the team what tools are at their disposal, but it will also encourage the members with certain skills to see their personal value on the team and be more likely to share their ideas during brainstorming sessions in the future. 

As discussion continues, establish people as team experts on given topics. When you hit a wall, team members know who to turn to. You can also identify areas for innovation – imagine you find a skill gap on the team somewhere. Is it possible to learn as a team so that everyone walks away from the project with new skills and experiences?

Plus, if you know that all the coworkers are lacking in one area, you could be looking at an area that the brand or company hasn’t ventured into yet. 

3. Start Small – Then Go Long

One brainstorming tip that’s kind of a no-brainer is that people have to get talking to generate ideas. That’s why hyperfocus on a very particular problem that people will likely have ready suggestions for is a good idea at the start of a brainstorming session. 

Most guides on brainstorming say you should shoot for the moon and do a reality check later. That’s true, but we like to add this initial step of self-limitation because widening the scope allows people to scale their ideas. If consensus is reached on one or several solutions to the niche problem suggested, then scaling up will give everyone some food for thought – what can the solution(s) we just came up with tell us about the larger project?

This kind of prompt is incredibly effective because the team is actually self-guiding. It feels like they’re answering questions but they’re actually brainstorming and problem-solving from the get-go. It also allows people to see that their ideas are implementable solutions. The crucial part is the scale-up; that’s when anything goes.

Let creative thinking flourish when you expand your scope. Make it the fun part of the brainstorming session, especially since it can happen soon after you start and get everyone in a great mood for brainstorming.

4. Set Short-Term Goals

Once you reach the stage where people are laying out ideas, add pressure to get them thinking quickly. The idea behind this strategy is to bypass people’s inner censors and editors. Give them a short time limit just to see what they can come up with. The less time they have, the less time they have to second-guess their ideas or make them more palatable. 

Encourage half-baked ideas. Flesh them out later as a group. Half an hour for three ideas? 15 minutes for 5 will work better.

Another reason this approach works is that you can see what kinds of suggestions are most popular or at least most obvious to everyone on the team. Since these are quick ideas, they probably aren’t anyone’s baby yet. So most people won’t be shy about indicating which of their own ideas they’re proud of and which ones they just spat out.

Gauge everyone’s perception. If support starts to build for a few ideas, you can start to craft a shortlist and get right on the path toward actionable solutions. Narrow it down to a few suggestions you can work off of. Don’t be afraid if nothing really seems to work – that’s a sign you have the opportunity to innovate.

5. Encourage Frankenstein Solutions

Slogging through all the raw material elicited from the team in the early ideation stages, most people have the inclination to dismiss ideas entirely. A better way to approach this paring-down stage of the brainstorming process is to try combining ideas and parts of ideas. 

The goal is a Frankenstein’s monster of project proposals. Will it be pretty? Absolutely not. But if you can get it to walk and talk, you at least have somewhere to talk. 

Collaboration is encouraged with this kind of solution. It encourages people to say yes to ideas and then put their creative thinking to work molding suggestions until they work rather than naysaying and killing the brainstorm dead in its tracks.

Piecemeal approaches could get the team over some tough hurdles. It also continues the theme of collaboration already established. This is how you create a friendly and open atmosphere during brainstorming without setting some kind of nonsense rule that everyone must be kind and open with each other, an unenforceable code in any situation.

6. Acknowledge Limitations

One of the biggest sets of limitations from a creative perspective is the everyday reality of business. Timelines, overheads, and risk constraints all have some impact on the project. Treat them like rules and apply them to whatever ideas your brainstorming has already generated. 

Alright, so we have Idea A, but does that fit the budget? Can we implement Idea B in time for the project deadline? What about Idea C, will it be able to earn management support?

Competitors are also a possible limitation. To what degree are you concerned that they’ll outflank you? How does that impact the timeline for your project and thus the possible workable ideas?

If you’ve been following the brainstorming tips so far in this guide, your team should already be more than prepared to meet these limitations. Start outfitting that Frankenstein attack plan to destroy these limitations or work within them. 

Skill and technology limitations might not be as surmountable. If there’s a budget in place and you don’t have the tech available to build and implement AI, then that’s unfortunately off the table. But maybe that’s something that should be brought to management as a goal for the future, i.e. this is the kind of thing we could do if money were set aside for some upgrades. 

7. Plan For Rest

No matter what kind of amazing ideas your team has come up with and how excited or energetic they are about them, some downtime is needed to recharge creative energy and think a bit more deeply about problems addressed in the brainstorming session. 

Where possible, dividing brainstorming into multiple sessions is ideal. Team members could run into something in the outside world that gives them a brand new perspective to bring back in the next session. Doubtless, management wants ideas fast, but it’s better to take a bit longer in almost every case. 

The thing about brainstorming is that it doesn’t have a minimum limit, either. If everyone is really tuned in, you might find your plan of action in a single session. That’s great! Planning a break at some point lets everyone sleep on it or just let it stew in their minds. It makes for much better troubleshooting and gets the plan closer to perfection.

8. Use Ranking To Prioritize Ideas

Alright, so you have tons of suggestions and possibilities to work with. Everyone likes some ideas more than others but nobody really hates any of them. The team can use voted ranking to decide which way to go

Decide based on already-established business planning goals which ideas suit this project the best. It’s a good time for people to explain themselves and point out possible shortcomings in certain ideas without coming across as too aggressive. This is just for ranking, remember. It’s not a verdict on the character of the idea in every context, just this one.

If you’re in need of some kind of deliverable to show higher-ups what the team has been brewing up in the brainstorming stages, a ranked list is the best way to do it. Show them how many ideas you have and most importantly which ones the team is taking the most seriously. 

And the team will have a ready list of backup plans if something fails in the primary one. Not only will they have suggestions, but they’ll have fleshed-out ideas that everyone is already familiar with from the earlier rounds of discussion.

9. Tear It Apart

Another great way to elicit criticism is to insert a teardown stage in the brainstorming session. This works best right after you’ve prioritized the list of ideas together as a team. You’ve already established the strengths of the number one plan. Now come up with every possible horrible thing that could go wrong with it along the way. 

It might sound overly negative, but it can be as funny as the earlier scale-up was. Get outlandish with all the things that could go wrong. Just make sure you follow up on these outlandish ideas with some grounding efforts. How likely are these things to happen? What’s a more realistic version of such a thing?

Teardowns work really well when the team is already on the same page and an idea has wide support across the board. But even when opinions are mixed, you can run teardowns on multiple ideas and give everyone a chance. 

Don’t let it get too adversarial here, though. Restrict criticisms of an idea to people who are defending it or advocating for it, then open it up to others. “Ok, what did they miss?”

10. Get With The Times

You want to build a diverse team to get the most original ideas and a wide range of experience. These days, that means you’re more than likely going to have at least a few remote workers on your team if it isn’t fully remote already. 

Unfortunately, that makes brainstorming sessions fairly similar across projects. You probably can’t go for a walk together, for instance. But you can tell everyone to change locations from their normal work environment for a brainstorming session if you want to change things up. 

Even if it’s just their balcony, garden, or the stairwell in their apartment building, changing surroundings can spur on new creative thinking. With remote workers, altering the way business planning is addressed during these meetings also goes a long way to make each session feel fresh. For instance, you can address what’s changed about the company or the branding since the last meeting. 

A man with brown hair and round glasses writes on a pad in front of a laptop.
Remote brainstorming requires a slightly different approach.

Conclusion:

Effective brainstorming is the best way to come up with new business ideas that work. Novelty is hard to come by with the huge number of companies competing across multiple markets these days, but you can spur on your team with the right approach. 

It’s easier to include business planning and goals in the project from the very beginning if you structure the brainstorming session in the right way. Use the tips and advice in this guide to make your team more effective, creative, and satisfied with its brainstorming.

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