What is Brainstorming? (and 6 Rules for Maximizing Each Brainstorming Session)
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Want a quick way to come up with a wealth of great ideas?
Then one technique you can try is to build the brainstorming habit.
It doesn’t matter how you brainstorm. You can do it on your own or in a group setting. What matters is setting aside at least 30 minutes to think of multiple solutions to a single problem that you’re experiencing in your personal or professional life.
In this article, I will define brainstorming, talk about why it’s a great habit, and provide a six-step process to maximize your results during a brainstorming session.
Let’s get to it.
What is Brainstorming?
Brainstorming is a technique used to generate as many potential solutions to a problem possible in hopes of figuring out what will solve the problem best.
The word brainstorming usually brings up mental images of a bunch of people sitting around a table in an office (like you’d see in the popular medical shows as they’re discussing a new patient with mysterious symptoms).
Brainstorming can be applied to every aspect of your life: your career and professional skills; as well as your personal life, relationships, your health, and more.
The importance of brainstorming was first recognized back in the 1940s and 50s when Alex Osborn, an advertising executive and writer, included the term in a book titled Your Creative Power. Osborn was pretty much a genius in the advertising field, working for companies such as General Electric, Chrysler, BF Goodrich and Dupont among others.
Brainstorming was a procedure used for several years at BBDO, a major advertising agency where he served as executive vice president, before the release of his book.
5 Brainstorming Examples You Can Try
If you’ve only dealt with brainstorming at work you might disagree with me, but I think brainstorming can actually be pretty fun. It’s a great way to get creative and let your mind wander.
Besides, you never know what sort of great ideas you’ll come up with. It’s particularly useful when you want to come up with new patterns of thinking and new ways to make improvements in your life.
If you understand the importance of brainstorming, you can use the method to produce different possible solutions to just about anything.
For instance, here are five examples of brainstorming you can use in the various areas of your life:
Your Professional Life
Is someone or something bothering you at work? Are you considering going back to college to increase your earning potential but not sure how you’d swing it? Maybe you have concerns about being your own boss and running your own business.
Your Personal Life
Most of us have a lot of “personal” stuff we’d like to resolve. Are you always so busy it seems like you never have any free time left for yourself?
Maybe you’re thinking about buying your first home and need to figure out how to save up a down payment. Would you like to take up a hobby but you’re scared to give it a shot?
Relationships with Others
Relationships can be really tricky. Some people take advantage of one another, some couples always mange to make each other angry … toxic relationships can do more harm than good, but they’re often difficult to end. What should you do?
Weight loss, starting a workout routine and making wiser eating choices can be really hard, but sometimes “baby steps” are the best way to get started. What can you do to start improving your health?
There are certain skills that can improve upon your personal and professional life. This can include public speaking, learning a foreign language, learning to touch type, improving your writing.
To get started, think about the things that you think are holding you back and what you can do to fix them.
Hopefully you can see how brainstorming can help with multiple areas of your life. If this sounds like a habit you’d like to build, then I recommend following these six rules to get the most from each session.
6 Rules for Maximizing Each Brainstorming Session
Rule #1: Define the problem that you’d like to solve.
In order for brainstorming to be beneficial, you need to define the problem at hand in order to have a clear understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish.
I suggest sticking to one topic at a time, such as “How can I make my work day run smoother?” but if in the midst of it all you have some fantastic vision of an amazing household product that could make you rich, feel free to scribble that down, too.
Rule #2: Give yourself a time limit.
It might just be a personal thing, but I’ve found that brainstorming works best when I give myself a time limit. Besides, if something has been bugging you long enough that you’ve decided to brainstorm about it and come up with a solution, you’ve probably thought about it quite a bit already.
If you’re brainstorming at the office, it’s most likely happening during a scheduled meeting which is only set to last for a certain amount of time.
20 or 30 minutes is probably sufficient time to come up with a bunch of ideas.
Read about Parkinson's Law to find out why time constraints are important to both creativity and task completion.
Rule #3: Focus on quantity over quality right now.
Record every single idea that comes to you. Try to come up with as many ideas or solutions to your problem as possible. In some situations, “less is more,” but when you’re brainstorming, “the more the better.”
Quantity is your friend.
The primary goal of brainstorming is to come up with a creative solution that will actually work for you, so the odds of finding something great increase if you have more ideas to choose from. Write all the ideas down so you remember every single thing that came up.
Rule #4: Withhold criticism.
If you only have 20 minutes to come up with ideas and solutions, you’d better spend your time thinking of ideas instead of criticizing them. This is especially important in a group setting where people with big egos can easily scare others from speaking up.
If an idea wasn’t yours and you don’t agree with it, keep quiet for now. You can go over everything once you have a list.
If group members aren’t judging each other’s ideas at this phase, everyone will be more likely to speak up and keep offering suggestions—no matter how “crazy” they might sound.
Rule #5: Welcome unusual ideas.
Speaking of crazy ideas, unusual ideas are completely welcome during a brainstorming session. Be imaginative. If you think of something (anything!) related to the task at hand, write it down. Unusual ideas can become million dollar ideas.
Like: I’m willing to bet that somewhere out there is a guy who used to eat plain M&Ms and pretzels at the same time for years, and he’s really ticked off when he tells people “I thought of that first!” now that Pretzel M&Ms are on the shelves.
Rule #6: Select the best ideas
When time is up, go through your list of thoughts and ideas and evaluate them. If you weren’t too sure about something after you thought about it and wrote it down, now is the time to criticize and pick things apart.
Select the best ideas to narrow down your options, asking yourself which actually seem feasible. Do you honestly see yourself following through with any of them?
Where to Record Your Brainstorming Ideas
There’s really no right or wrong place to record your ideas, but I have three great suggestions for recording your ideas:
If you’re brainstorming with a group, then the best tool you can use is the classic whiteboard that’s available in most business settings.
If you don’t have one, then I recommend this OfficePro Dry Erase Board because it’s slim and lightweight and it also includes a whiteboard pen, pen tray, 3 magnets and an eraser.
If you want to preserve your ideas for the future, then you should consider investing in a durable journal like the Moleskine Journal ; which has 240 blank, lined pages and measuring 8.2 x 5.2 x 1 inches, which makes it very extremely portable.
If you want to keep all your ideas in “the cloud,” then the best tool you can use is the Evernote app. Used correctly, Evernote can act as your “second brain,” where you store all your great ideas.
Regardless of what tool you use, it’s important to pick one and stick with it for all your brainstorming efforts. That way, you’ll have a central place where you can access all the sessions you’ve done in the past.
5 Top-Rated Brainstorming Apps and Software Programs
In addition to brainstorming the old-fashioned way with paper or a whiteboard, there are several different brainstorming computer programs on the market.
I’m not completely familiar with all the details, but a lot of large organizations use electronic meeting systems so employees can share ideas over the internet without even being in the same room—similar to a conference call.
Brainstorming software offers the ability to categorize ideas and eliminate duplicates rather easily, and then eventually allows you to rank ideas in order of priority.
This could obviously be done with a pen or a highlighter, but an advantage of brainstorming software is that it gives you the ability to save everything in one place and come back to it later.
When it’s used by national or global businesses, the participants don’t even have to “meet” on the same day—they can submit their ideas over an extended period of time.
In my opinion, I don’t think you need a fancy piece of software to do brainstorming. I feel this gets in the way of creativity. One of the things my dad has taught me that the only “technology” you need is a good pad of paper and some pencils.
All that said, I’ve done a bit of research and here a few of the best brainstorming apps and software programs that are available:
Bubbl.us is a web-based app that makes online brainstorming and mind mapping simple.
You have the option to create a tree, grid or circle to organize your ideas. There’s an auto-save feature and you can share your mind maps with others too.
Pricing: Free and Premium ($4.91/month)
Coggle allows you to brainstorm and break down complex information through mindmaps.
This web-based app lets you drag and drop images onto your diagrams and customize colors.
Pricing: Free; Awesome ($5/month); Organization ($8/month)
Lucidchart is an online diagram app that helps you sketch and create professional-looking flowcharts.
It’s use is not only limited to brainstorming and mind mapping but also extends to project management and communication.
Pricing: Free; Pro ($8.95/month)
MindMeister boasts an intuitive, easy-to-use interface that facilitates real-time collaborative brainstorming.
It is web-based and you can also access projects through mobile devices.
Pricing: Basic (Free); Personal ($4.99/month); Pro ($8.25/user/month); Business ($12.49/user/month)
Scapple is the brainstorming app made by and for writers. It is created by the folks at Literature & Latte, the same people behind Scrivner. It allows you to take notes, drag and drop them around, and make connections between ideas.
Unlike the other apps on this list, you need to download and install it in your computer.
Pricing: Free trial; $14.99
Final Thoughts on Brainstorming
If you currently feel stuck with an area of your life, then one of the best ways to get out of it is to take time to do a bit of “deep thinking” with a quick brainstorming session.
The truth is:
You probably already know the solution to your problems. All you have to do is come up with a series of possible answers and then narrow down to a few potential winners.
If you implement the six rules that I’ve just outlined, then you’ll maximize the results that you get with each brainstorming session.
Now it’s your turn:
Have you tried brainstorming before?
If so, comment below and discuss some of the lessons that you’ve learned from implementing this habit.