The Real Meaning of Brainstorming and How to Do It

A popular myth is that the meaning of Brainstorming is somehow related to generating a storm of ideas in a brain. While this makes sense, the creator had something slightly different in mind when he came up with the term: The word Brainstorming was coined by Alex Faickney Osborn (1888-1966) in his book Your Creative Power, published in 1948. Osborn was a very successful advertising executive and business owner during his time.

This is how Osborn explains how the name “Brainstorming” came about:
“It was in 1939 when I first organized such group-thinking in our company. The early participants dubbed our efforts ‘Brainstorm Sessions,’ and quite aptly so because, in this case, ‘brainstorm’ means using the brain to storm a creative problem and do so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.

What is brainstorming then?

Following Osborn’s definition, consider a problem a fortress we try to storm with a group of brains (our army):

The Real Meaning of Brainstorming

Classical brainstorming is a group technique to create new ideas. The group takes a specific problem and creates as many ideas as possible in a limited time. In a brainstorming session, we want every group member to speak out all ideas that come to his/her mind, no criticism is allowed, and the wilder an idea the better. Members are encouraged to use other members’ ideas as trigger (input) to create/associate further ideas, and to combine ideas.

Why and when use brainstorming?

We can use brainstorming to solve all kinds of problems (business, public administration, military, family, personal). It is important to have a problem that is specific and can be made into a question.

What do we need?

  • A specific problem/challenge expressed as a question.
  • A group of between 5 and 10 people. We want a mixed group of men and women, experts and non-experts. The group can contain the president, managers, workers, cleaners…. Everyone might have ideas that can help to solve the problem.
  • A leader who ensures that a few basic rules are followed.

How to brainstorm?

  1. The leader or another member introduces the problem. The problem is expressed as a question. (this can be done before the meeting, or as first step in the meeting)
  2. The problem is explained in a way that all group members understand its essence.
  3. Some facts/details about the problem are provided before we start brainstorming. A field trip or visit to the place where the problem occurs can help the group members to see and understand the nature of the problem.
  4. The group meets in a half circle and starts to storm the problem. Everyone just speaks out his/her ideas. All ideas are welcome, simple ideas, crazy ideas…. We want as many ideas as possible. The more ideas, the better. No group member, including the leader, is allowed to criticize any idea. Everyone is encouraged to use other group members’ ideas to come up with yet another idea.
  5. All ideas are recorded by a note taker (can be the leader or another person) at a place where all group members can see the ideas. The easiest way to record the ideas is in form of a list on a flip chart or whiteboard. We don’t note ideas word for word but try to use keywords or short phrases.

Four Basic Rules (as described by Osborn)

  1. No criticism is allowed during brainstorming. (Evaluation of ideas after the brainstorming)
  2. Quantity is important. The more ideas the better. (Don’t worry about speaking out only “good” ideas.)
  3. Wildness is good. Crazy ideas are welcome. (Many times the craziest ideas turn out to be the best ones.)
  4. Combining other ideas and taking another person’s ideas a step further or using them for yet another idea is good.

A brainstorming session lasts between 30 minutes and 1 hour. After the meeting, the list of ideas is copied and distributed to all group members. A good way to copy a whiteboard or flip chart is to take a picture with a digital camera or smartphone.

Evaluation of Ideas

Ideas can be evaluated in a second meeting. Here is an easy way to evaluate ideas:

Each attendant gets a packet of 5 sticky dots and places the dots on the ideas he/she likes the most. You can place all dots on one idea, or on 5 different ideas, or on any other combination. If you don’t have dots, you can also use a red marker to draw a dot.

For more information on how to evaluate your group’s ideas, check the post “Brainstorming II: How Do You Decide which Ideas to Implement.”

Another way to record ideas during the meeting could be in form of a mind map:

  • On a whiteboard
  • On a computer where the mind map is projected to a screen visible to all group members.
  • Different colors can be used.
  • We don’t note ideas word for word but try to use keywords or short phrases.

Mind maps arrange the ideas in form of a circle. The ideas are branches that radiate from a center that contains the problem or challenge.  Ideas that are associations of other ideas can be sub branches that originate from the main branches.

Mind mapping takes a bit of experience, but it is good fun and makes it easier for people to associate. (find ideas based on other members’ ideas)

The disadvantage of mind mapping is that we might run out of space on our whiteboard. Mind mapping on a computer can solve this problem and make it easier to later rearrange ideas.

Brainstorming Example

Problem description: When I was a child, our home phone used to be in the hallway. The phone was connected via a 30 cm fixed line. Every time the phone rang or you wanted to make a phone call, you had to go to the hallway and pick up the phone. In the winter, the hallway was cold and there was only a hard wooden bench to sit. It was very difficult for more than one person to sit there, and uncomfortable for elderly people to always walk to the phone.
We wanted the phone to come to the people.

Problem as a question: How can we make the phone movable?

Brainstorming Session Mind Map:

brainstorming-example-movable-phone

Why is brainstorming effective?

  • It is fun.
  • It encourages creativity and discourages criticism during the idea finding phase. The evaluation of ideas is separated from the creation.
  • Ideas by one group member are used by other group members to come up with more ideas (associations). Osborn calls this “contagion” and “chain reaction.” Osborn claims that more associations are produced than if only one person brainstorms.

Solo brainstorming: Can I brainstorm by myself?

While originally devised as a group technique, there is nothing that keeps you from giving solo brainstorming a go. Again, use a specific problem you want to solve. Find facts and additional information. Write the problem as a question. Then take about 20 to 30 minutes to write down all ideas you can up with (for example as a list). Note down key words and short phrases. Don’t judge any idea that comes to mind. Just write. One idea will trigger another idea….. Again, you can also use a mind map for your brainstorming. Write the problem/challenge in the center of a blank sheet of paper. You can also draw a little picture in the center to symbolize the problem.

Book Recommendation for Creativity Techniques

Brainstorming and sleeping over a problem are probably the most well-known and widely used creativity techniques. Thinkertoys Creativity HandbookBut it is like with a hammer. A hammer is a highly effective tool. If you only have a hammer, you’ll use it on screws as well. Not ideal.

Michael Michalko’s Thinkertoys is a great handbook of creativity techniques. Creativity can be spurred in many different ways: Incubation, forced connections, random stimulation, and so on.  Do you need a creative solution for a challenge? Just open the book on a random page and get going.


Read “Uncage your Ideas with Brutethink” for a closer look at another great idea creation technique, and “Brainstorming II: How Do You Decide which Ideas to Implement” for an in-depth on idea evaluation.

9 thoughts on “The Real Meaning of Brainstorming and How to Do It

  1. Thanks Lot Sir
    Its very good description and was helpful to me for PMP Exam preparation.

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