by Michael C. Kelly, MA

The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas. 

-Linus Pauling (1901-1994) 


There are a lot of "brain" articles and books out there dealing with everything from its structure to how it can change itself. (1) One thing seems consistent in the literature - the brain needs to be exercised!

One opportunity for exercising the brain comes whenever a group needs to creatively think about a problem. (2) This is where brainstorming comes in. It is a spontaneous, group discussion designed to generate ideas and solutions to problems. We use brainstorming techniques to collect ideas from as many participants as possible without judging, criticizing or evaluating their contributions. Two things need to happen to successfully brainstorm an issue. First we prepare for the brainstorming session; then we follow a set of rules to ensure success in the process.

The Preparation

Before actually starting a brainstorming session it is useful to follow these preparatory steps.

  1. Provide a safe, comfortable environment for ten to twelve people to brainstorm ideas.
  2. Arrange seating in a circle or U-shaped design.
  3. Provide flip charts or white boards to record the generated ideas.
  4. Establish meaning by stating the topic and providing the context and purpose for the brainstorming session. For example we might acknowledge that the organization is facing new challenges in the economy and that new opportunities for selling training services need to be explored. With these in mind we generate the session's purpose statement. For example, "Today we will talk about marketing. We will generate a list of new marketing approaches for our department's training services. These approaches will help us identify new and creative ways to market our services and give us an opportunity to help other organizations better manage their work environments."
  5. Design the brainstorming question. This usually means using a "why," "when," or "how" question. For example, "How could we best market our training services to the business community?"
  6. Select a strong facilitator, someone who can lead the group and control the process. For example, a strong facilitator will not allow the group to dwell too long on one brainstorming idea.
  7. Select a scribe, someone to capture the ideas generated by the group. Give them permission to pause periodically to catch up or check the accuracy of the recorded ideas.
  8. Share the purpose statement and the brainstorming question with all participants. Be sure to give them a bit of time to reflect on the purpose and question. A few minutes ought to do it.
  9. Gather the group.
  10. Encourage fun and full participation.

The Rules

When the session begins the facilitator and participants follow a set of guiding rules.

  1. There is no such thing as a bad idea. Instead participants say whatever comes to mind no matter how silly or obtuse the idea seems to be.
  2. Keep them coming! The more ideas generated the better.
  3. No discussion. The group is simply looking for as many ideas as possible. (There will be time to discuss them later.)
  4. Piggy-back on other participant's ideas.

There, we're done! If the preparations were made and the rules followed, we've generated a dynamic list of ideas, or have we?


What do we do with all these ideas or data? At this point the facilitator can engage in a focus discussion. To do this we address four interative steps to help arrive at a decision point.

1. Facts

  • To begin this process we collect the facts. We can access our senses by asking what we saw, heard, smelled, tasted or felt about an issue or situation. We can also access our creativity by asking for ideas about an issue or situation. At this point we are only interested in collecting facts.

2. Feelings

  • Once we have the facts (observable or idea-based) it's time to reflect. We ask how people feel about the facts on display. Do they inspire, anger, frustrate, overwhelm, etc?

3. Themes

  • Now we're ready for some rational consideration. What themes seem to be emerging from the facts? Is there some purpose of significance to facts and feelings we collected and considered?

4. Decisions

  • Once we've collected and considered our facts and feelings, we may be ready to made a decision. We could ask how we will respond or handle the information we have. What decision can we make concerning the issue? Is it a actionable decision that can be dealt with immediately or is it a tentative decision requiring further study and elaboration.

The facilitator requires strong interpersonal skills to guide this discussion successfully.

The Downside of Brainstorming

A common problem with brainstorming deals with the character of the participants. Some are extroverted and share plenty of ideas. Others are introverted and share little. Then there are the alpha males or alpha females who, unfettered by a weak facilitator, come to dominate the session. Their particular idea is amplified and argued to the exclusion of all else.

So, how do we deal with them? This is where some special facilitation techniques come into play. There are two techniques that help here. The first is called an affinity event (a way of looking at trees so we can see a forest). In this variation of brainstorming, participants generate many ideas (trees) and then organize them into common affinities (forests). The second is called a storyboard event or storyboarding (a way of looking at forests so we can see the trees). Here participants create major headings (forests) and break them into specific attributes (trees).

The two, special techniques.



  1. Some of my favourites include Joseph Ledoux's "Mind, Brain, and Self" in The Next Fifty Years: Science in the First Half of the Twenty-First Century. (New York: Vintage Books, 2002), Norman Doidge's The Brain That Changes Itself. (New York: Viking Press, 2007), Joseph Chilton Pearce's Evolution's End (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1992) and, for a more applied approach, Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005).
  2. In brainstorming we exercise the rational (left-brain) and creative (right-brain) parts of the brain.
© 2011  Michael C Kelly