What is brainstorming? Definition, guide, and methods

Written by 
Bryan Kitch
 and 
  —  
November 20, 2023
An image illustrating an asynchronous brainstorming session inside the Mural visual work platform

When you hear the term brainstorming, there are a few images that might come to mind. One is the classic stock photo of a group of colleagues huddled around a whiteboard or a pile of papers, all big smiles and high energy.

But brainstorming sessions don’t always go as smoothly as these images make them seem. Sometimes, there are disagreements between co-workers. Other times, there’s too much agreement with just one person’s ideas. And then there are days when ideas just don’t seem to make their way onto the blank canvas in front of you. 

Whether you’re problem-solving, developing a new product, or trying to come up with creative ideas for your business, brainstorming isn't just about gathering your group members together and hoping the innovation sparks fly. 

There are proven methods, techniques, and tools that can make effective brainstorming easier than ever. 

In this guide, we’ll dive into all of the resources Mural has put together to help managers and their teams run successful brainstorms.

What is brainstorming?

Brainstorming is a method for producing ideas and solving problems by tapping into creative thinking. Brainstorming usually takes place in an informal, relaxed environment, where participants are encouraged to share their thoughts freely, build upon the ideas of others, and explore a wide range of possibilities.

How to get the most out of your next brainstorming session  

Running a great brainstorming session encourages your team to use techniques that inspire creative thinking. As a manager, you’ll likely be the one to facilitate these sessions and make sure they run smoothly and produce positive results. 

How to run a brainstorming session

As a facilitator, it’s your job to guide your team in the right direction throughout the process, from start to finish. To start, prepare for the session and define your brainstorming topic. 

This means setting a clear purpose or goal for the session, deciding on a structure, and dividing your team up into small groups if need be. You’ll also want to define the rules and parameters for your team members. 

Next, depending on the brainstorming method you’ve chosen, you may need to keep an eye on the time to give everyone a chance to contribute. Throughout the process, encourage members to voice their opinions. Toward the end, make sure you explain any next steps or action items for your team. 

Strategies for better group brainstorming

Group brainstorming can help you generate awesome ideas that one person alone might never come up with. But when you gather a group of people together, it often comes with some challenges. Dominant personalities can hijack a conversation, making the exercise less effective and the rest of the group feel unheard. Groupthink is another potential issue in which too much conformity prevents you from delivering original or creative solutions. 

Here are a few things you can do to combat these challenges and have better group brainstorming sessions:

  • Establish rules that emphasize the importance of diverse points of view.  
  • Choose a brainstorming technique that's beneficial for groups, like reverse brainstorming or ‘Crazy 8s.’ 
  • Make sure team members have time to also do some solo thinking. 

No matter what techniques you implement, the key is to make sure every participant is on the same page when it comes to rules and expectations. 

Structured brainstorming and when to use it 

A structured brainstorm helps keep everyone focused on your goals or the task at hand. It’s also a good way to make sure everyone’s opinion is heard. In some cases, participants can also prepare ahead of time, which could be beneficial for the overall success of the activity. 

Structured brainstorms are best for remote or distributed teams to efficiently replicate past successes, and for large groups. 

Understanding problem framing

Problem framing is a critical step in the brainstorming process that gives context and provides a deeper understanding of the purpose of the brainstorm. It helps provide your team with clarity and a narrow scope so that their ideas aren’t all over the place. It also helps increase the efficiency of the session as you or the facilitator can spend less time re-orienting them back in the right direction.  

Here are a few steps for framing a problem: 

  1. Create a problem statement
  2. Identify the root of the problem. 
  3. Empathize with customers or stakeholders. 
  4. Frame the problem with prompts or questions that can be used during brainstorming. 

Brainstorming questions to generate better ideas

Thought-provoking questions can really help your team thrive during a brainstorming session. They provide participants with a starting point to think up ideas or directions. They can also be used to enhance or refine any suggestions or solutions that have already been produced. Here are a few examples of the types of questions that produce better ideas: 

  • Information-gathering questions (e.g., “Why did we shift our marketing strategy from traditional advertising to digital platforms?”) 
  • Problem-solving questions (e.g., “What are the criteria we should use to evaluate potential solutions?”) 
  • Refining questions (e.g., “How can we ensure the sustainability of the solution over time?”) 

Questions can help reduce the overwhelm or blind spots that can happen as you develop ideas. It narrows everyone’s focus and helps you make ideal decisions.  

Advice for teams during a brainstorming session 

Generating ideas that solve challenges can be a lot of pressure for your team. It can also be discouraging if it feels like they’re not coming up with anything groundbreaking or even viable. Not to mention, there can be a lack of cohesion and beneficial collaboration among group members. 

But, knowing the right strategies and rules for effective brainstorming can help turn a stressful activity into a productive and fruitful one.  

Ground rules for brainstorming

Ground rules help set expectations, decrease the chance of a conflict, and make participants feel more comfortable throughout the process. Before your team gets started on ideation, they should create a “rules of brainstorming” document that they can refer to throughout the process. You can create this for them or have them make one as a team. 

Here are a few examples of significant ground rules that improve the flow of a brainstorming session:

  • There are no “bad ideas”; be accepting of all suggestions no matter how crazy and wild. (You can always iterate, refine, or vote on it later.) 
  • Incorporate a “private” portion of the brainstorm so people can think for themselves. 
  • Read ideas carefully before commenting, and don’t judge others' ideas at face value. 

Following these rules and others relevant to your team’s needs can help ensure a smooth and efficient process. 

Avoiding groupthink in teams

Groupthink is when people, consciously or unconsciously, choose to agree with one another rather than challenge each other with conflicting views. This can happen when there’s poor conflict management, a lack of diversity, or psychological safety issues. One way you can tell that your team is under the spell of groupthink is when there's quick and unanimous agreement or a lack of push-back or follow-up questions to others’ ideas. 

To reduce the chances of groupthink, consider ways you can remove bias, like using a private mode or voting feature. Participants should encourage each other to express their own ideas, even if that means light conflict when there's a difference of opinion. It’s also important that every team member understands groupthink and how to spot it. 

Creating better action items to follow up on

At the end of a brainstorming session, team members should have a list of action items to follow up on. These action items hold everyone accountable and help keep track of progress as you carry out tasks related to the solutions developed during the brainstorming session. 

An effective list of action items has the following traits: 

  • They summarize what needs to be done. 
  • They explain why each action item or task matters. 
  • They have a team member assigned to each item with a due date. 

You can use a simple to-do list or a project kickoff template, whatever works best for your team! 

Tips for brainstorming remotely 

Remote brainstorming exercises can be just as successful at idea generation as in-person brainstorming. The main difference between running a regular brainstorm and a virtual one is the tools you use to communicate and collaborate. Group discussions can be done easily through software like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Plus, online whiteboards like Mural work just as well, if not better than the analog version. 

Optimize your virtual brainstorming session

Virtual brainstorms lack some of the face-to-face interaction of an in-person session. This means you’ll need to adapt your processes to fit an online dynamic. For one, it’s crucial to find a collaboration platform where everyone can contribute their ideas in a central location. You’ll also need a facilitator or point person to keep everyone on track and update the shared document or whiteboard accordingly. Brainstorming templates are also extremely useful for creating an efficient and smooth virtual meeting. 

Try asynchronous brainstorming 

Asynchronous brainstorming is a great option for those who want to prevent groupthink, improve focus, and reduce time constraints — especially for distributed teams. If you have a team that works across different time zones or working hours, ‌individual brainstorming allows them to contribute at a time that works best for them. 

Just like a synchronous brainstorming, you still want to establish a clear goal, select a collaborative platform, and outline the rules and expectations. However, a key difference is that for async work, you need to establish a timeframe and set deadlines so that you’re not waiting on any one person to contribute, iterate, or respond to ideas.  

Related: 6 essential steps for building an async-first culture

Improve group communication

Whether you’re in-person or remote, effective communication improves collaboration, increases productivity, and promotes problem-solving. But when you’re working on a distributed team, solid group communication is vital. In our busy digital spaces, things can either get lost in translation or literally lost in a pile of emails and Slack messages. 

Here are a few helpful things you can do to combat poor online communication:

  • Recognize and celebrate healthy behavior and helpful communication examples. 
  • Foster a supportive culture that invites constructive feedback but not judgemental criticism. 
  • Build trust through team activities like icebreakers or team check-ins.  
  • Use tools that make communication easy and efficient. 

Working on each of these will help your team get their footing when it comes to communicating and flourishing in remote work environments. 

Brainstorming techniques, methods, and templates 

There are countless brainstorming methods and techniques you and your team can use to uncover creative solutions. Some involve lateral thinking, while others start with a basic brain dump. Regardless of which you choose, it’s a good idea to try out different ones over time and see which produces the best results for your team. In fact, switching up the brainstorming method could add some novelty by reengaging your team to come up with new ideas each time you’re faced with a challenge. 

One thing most brainstorming methods have in common is the idea of quantity over quality. At the beginning of any brainstorming session, the number of ideas you produce is often more valuable than the quality or viability of any one of those ideas. You can always keep workshopping the existing ones until you narrow down and refine the optimal ones.  

Rapid ideation

Producing a high quantity of ideas is the name of the game here. There are many brainstorming exercises that incorporate rapid ideation. The key is to be quick and spontaneous so as not to censor or edit any ideas that come to mind. 

Brain-netting

Brain-netting is a term used to describe brainstorming via multiple digital tools and spaces, in other words, online brainstorming. Typically, it’s preceded by online brain dumping, and then connecting related ideas and concepts to narrow down the best ones.

Reverse brainstorming

Reverse brainstorming is a counterintuitive technique in which you come up with ideas on how to make a problem worse. Then, you “reverse” those ideas by coming up with applicable solutions to those problems. This process helps you discover some possible ideas for your original challenge.   

Round-robin

In round-robins, each participant writes their idea down during a set time limit before the next person gets a turn to contribute. There are a few variations of this: You can compile ideas on sticky notes to return to later, pass them off to the next person to iterate on, or refine the ideas by providing feedback. 

Ready to get started? Try the round-robin template from Mural.

Mind mapping

Mind mapping is a visual way to brain-dump ideas onto a blank page and use those existing ideas to spark new ones. You start with one concept in the middle of the whiteboard and add related ideas on branches shooting out from the central topic. Then you keep building on it like a map or family tree. 

Get started with the Mind map template.

Rolestorming

During rolestorming, participants role-play as someone else, such as a famous person or customer persona, to embody different perspectives. Taking on that character during the brainstorm can change the way they think and help them produce creative ideas. 

Brainwriting

Brainwriting takes advantage of solo brainstorming time. Participants develop their ideas individually before sharing them with the rest of the team. There are different variations of this method, including a rapid ideation version in which six participants need to each generate three ideas in five minutes. 

Start generating ideas with the 6-3-5 brainwriting template.

Starbursting

During a starbursting exercise, group members develop questions that begin with “who, what, when, where, why, and how.” These six questions are based on a specific topic or problem statement. The team uses a star graphic, with each point on the star representing one of the six types of questions you come up with during this exercise.   

Step-ladder technique

The step-ladder technique begins by selecting two participants in the group to discuss the problem and come up with an idea. Then, you introduce a third team member to the first two, and they present ideas to each other and discuss. Then you add a fourth person, and so on and so forth.  

Enhance the collaborative process of brainstorming with the right tools

We use brainstorming activities to help us with creative problem-solving. But without the right tools, it can be difficult to collaborate and record the ideas you’re coming up with together. To make the process more efficient and productive, use tools that make collaboration easier — whether you work in-person, remote, or hybrid. 

That’s where Mural can help. 

Mural is the visual work platform for all kinds of teams to do better work together — from anywhere. Get team members aligned faster with templates, prompts, and proven methods that guide them to quickly solve any problem. They can gather their ideas and feedback in one spot to see the big picture of any project and act decisively. From online brainstorming, to retrospectives, Mural helps you change how you work, not just where.

That’s what happens when you change not just where, but how you work.

Get started with the free, forever plan with Mural to start collaborating with your team.

About the authors

About the authors

Bryan Kitch

Bryan Kitch

Content Marketing Manager
Bryan is a Content Marketing Manager @ MURAL. When he's not writing or working on content strategy, you can usually find him outdoors.

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