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Quality Tools > Tools of the Trade > 32: Brainstorming


If you ask a group of people whether anyone has done brainstorming, then almost everyone will raise their hand, yet if you ask for the rules that they use, surprisingly few people know the proper way to do it. The word ‘brainstorming’ has degenerated in many circles into a general term for sitting around and coming up with a few ideas, or simply just listing out the things that you already know.

The term ‘Brainstorming’ was coined in the 1940s by Boston advertising executive Alex Osborn and is described in detail in his book ‘Applied Imagination’ which was first published in 1953 and is still in print.

How it works

There is a lot of psychology in the effective methods around creating new ideas, because we have so many internal and social blocks to being creative. Here are just a few:

·       We fear the disapproval or ridicule of others, should we come up with ‘poor’ idea.

·       We are trapped by our internal mental models, unable to see things in new ways.

·       We feel we already know everything and that, as experts, things that  we do not know are not worth knowing.

·       The urgency of the situation does not give us time to ponder. The first usable idea will do ‘just fine’.

·       We have a preference for convergent judging and selecting over the more divergent creation of options and ideas.


Brainstorming is a method for being creative in groups and uses four simple rules to overcome these blocks:

·       No judgement or criticism. Judgement is a convergent activity and a strong psychological block to the divergence to new ideas. If you criticise, even in fun, my half-formed idea, I will be loath to expose myself to further ridicule or criticism. (Note: this applies particuarly to ourselves—we are often our own worst critics). Separating the creation of new ideas and judgement of them enables more ideas to be created.

·       Quantity over quality. Quality implies judgement, and breaks rule 1. The first ideas we come up with tend to be the ‘obvious’ ones. The more creative and novel ideas usually only appear after we have gotten our first thoughts off our chests. It has also been shown that viable ideas are not connected with the order in which they are discovered. Later ideas can be just as good as, if not better than, our first thoughts.

·       Freewheel. Do not get trapped by your own train of thinking. Use other people’s ideas to generate new sequences of thought. This also implies that the most valuable ideas include those that have no intrinsic value in themselves other than trigger ideas from other people. These ideas are often radical and shocking enough to jolt others out of their current rut.

·       Mutate and combine. Keep using previous ideas as stimuli for new ideas. Twist and change them. Often two ideas, when brought together, can result in an even better one.


How to do it

1.     Write down a statement of the problem, ensuring that it is clear and unambiguous. Using the phrasing ‘How to…’ can be useful.

2.     Recruit a diverse team of five to ten people. Seven or eight is ideal. Too many people will result in an increase in the fear factors and frustration as people wait for their turn. Too few will reduce the synergy effects. Avoid including people (such as managers) who will act as blocks to other people on the team. Do include both people who are expert in the problem area and ‘naďve people’ who will ask the ‘stupid’ questions and give ideas outside of the normal ‘expert’ area.

3.     You can choose to tell team of the problem a few days before the session so they can incubate ideas, but this also bears the danger of people qualifying out their own ideas, so they come to the session without any radical ideas that may trigger other people’s thoughts.

4.     Prepare for the brainstorming session, booking a comfortable room (armchairs are best) with natural light, flipchart and wall-space on which to stick up pages of ideas.

5.     At the start of the session, remind the participants of the rules. You may wish to start with some games or creative exercises to ‘loosen up their creative brains’. This can also be a safe environment in which to ensure that everyone has internalised the rules.

6.     Post up the problem clearly on the wall and ensure that everyone is understands it clearly.

7.     Ask for ideas and write them down on the flipchart as they are given.

Manage the rules. When people judge and criticise, gently remind them of the rules. When people are stuck on their own ideas, get them to look back at previous ideas to trigger new thoughts. Encourage half-formed and outlandish ideas.

If some people are dominating and others are not contributing, encourage the group to rebalance contributions. Be careful not to squash the whole thing flat. Be sensitive to energy and atmosphere. If things are not taking off, carefully enquire, perhaps in a break, as to what may be blocking people from finding and giving ideas.

8.   When the ideas start fading, take a 15 minute break. This should be normally be between 30 and 45 minutes. Depending on the criticality of the subject, you can come back to it again and again. In the breaks, encourage people to go outside for a walk or do something completely different.


There are many, many variants on brainstorming, including ways of approaching the problem, gathering ideas and evaluating the ideas afterwards. The only rule is to explore and experiment. Creativity is such a nefarious subject that there is no one right way and you may need to discover what works best in your culture and working style.

There are also critics of brainstorming, who consider it an inefficient and old-fashioned approach. Nevertheless, it has broad acceptance and, when well-managed, can and has yielded many good ideas.


Next time: The CPS Creativity Framework


This article first appeared in Quality World, the journal of the Institute for Quality Assurance

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