Brainstorming is probably the best known, the most-used, and the most misused tool in creative work within organisations. Essentially it is a free-form technique for contributing ideas, ideally stimulated (and cross-pollinated) by the ideas others are contributing into the same process. The term ‘brainstorming’ was popularized by Alex Osborn in his 1953 book Applied Imagination.
Key to brainstoming’s success is a free-flow of ideas, sustained by avoiding even the faintest risk of judgement or criticism. Sadly its primary misuse is in how this key principle is often not observed. Many activities that people refer to as brainstorming are actually debates, where suggested ideas are actually challenged, criticised or visibly reacted against (albeit momentarily) by members of the group, and because of this people end up filtering their own contributions and lose the psychological free-flow of association that occasionally sparks a new avenue of opportunity.
Keys to a good brainstorming session are:
  • Following the Rules of Brainstorming
  • The quality of the initial question
  • Acceptance that there will be a lot of ‘rubbish’ that will need to be swept away in the hope of getting to something new and useful
  • Practice in doing it properly
The more people engage with brainstorming (properly) the better they get at it. In respect of the quality of the question, it is good to start the question with the term: “In how many ways can we …” which defuses some of our temptation to vet our own ideas for quality.
Conversely, the tool has come in for criticism precisely because of the volume of rubbish that is produced in the hope that there will be the nugget of a good idea. Personally, I think this is missing the point, however their solution is often to improve the question asked, and we are all in favour of that, providing there is no critiquing of responses that ‘drift’ – the key thing to avoid is the filtering.
Other techniques to encourage ideas are to use things like flashcards to stimulate association of ideas. In this respect, and for those who are seeking to brainstorm around ‘technical’ concepts and are looking for relevant stimuli, we heartily recommend the ‘Effects Database‘ produced by Oxford Creativity (explained here: Effects Database).
Brainstorming is an extremely simple tool and does not actually need an iFrame, just a blank sheet within the web-based meeting. Just for consistency however, we have provided such a sheet below. The advantage of brainstorming in a web-based environment is that it is faster to get the ideas generated, less prone to criticism, and easier to sort and group the ideas afterwards.
The following links provide more information on the tool, and also outline some more sophisticated variations that can be adopted to stretch people’s thinking and engagement in the process.
You can download a PowerPoint template of the tool below (although it is hardly worth it – and is just as easy to create on a flipchart or whiteboard).
The template can be printed off (at any size) for use in Physical meetings, or uploaded to suitable meeting or collaboration software so that it can be used in virtual or asynchronous meetings.

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