The hero is faced with a huge—potentially insurmountable—challenge. A random event or object sparks their creativity, and suddenly they devise a brilliant solution to save the day.
As romantic as this narrative is, it’s also highly unrealistic. Most of us don’t spontaneously develop genius ideas. We have to put ourselves in the right conditions and work hard to think of ideas.
That’s where brainstorming comes in. Brainstorming helps us be innovative on demand—that is, when it works. It can also quickly be a waste of time discussing random ideas. If you want to generate great ideas, the key is to brainstorm effectively
. Here’s how.
The History of Brainstorming
As central as brainstorming feels to modern work culture, it’s actually relatively new. In 1948, advertising executive Alex Osborn published Your Creative Power
, a book with a chapter on brainstorming or “using the brain to storm a creative problem—and doing so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective,” as he defined it.
Osborn said his team used this technique to generate 87 ideas in 90 minutes. To help others take advantage of its creative power, he outlined four primary rules:
- No negative feedback
- Focus on quantity over quality
- Use others’ ideas as launchpads
- Encourage big thinking
Brainstorming was a huge hit. It’s become one of the most popular ways to come up with new ideas. But as anyone who’s ever sat through endless—and unproductive—brainstorming sessions knows, it can also be a huge waste of time.
To make sure both your independent and group brainstorming sessions lead to novel (and useful!) ideas, experiment with these 12 strategies both on your own and with a group.
5 Ways to Brainstorm on Your Own
Independent brainstorming may seem like an oxymoron. However, Osborn’s own research shows it can be more effective than group collaboration. A 1958 Yale study found people working by themselves developed twice as many solutions to creative puzzles as those in groups.
Try these strategies next time you’re solo and need to spark some creativity—and perhaps give them a try before your team brainstorming sessions, to come ready with ideas.
1. Find Word Associations
Leadership trainer Andy Kelund recommends choosing a random noun(ideally one that’s unconnected to the focus of your brainstorming session) and combining it with your brainstorming focus. Use the union as a springboard for more ideas.
Suppose you want to host an event for your customers. You open a dictionary, flip to an arbitrary page, and see the word “frog.” This reminds you of the frog your school photographer used to bring to picture day to make kids smile, which inspires you to hire professional photographers to take LinkedIn headshots at the event.
2. Use a Prompt
Just as writers use written prompts to find inspiration, you can use prompts to think of your next brilliant idea.
Packs of creative work cards known as “method cards” were popularized by design agency IDEO. These cards would include different prompts to help you think, say, about the material you’d use or the customer group you’re focusing on. You can find example decks on Method Kit, with brainstorming prompts for projects, personal development, product developments, startups, marketing and PR, workshop planning, personas, and more.
your own method cards from a PDF template.
Alternatively, ask a coworker to make up a prompt for you. The best prompts are pretty abstract phrases (like “Describe your challenge or goal to a five-year-old” or “Do the last thing first”), so your colleague doesn’t need to be familiar with what you’re doing.
3. Use a Visual Jumpstart
Pick an interesting image that’s somehow related to the focus of your brainstorm. For the customer marketing event brainstorm example, you might select a photo of customers, a conference, or people mingling. Search Google Images for a photo to use.
Write down everything that comes to mind when you look at that photo: phrases, memories, and related thoughts.
Once you’ve completely exhausted your associations, review the list and see if anything jumps out. If you can’t find an item with obvious potential, try combining two or more thoughts.
4. Give Yourself Boundaries
It seems counterintuitive, but boundaries can make you more creative. The fewer resources you have to work with, the more inventive you have to be—perhaps a way to tap that superhero gift of coming up with solutions in crisis.
To benefit from this effect, take whatever problem or opportunity you’re trying to brainstorm for—and amp up the difficulty.
For instance, if you have three months to create a new user acquisition strategy, ask yourself how you’d approach the same project if you only had one month—or a day.
Perhaps you have a $10,000 partner marketing budget. Challenge yourself to create a plan using $5,000 or even $500.
Use the solutions you develop as a springboard for your fully-fledged idea, or surprise your manager by hitting your goal before the deadline or under budget.
5. Take Away Boundaries
On the flip side, giving yourself mental freedom can also help you innovate. Try imagining you had as much of one resource as you wanted to get the job done—whether that’s time, money, expertise, or help from your co-workers. What would you do?
Take that idea, and scope it down.
As an example, suppose your company is opening a new office, and you’re responsible for the PR campaign. If you had a blank check, you might buy Snapchat Spectacles for every attendee and turn their videos from the night into a cool promo video.
Because you don’t
have an unlimited budget, you turn this idea into paying for a Snapchat filter, encouraging participants to add your brand on the app and giving prizes to those who send you Snaps.