This is one of a series of blogs on problem solving, creative thinking and creativity to support a number of public and in-house training courses on the subject with regards to strategy and business development. Please let me know ( if you would like further details of half and full day workshops or services to design and facilitate sessions.

Brainstorming is one of the most frequently used creativity techniques but has received some criticism lately. So here is an update on brainstorming techniques.

Alex Osborn, at the BBDO advertising agency, defined five basic rules for brainstorming:

  1. Do not criticise anything
  2. Generate as many ideas as possible
  3. Encourage freewheeling, wild and even mad ideas
  4. Build on ideas
  5. Stay focused on the task

Conventional brainstorming involves a group of between eight to 12 people who are bought together to generate ideas to solve a specific problem – usually guided by a facilitator. However, I have observed that the important stages of research and accurate problem definition are often omitted from the process. Too often brainstorms are organised without adequate advance analysis, research and briefing and without sufficient attention being paid to what success would look like.  So you should perhaps arrange an initial session to immerse yourself in the information, explore the boundaries of the issue, see whether it can be reframed or to tease out the separate elements of the issue.

It also helps if there are some short activities beforehand (like relaxation or visualisation exercises) to get people into the right frame of mind. If there is a risk that a few people will dominate, use a facilitator to encourage everyone to participate and keep things balanced and focused.

The most productive approach to complex problems is to break them into their component parts to assess and resolve them individually. Clustering them around a single, central concept – as we might do in a marketing or business development campaign – can help retain coherence.

Harvard researchers found that the most successful option was to divide a brainstorming session into 20 minute segments alternating individual and group activities (this is called “shifting” – other research shows that individuals consistently outperform group output in both quantity and quality of ideas). Silent brainstorms are where individuals write down their ideas on cards which are then pooled or placed in a gallery for further consideration by the group.

Other studies have found that most ideas are generated within the first five minutes.  Regular breaks are also thought to be important to achieve the best results. You might try a brief excursion (participating in an unrelated activity to allow your subconscious to work on the problem) before returning to the brainstorming exercise.

It is possible to use technology (and social media tools) to facilitate brainstorming sessions on-line for individuals who are geographically dispersed.

Synectics is a highly structured approach developed by the management consultancy Arthur D Little. It uses apparently irrelevant material (see other references to forced association) and emphasises emotion over intellect and irrational thinking over rationality and involves three processes:

  • referring (defining the problem and gathering information)
  • reflecting (using a variety of techniques to think about the problem) and
  • reconstructing (merging referring and reflecting phases into a solution).

There are also 22 triggers to identify links between ideas: subtract, repeat, combine, add, transfer, empathise, animate, superimpose, change scale, substitute, fragment, isolate, distort, disguise, contradict, parody, procrastinate, analogise, hybridise, metamorphose, symbolise and mythologise. Three springboards are use: similarities, differences and stretches.

I have addressed the similar and simpler technique called SCAMPER elsewhere – for example: