Brainstorming – conceived a long time ago and much criticized since then

Short overlook: Brainstorming is a creativity technique developed in the late 1930s by Alex Osborne, founder of the famous advertising agency BBDO (formerly BDO). In a brainstorming session, the participants are supposed to spontaneously express ideas that are made visible (usually on moderation cards) and thus give rise to further ideas that are also made visible. Actually quite simple.

Despite or perhaps because of this simplicity, this method is probably the most hated, most unpopular creativity technique. In many idea workshops one reaps eye rolls, shrugging shoulders or silent rejection, if the participants are to carry out the well-known, but often misunderstood brainstorming.

The Internet is full of explanations why brainstorming sessions are unproductive, annoying, unnecessary and why brainstorming does not work in general. And when reading these articles, it is always obvious that the four basic rules Alex F. Osborne has established for his method are apparently very often ignored.

The main points of criticism are:

1. Introvert people have no opportunity to get involved because they are easily run over by extrovert participants.

2. Some participants do not dare to express their ideas for fear of criticism or rejection.

3. Many ideas are not followed up, the session is considered pointless and time wasting.

4. Brainstorming does not work, studies would show that ideas are better produced in a quiet room than in a group.

5. There is no real process and therefore no sustainability of brainstorming.

Simple rules for successful brainstorming

In my experience brainstorming works wonderfully if you follow Alex F. Osborne’s basic rules.

Here are his four rules for successful brainstorming:

1. Don’t criticize it!

The same principles apply for brainstorming as apply to the entire ideation process: Criticism of ideas in the basic stage kill any flow of ideas and is the biggest killer of creativity. Especially popular are killer phrases, which immediately kill every idea. (Read my thoughts on the killer phrases). Not criticizing includes also letting people talk to the end of the story, listening and equal rights within the group. This means that every idea is of equal value and does not depend on the hierarchical level of the idea provider.

2. Go for large quantities of ideas!

If there are only five, ten or 15 ideas hanging on the wall and nothing comes after that, the moderator may have missed a few things. Normally, making ideas visible inevitably results in further ideas and these should definitely be added.

3. Build on each others ideas!

Moreover, ideas almost always inspire new ideas and this effect is very important to think outside the box. Ideas rarely come out of nowhere and are (very often unconsciously) triggered and promoted by already existing approaches. Together with the last principle:

4. Encourage wild and exaggerated ideas!

it creates completely new thought-provoking impulses and sometimes exactly the solutions that would never have been possible before without eliminating killer phrases in the first place.

Structure and planning are important

In addition, Alex F. Osborne already knew at that time that brainstorming would only work if it was structured and planned. This means that every brainstorming session must be well prepared. In particular, it should be clear to all participants what problems are dealt with using this method, it should not be too narrow or too verbose in order to be able to work in a focused manner.

Equally important: All participants should know right from the start what happens to the ideas after the session, who and what will be followed up and where the ideas will be “parked”.

If you stick to these ground rules, brainstorming can suddenly become your favourite method, because it doesn’t require any previous knowledge and still brings to light surprising and many ideas that nobody expected.

Just try it!

P.S.: By the way, there are many different types of brainstorming, e.g. anonymous brainstorming, silent brainstorming, brainwalking or even brainrace. Use one of these forms and your team will thank you with fun and many ideas. You can find out more here: