10 Brainstorming Rules for Creative Awesomeness

A large part of my job at Student Life is contributing in varying degrees to our ideation efforts. Sounds fancy and important, doesn’t it? Basically I’m just saying that I and a few others are called on whenever we need to come up with some ideas. This means we attend a lot of meetings where said ideas are to be thought of and developed. This is great for me. I remember as a kid saying to my parents that I wanted to find a job where someone paid me to sit around and come up with ideas. So, as far as I’m concerned, I win and I win big.

In order to develop good ideas we utilize a process called brainstorming. Some think that creatives should just be able to come up with ideas in an instant with no problem, that we never run out of ideas. Those people are wrong. As counterintuitive as it might seem, creatives often thrive in process when in the initial ideating phase of a project. Of course, we’d never admit that. Nor would we probably implement the process ourselves if we had a choice. But that’s another blog post.

Now, We’ve all heard of brainstorming and have probably been a part of a brainstorming process at one point or another. It became really big in business books about fifteen or twenty years ago, and is still used today.

However, not everyone does “brainstorming” the same way. And I guess that’s fine. Far be it from me to tell you the exact right way I think you should do it, (after all, there is no perfect spaghetti sauce; there are only perfect spaghetti sauces), but I’m going to anyway.

Well, not exactly. I don’t necessarily think this is the “right” or “only” way to do this. What I do think, though, is that through all of the brainstorming sessions I’ve been a part of, this is what I have found works best in those circumstances.

So, now, without further ado, let me present my 10 rules/guidelines/tips/strategies/concepts/techniques/methods for how to have an effective brainstorming session.


1. The problem is the question – Brainstorming is basically a technique for problem solving. It shouldn’t be uses if there isn’t a problem to solve. The problem can be big or small but should be made as simple as possible. Begin any brainstorming session with explaining clearly what the problem is. The end of this explaination should be in the form of a question that sums up the problem to be addressed. Something like, “what improvement to frying pans are people crying out for?” or “isn’t there some way settlement on Mars can be made both feasible and affordable?” If you can’t sum up the problem in a simple sentence, break it down into parts that can be.

2. There is no audience; there are only participants – Everyone in attendance at your brainstorming should be encouraged/expected/required to participate. It’s important for the facilitator to make this clear. If someone is dominating the conversation or conversely hiding in their silent shell, it is the responsibility of the meeting’s leader to shut them up or spur them on respectively.

3. Time is your frienemy – When brainstorming you want to allow ample time to come up with as many possible solutions to your problems (ideas) as possible. However, there will come a moment when ideas quickly cease to flow and participants become sluggish, irritable and easily distracted. There’s no magic time at which this happens. It’s different for every meeting and every group. Sometimes it’s 15 minutes. At other times it’s an hour. I find that it’s usually sometime around 28:47.

4. 2 is better than 1 but 10 isn’t necessarily better than 9 – When planning a brainstorming session it’s okay to not invite every single one of your friends, family members, co-workers, Twitter followers and fellow artists. In fact, you really shouldn’t. Brainstorming can be done on your own, but it’s better with a group simply because of the diversity of ideas that a group brings. However, too many people means that most ideas won’t get heard. Again, there’s not a magic number, but my personal opinion is that when attendance gets in the double digits productivity significantly decreases. A chart of this phenomenon might look like the following:


5. The more the merrier – The whole point of having a brainstorming session is to try to come up with as man ideas as possible. You don’t want to do anything to stifle the flow. The whole idea is that the more ideas you have the more likely you are to stumble upon that one incredible, earth-shattering, game-changing, billion-dollar-making solution you never really knew you were looking for in the first place.

6. Everyone’s a critic; so tell them all to shut up – Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, kills creativity in brainstorming quicker than for just one person to criticize just one idea. Sometimes it’s as simple as a would-be critic making a face or laughing at a particular idea not meant to be funny. If this happens, kick them out. Seriously. And, yes, do it even if it’s your boss. Make sure everyone understands the rules a head of time and then force them to abide by them.

7. “No idea is a bad idea” just isn’t true – It’s a fine slogan, and one to be embraced and utilized as much as possible, but it simply doesn’t hold up. There are bad ideas, lots of bad ideas, and if you’re brainstorming correctly, you’re going to have a lot of them thrown out there. And that’s the way it should be. You just can’t worry about it. Especially with regards to your own ideas. You might know you have a bad idea, but that bad idea might be standing in the way of ten good ideas. Get it out there and move on.

8. Cross-fertilization isn’t as dirty as it sounds – Listen to everyone’s ideas. Build on their ideas. Combine two ideas together to make one super awesome colossal idea. As the Beatles sang, “Come together. Right now.”

9. Think outside the box, literally – Where’s the place you normally have meetings? You know, that room with four walls, a floor and a ceiling? That’s your box, your normal, every-day, used-to-it, uninspiring box. Wanna have a good brainstorming meeting? Go somewhere else.

10. Write it down, all of it – This might sound obvious. If it is, good. There’s going to be a lot of ideas being tossed out. You don’t want to miss any of them. So write them down, every single one, preferably where everyone in the meeting can see them. This can be the responsibility of the person facilitating the meeting or someone else. Your call.

So, there you go. Follow these rules/guidelines/tips/strategies/concepts/techniques/methods and you'll have an effective brainstorming session every time (or one that is at least more effective than it would have been if you hadn't followed all of these). Trust me.

So, have fun and remember... process isn't the enemy of creativity... Big Brother is.

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