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The Five Golden Rules of Brainstorming

By September 9, 2019November 1st, 2021No Comments

Brainstorming is overwhelming for most people…for good reason. The rules of brainstorming are usually unclear and very broad.

And finding the right group of people to brainstorm can be difficult. People assume that the more people they have to contribute, the more ideas they’ll generate, the more likely it is that they will come up with the best idea.

Wrong. Here are my five rules for a productive, inspirational brainstorm session.

The Five Rules of Brainstorming

Rule 1: Solve for 1. 

Before beginning, it is important to understand that this exercise isn’t a magical genie lamp with three wishes. Do not try to solve for multiple. To have a successful outcome you can only focus on one problem, according to the essential rules of brainstorming.

1 problem = 1 brainstorming session.  

Rule 2: No one person should dominate the conversation. 

If you have someone like me in the room, you’re going to have a problem.  I’m charming, charismatic, incredibly creative, brilliant, obviously everyone likes me, and I’m a ruthless dictator who dominates conversations when I’m not being mindful. 

And worse. I’m “the boss.” So people don’t like to talk over me (until they’ve spent some time here and realize that if you fight me, I’ll respect you more). 

So if you’re going to have a Type-A megalomaniac or Senay, who’s the good-looking guy who actually goes to the gym every day and everyone wants to be, then you’re going to need a facilitator.  Someone to keep mixing up the conversation if someone is dominating it, “Senay, that’s great stuff. From what Senay contributed are there new ideas that others of you may have?” OR “Richard, I appreciate your contribution, but now I really want to hear from others in the room for a while …a long while.”

Rule 3: Everyone contributes. 

The rules of brainstorming will only work their magic if everyone participates.

Don’t like it?  Leave before we begin, because effective brainstorming means that everyone in the room is playing the game together. If you have quiet members or introverts (Engineers, Accountants, Computer Programmers, and other stereotypes that I can’t think of right now) in the group, sometimes it is best to introduce brainstorms with individual work prior to group brainstorming. 

If we’re solving the problem of a better alarm clock, then divide up some of the research ahead of time, I.e. someone interviews people about their alarm clock preferences, someone else researches Kickstarter for the latest innovations that will be coming onto the market, someone else researches the number of people who break their alarm clocks by throwing them against a wall (or is that just me?), someone researches a similar industry for potential ideas, et cetera. 

This provides an icebreaker for everyone to come in and have something to contribute and provide as a subject matter expert before the storming

You have to have buy-in that everyone is willing to contribute because once you start that process you can’t realize that Brad isn’t participating and doesn’t really want to.  Come on Brad, get in the game! What you do to bring people back into the process is to pose open-ended questions to the folks who are being quiet, “Brad we haven’t heard from you for a little while, is there something you’re thinking on that might help us here?” 

What you CANNOT do is force it. This happens in all kinds of subtle and horrible ways. It’s when Carol suggests that we should go around the room taking turns providing ideas. Maybe we could even have a talking stick so that way we don’t talk over one another.  NO! No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Carol, you’re doing it wrong.

This is Brain-Storming, not Brain-Spreadsheeting.   

I want people screaming ideas over top of each other, furiously scratching ideas on post-it notes because their hands can’t move as fast as their brains, and I want to see everyone building on each other’s ideas ( i.e. “Brad, that is a killer idea, but what if we added lasers?”)

“That’s a dumb idea!” 

Rule 4: Don’t go negative.

It’s going to happen.  Someone is going to throw out an idea and someone is going to say “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”    

I’m guilty of it. It’s been over six months ago, but I know exactly which chair I was in and who I did that to. It was someone who was contributing and learning the process. Even as I’m writing this, it makes me physically angry to think that I did this to someone.
Here’s what happened. Someone threw out an idea. It might have been bad. It might have been the worst idea ever.  Something on par with Hair-in-a-Can level of awful. But it might have been the PERFECT idea that someone else would have picked up on to create the best idea for the entire brainstorming.

Sometimes really bad ideas work: Sharknado and Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer are two of the stupidest ideas I’ve ever heard of. Think about that, someone or more likely a team of people sat down came up with Sharknado, and then convinced another group of people to give them money to make this project happen. I wouldn’t have been able to pitch this. It’s silly. It’s ridiculous. It’s a dumb idea, but I do know that from a revenue standpoint, that dumb idea has out-produced all of my ideas to date and that I put down $15 of my hard-earned to see the man in the stovepipe hat slay some vampires.  

Instead of getting to the wild idea, someone just threw creative kryptonite into the process. 

So let’s talk about what kills creativity. It’s worrying that people will judge us. When someone says, “That’s a dumb idea,” you’re essentially punching that person in the brain.  You’re reminding them to put up their walls to keep them safe from the judgment of others.  

But it gets worse. That venom didn’t just hit one person. In a matter of seconds, everyone in the room is going to put up their walls. So ends the brainstorming, and so begins the brain-drizzling.  Everyone is now going to stop coming up with wild ideas and is going to stay to “safe ideas.”  

Rule 5: No closed-ended questions.

So you can’t be a dick during brainstorming (probably a good rule for every area of life), but what you can do is to ask questions. Not judgemental questions like, “Is that the best you can come up with?” Instead, come from a place of curiosity, “Can you elaborate on that?” or “Tell us more…”  

Do not use “yes/no,” or “true or false” types of questions. This forces the person answering to focus their thoughts instead of leaving things open to interpretation. Again, this is where a good facilitator can be very useful.  

“Emmett, do you think it would have a 21 gigahertz Flux Capacitor?” Marty asks inquisitively. 

Facilitator Frank jumps in, “I think what Marty wants to ask here is, ‘What options do you see for powering the time machine?” 

Another great tool to use is having someone play the devil’s advocate.

If we can find the worst possible idea, then what is the inverse of that? +Richard Kaiser

If you stick to these basic rules of brainstorming, you’ll build a stronger, more creative team in the long-run…if you survive the growing pains.

About Brainstorming

It’s best to start at the beginning. Find the six steps of brainstorming that will set you up for success in About Brainstorming.