Brainstorming is a problem-solving technique in which a group of people freely and spontaneously present their ideas, build upon each other's visions and intuitions, until something new and unique emerges. The technique is designed so that critical and negative thinking, usual in group settings, is temporarily suspended so that ideas can flow freely and may be expressed without embarrassment.
A.F. Osborne is credited with inventing the technique in 1941. Osborne published his ideas in 1957 in a book entitled Applied Imagination. The well-known author Arthur Koestler (famous for his Darkness at Noon) laid out the manner in which humor, invention, and artistic creativity all result from unsuspected linkages between seemingly different ideas and images—a phenomenon used in brainstorming. That book was entitled The Act of Creation.
Brainstorming is widely applicable to the solution of any problem whatever it might be. It is used in problems related to concrete physical objects as well as very abstract administrative procedures.
Three critical factors determine the success of a brainstorming effort. First, the group must strive to produce a large quantity of ideas to increase the likelihood that the best solution will emerge. Second, the group must be certain to withhold judgment of the ideas as they are expressed. Third, the group leader must create a positive environment for the brainstorming session and channel the creative energies of all the members in the same direction.
During the brainstorming session, meanwhile, participants should keep in mind the following:
- The aim of the session is to generate a large quantity of ideas. Self-censorship is counterproductive. A brainstorming session is successful when the sheer quantity of ideas forces participants to move beyond preconceived notions and explore new territory.
- Discussions of the relative merits of ideas should not be undertaken as they are voiced; this slows the process and discourages creativity.
- Seniority and rank should be ignored during the session so that all participants feel equal and feel encouraged to be creative.
- A lively atmosphere should be maintained, and when activity lags, someone should strive to introduce a novel and surprising perspective. A brainstorming team might, for example, shift the viewpoint and ask: How would a five-year old look at this problem'¶?
After the brainstorming portion of the meeting has been completed, the leader or group should arrange all the ideas into related categories to prioritize and evaluate them. These lists can then be evaluated and modified by the group as needed in order to settle on a course of action to pursue. After the conclusion of the meeting, it may be helpful to send participants a copy of the idea lists to keep them thinking about the issue under discussion. The group moderator may ask members to report back later on ideas they considered worthy of action, and to offer any ideas they might have about implementation.
There are a number of variations on the basic theme of brainstorming. In "brainwriting" the members of a group write their ideas down on paper and then exchange their lists with others. When group members expand upon each other's ideas in this way, it frequently leads to innovative new approaches. Another possibility is to brainstorm via a bulletin board, which can be hung in a central office location or posted on a computer network. The bulletin board centers upon a basic topic or question, and people are encouraged to read others' responses and add their own. One benefit of this approach is that it keeps the problem at the forefront of people's minds. Finally, it is also possible to perform solo brainstorming. In this approach, a person writes down at least one idea per day on an index card. Eventually he or she can look at all the cards, shuffle them around, and combine the ideas.
Correl, Linda Conway. Brainstorming Reinvented: a corporate communications guide to ideation. Response Books, 2004.
Cory, Timothy. Brainstorming. IUniverse, December 2003.
Hurt, Floyd. "Beating Brainstorming Blues." Association Management. April 2000.
Koestler, Arthur. The Act of Creation. Penguin Group, 1964, reissued in 1989.
Osborne, A.F. Applied Imagination. Scribner, 1957.
Rasiel, Ethan M. "Some Brainstorming Exercises." Across the Board. June 2000.