Brainstorming by Yourself vs. in a Group

Image of people placing post-it notes on a window together

About Brainstorming

"Brainstorming" means systematically generating a large number of candidate ideas for some purpose, usually to solve a problem. Brainstorming works because one idea triggers another. A "bad" idea, when considered seriously without censoring, can suggest a "good" idea or be transformed into one.

Use brainstorming when you want a new way to deal with something. Maybe you have an old problem or situation and you want a fresh look. Or maybe you're looking for something completely new: a new product, a new marketing idea, or a new joke.

When you are trying to come up with something completely new, standard logical analytical techniques won't work that well. That's because they rely on working out details of what you already know. In the cases I just mentioned, you need a fresh connection. You don't already have a lot of solid ideas in your databanks.

(On the other hand, if you already have a lot of solid ideas, it is much more efficient to use logical analytical techniques!)

The usual method of brainstorming is presented in the box below.

Three Steps to Basic Group Brainstorming

(Adapted from Paul Sloane, The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills, Kogan Page: 2003.  The newest edition is available here.)

1. Set a Clear Goal

  • Have a specific question to answer.
  • Set a specific target for the number of ideas to generate.
  • Set a time limit.

2. Shout Out Ideas Following Three Rules

  • Suspend Judgment. Every idea is accepted for the list. No criticism. Crazy ideas are often springboards for better ones.
  • Quantity is Good. Don't worry about quality for now.
  • Number and Display Every Idea. Every single idea is written down so it can be viewed by the group. It is numbered so you know how close you are to the target number.

3. Analyze and Select the Best Ideas

  • Wait until you have generated the target number of ideas before analyzing.
  • After generating all the ideas, divide them into 3 groups: promising, interesting, rejected.
  • You can also categorize them in other ways for further action.

A group usually needs a facilitator to make sure everyone follows the rules.

It is essential that you separate steps 2 and 3. If you criticize an idea in step 2, you will stop making connections to it. The truth is that any idea you come up with in step 2 has the potential to suggest a better idea. That's why you should shoot for a large number of ideas, in a short amount of time.

Moreover, you don't want to do anything that will interfere with the idea-generating process. In Twyla Tharp's book, The Creative Habit, she reports that when she does creativity exercises, the best ideas usually are the 50th, 70th, or 100th ideas. These often build on many of the previous ideas.

Brainstorming by Yourself

The main advantage of group brainstorming is that you get a lot of cross-fertilization of ideas. People make very different associations. One person blurts out an idea that then triggers something interesting from someone else. So, this very simple process works pretty well.

If you're brainstorming by yourself, it becomes harder. For one thing, there is no facilitator encouraging you to shout out ideas even if they are silly. The absolute basic thing you need to do when you are brainstorming by yourself: give yourself permission to have ideas that "might" work or "maybe" will do the trick. Do not require "good" ideas! Have a maybe mindset. In fact, the simplest way to brainstorm by yourself is to make a maybe list, which I explain on my blog.

At a deeper level, when you brainstorm you need to give up trying to get the answer immediately. As long as you are expecting to come up with a perfect answer by "just trying," you will be blocked and unable to brainstorm. Instead, you need to accept the fact that you don't know the answer, but you might have the material to put together an answer if you give it a hearing.

The other reason that brainstorming is more difficult when you are by yourself is that you're much more likely to get stuck in a rut, and have trouble getting out of it. You likely start trying to solve the problem with some preconceptions about the answer. Without other people's ideas to jar you out of that assumption, you can find that every idea you come up with sounds the same. The basic way to get out of a rut is to use random triggers (pictures, objects, words in a dictionary) to suggest different angles on the problem. (I explain exactly how to do this in Tap Your Own Brilliance, one of the classes available in the Thinking Lab.)

I know that brainstorming is a staple of most creativity classes, but I don't use it much. However, I use the same mindset when I do Freewriting or when I Tackle a Long-Term Issue with 3 Pages a Day. I let go having to have an answer on the first try — and give myself permission to explore the ideas that come to mind.

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