The Apollo 13 Mission Control team faced a huge number of seemingly insurmountable obstacles after an oxygen tank exploded on board the 1970 mission to the moon. They needed to find a new route that would get the astronauts back to Earth quickly with a limited supply of life-supporting fuel and power.

The most pressing problem was a buildup of carbon dioxide in the ship. Without a replacement scrubber, stored out of reach in a different module in the craft, the crew would soon asphyxiate from their own exhalations.

In the 1995 movie version of this dramatic event, Apollo 13, Flight Director Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris) assembles the top engineers and scientists in a room for a brainstorming session. He tells the group to forget the flight plan, and that they would be “improvising a new mission.” Standing in front of a chalkboard, he quickly sketches the original route of the ship. Then, when one of the engineers suggests a new route, Kranz alters the original route to show a slingshot approach that would use the moon’s gravity to whip the astronauts back toward Earth.

In a later scene, a group of engineers tasked with devising a new filtration system dumps the same items aboard Apollo 13 onto a table. They proceed to prototype a fix that the crew can build from the objects at hand, ending up with a literal “duct-tape solution.”

In each case, the route to resolving the problems seemed relatively straightforward, if fraught with urgency: get a bunch of smart people in a room, and have them collectively come up with ideas until the best solution was found. We can assume that the film was faithful to what happened in the real life control room in Houston, but what conditions created such a successful environment for brainstorming?

The term “brainstorm” was popularized by the ad agency executive Alex Osborn in his 1953 book Applied Imagination (though he had outlined his method in a 1948 book, Your Creative Power). Osborn claimed that by organizing a group to attack a creative problem “commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective,” creative output could be doubled.

Osborn created 2 main rules for a successful brainstorm:

  1. Defer judgement
  2. Reach for quantity

Deferring judgement reduced social inhibitions in the group—no one would be stigmatized for shouting out a crazy idea. By reaching for quantity, participants would boost their overall creative output and increase the likelihood of coming up with innovative solutions.

As we discussed in Pencils before pixels, brainstorming in a group might not work as well for original ideas, as compared to individuals working independently.  However, brainstorming adds value to the creative process in ways that don’t just involve coming up with ideas.

Brainstorming isn’t about new ideas, really

It turns out that the power of brainstorming doesn’t really come from spontaneously generating new ideas. Rather, the real strength in brainstorming stems from the process’s ability to:

  • Quickly generate lots of ideas, to help get an overview of the conceptual landscape. These are not necessarily new ideas (or good ideas). They may have been brewing for a while as individuals considered the problem beforehand. These ideas can become the seeds for solutions, to be investigated with prototypes.
  • Gather a team into a physical space where everyone can share perspectives on the problem and become aware of the potential solution spaces as they are surfaced. Done well, it can energize a team (and done poorly, it can deflate one).
  • Get clients or stakeholders to buy into the design process, and also learn what is important to these decision makers.

Generating ideas, sharing perspectives, and gaining stakeholder buy-in are lofty goals. To achieve them via brainstorming requires careful planning. In the next few sections, we’ll cover how to properly set the stage for success.

Prepare for brainstorming success

Before we dive into suggestions for making your brainstorms more successful, a caveat—just like any other creative tool, there are a lot of ways to run a brainstorm, some of which might work better for certain types of problems. The only way you’ll learn which technique works best for you is to experiment with a few.

You’ll remember from our introduction that Alex Osborn sets 2 guidelines for a successful brainstorm:

  1. Defer judgement
  2. Reach for quantity

While these are fundamentally important, there are a few additional guidelines that will make your brainstorm more successful.

Before the brainstorm

A key part of the brainstorming process is the facilitator—someone who will lead the session, keep track of time, and set up the space for the group. This facilitator can also make sure that the group comes prepared with a mission framed by problem statements.

Set a mission

Your brainstorming session should have a clear goal. What problem(s) are you surfacing ideas for? What is the best method for coming up with this goal?

Recall that Stanford’s d.school design thinking framework (below) alternates between generative (flaring) and selective (focusing) phases. As you Empathize, you gather data and stories from your users, generating insights and flaring out.

As you begin to synthesize that information and come closer to Defining your point of view (POV), you become selective about the solution space you will pursue, and you focus.

In the current Ideate phase, you flare out again as you generate a multitude of ideas and select promising solutions for Prototyping. Doing this helps your team step beyond obvious solutions, harness the collective creativity of the team, and discover new and unexpected areas to explore.

How do you go about generating those ideas? The POV that you generated in the Define phase is a great platform to help start the process. Using your POV problem statement, come up with “How might we … ?” topics that are subsets of the entire problem. If your POV is well constructed, these topics should fall naturally out of it.

For example, let’s go back to Doug Dietz’s POV.

“We met scared families trying not to fall apart during the hospital visit. We were amazed to realize that they have to sedate 80% of the children between 3 and 8 years old, in order to have them be scanned. It would change the world if we could capitalize on the child’s amazing imagination to transform the radiology experience into a positive, memorable adventure.”

With that POV, you can pretty easily come up with problem statements like “How might we make the MRI scanner a more imaginative space?” or “How can we reduce anxiety before appointments by sparking children’s imaginations?” With these topics, you can then set up brainstorming sessions to surface a lot of ideas.

Set up the space

For a good brainstorm to happen, the energy in the room needs to be right. First, pick a space that has large whiteboards or room on a wall to set up poster-sized Easel Pads. The room should also be somewhat enclosed if there is a worry about bothering other teams (brainstorming can get boisterous)—but there are alternate techniques for a quiet brainstorm, which we’ll get to a little later.

Get into the right headspace

If you’re coming into a brainstorming session from individual work, it can be a little jarring to adopt a collaborative mindset—and hard to ramp up your energy level accordingly. The facilitator should spend a few minutes getting everyone acclimated. There are quick, improv-based techniques for this, like Sound Ball or Knife, Baby, and Angry Cat. You can also use the 30 Circles Exercise that we outline later in this article.

Limit the time

A brainstorm can quickly run out of steam if the facilitator doesn’t establish time limits and keep the conversation moving. Setting a time limit for each topic is a good idea (15–20 minutes works well, depending on how many topics you need to cover). You can also set a goal for the number of ideas per topic (e.g., 100 ideas in 20 minutes). Use a Time Timer so everyone has a visual indicator and benefits from adrenaline-powered sprints as the time begins to run short.

During the brainstorm

When the brainstorm kicks off, the moderator’s job is to keep the momentum going, stay on topic, and make sure all ideas are captured.

Always say yes

To keep the energy high and the ideas flowing, a good brainstorm shares a lot in common with the improv technique of “Yes, and … ” When an idea is put forth, participants should be encouraged to build on it, putting a positive spin on the contribution. Critical energy can be diverted into productive ideation in this way. For example, “Yes, I like that idea, and we could go even further by … ”

Stay on topic

In the heated environment of a brainstorm, it’s easy to get sidetracked and start diving down rabbit holes that have no relation to the problem statement at hand. It’s important for the facilitator to gently guide participants back to the current topic. Sometimes this is best done by noting adjacent topics and mentioning that the group can come back to it later or during a future session.

Be visual and headline

One way to run a brainstorm is to have the facilitator serve as scribe, logging all the ideas as they come. Another is to arm the group with sticky notes and sharpies, so that they can walk up to the board, verbally share an idea, and put a summary of the idea on the board.

Either way, it’s important to be visual. Encourage quick sketches— these will help to clarify and group ideas.

Also, ideas should be headlined as they are produced. A participant can say, “We could create a way for the user to leave feedback for us directly via a comment form,” which someone would then summarize as “Feedback comment form.”

Whatever method you choose, ideas should be shared one at a time. This allows the scribe to write them, or the participant to be heard as they post their idea to the board.

After the brainstorm

When the brainstorm is finished and there are a hundred ideas on the board, it’s easy enough to give high fives all around and walk away without really having accomplished much. Leave a little time after the brainstorm to review and capture the ideas that were shared.

Narrow down, but not too fast

If you’ve run a productive brainstorm, you’ll likely have a lot of different ideas on the board—some funny, some weird, perhaps some verging on insane. It can be tempting to cut any idea that isn’t feasible, but by doing so you may be tripping up the ideation process. Sometimes good ideas can come from a place that initially seemed silly.

Instead, give the participants a way to select ideas across multiple criteria. One way to do this is to use color-coded sticky dots or pieces of colored Post-its. Each color can signify a person’s top choices in each category, such as the lowest hanging fruit, most delightful, or the long shot.

Capture and move to prototyping

Once you’ve selected ideas in each category, carry them into prototyping, ensuring that you don’t walk away from the session with just the safest choice. Use a phone to photograph the whole board, and then extract the top ideas in a document which can be used to kick off the prototyping process (Google Docs is great for this).

Prototyping is a flaring part of the design thinking process. Even if a selected idea is so crazy it doesn’t seem worthy of a test, figure out what’s attractive in that solution, and use that to inspire a prototype. The goal is to come into the Prototype phase with multiple solutions to build and then test.

Remember that brainstorming is just 1 step in the process of coming up with a solution. In all likelihood, you won’t come out of a brainstorming session armed with the exact idea that you’ll bring to your users. But you will hopefully compile an overview of the conceptual landscape, gain a shared perspective on the problem with your team, or get key stakeholders to buy into the design process. All of these things will help seed the minds of your team.

Here are some more insights from Peter Macdonald on how brainstorming at IDEO has evolved over the years:

“Our favored approach today is to start with everyone working heads-down for 5 minutes to begin brainstorming around each key question. Then we have people share those ideas with the group and continue with a classic brainstorm process.

“It ensures a diversity of ideas and prevents the first ideas from setting the direction of the entire brainstorm—it also helps the group build strong momentum.

“At IDEO we aren’t dogmatic about creative techniques. You should use whatever process or format works for you. Sometimes different approaches work better for different problems.

“Our industrial designers often hold “design-storms” where everyone is sketching form or design ideas at the same time and sharing back as they finish each sketch. Instead of Post-its, they use 8.5” x 11” sheets or half sheets (8.5″ x 5.5″) and a variety of pens, pencils, and markers so they can add more details.

“Our toy invention group does “tinker-time” where they build in 3D together. Every team is encouraged to experiment and create and evolve new techniques.”

Alternatives to brainstorming

You may have noticed that the “classic” brainstorming method we described requires a fair amount of coordination, and ultimately practice, to run well. It also relies, as Peter Macdonald from IDEO notes, on a “culture of trust.”

But what if you don’t have the resources to pull this off, or are working with a new team or client and don’t have the time to build this culture from repeated brainstorming sessions? There are ways to get around this.

Sketching

In Sprint, Jake Knapp outlines a method for sketching and discussing ideas in a group (listen to Daniel Burka talk about this technique in the clip below). The GV team explicitly does not call this brainstorming (which they have some strong opinions about)—but the point is to find a process that functions within your workflow and organization.

Performing ideation with individual sketches—which are reviewed by the group silently, voted on, and not discussed until the end of the session—is a way to address situations where a strong collaborative culture may not yet be established.

Mindmapping

What if you’re on your own, with no one to run a brainstorming session with? In that case, mindmaps are your friend! The concept is simple, but mindmaps can be a powerful way to move from conventional ideas to unpredictable, innovative ones. The following version of this technique is adapted from David and Tom Kelley’s Creative Confidence. You can start with a problem statement like, “A better birthday party for a 1-year-old.”

Write your topic or problem statement in the middle of a piece of paper, and circle it. Make connections to that central node, and write them down. In this example, you might write down “cupcakes to devour” and “make it for the adults” as 2 directions to investigate.

Each connection should spur new ideas (“make it for the adults” could inspire “baby birthday adult beverages,” for example). If an idea becomes a new cluster, circle it to indicate that it is a new node in the map. Be visual where possible; simple sketches can inspire new directions. You’re done when the page is full, but you can always continue the mindmap by reframing the topic and starting a new map.

Mindmapping will help you get the early, obvious ideas out of your head. It can help you look for patterns, reveal the structure of a subject, and—once you have an opportunity to move beyond a solo mission—communicate the ideas and process to others.

Related: Ideate with Craft Freehand

Sowing the seeds of innovation

In 1869, the Russian chemist Dmitry Mendeleev fell asleep at his desk. He was in the midst of a 3-day working sprint, during which he was trying to arrange the elements in a logical manner. He was stuck.

Asleep, Mendeleev dreamt of a solution. “I saw … a table where all the elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper.”

Dreaming helps our brains organize and consolidate the information that we are exposed to throughout our working day. Much like taking a shower or a long walk, it’s a time during which solutions to the problem at hand come to mind.

But these solutions only appear after the hard work of exposing your mind to a lot of diverse ideas. Ideating, whether through brainstorming, sketching, or mind mapping, can help you and your team seed this field of ideas—which you can carry into the prototyping process.