I imagine that when I mention the word “brainstorm,” most of you have a mental image of a bunch of people goofing off with sticky notes and white board markers until someone, usually the boss, saves the day and comes up with a brilliant idea. Sound familiar?  Unfortunately, that is not the way to run a successful brainstorming session. Given the fact that the world we live in today requires business innovation and creative solutions more than ever, now is a good time to review the fundamentals of a productive brainstorming session. In this article we will look at the four rules of brainstorming with a view to helping you run a productive brainstorming session.

An advertising executive by the name of Alex Osborn introduced brainstorming in the 1950s after many years of research into creative problem solving.  He emphasised the need for all members of the brainstorming group to have a clear understanding of the problem to be solved and for the problem itself to be one that could be narrowed down to a single problem statement. This means that brainstorming will not be an effective tool for every problem in the modern workplace, but nonetheless it is still an effective way to generate solutions for a wide range of business problems.

The four rules of brainstorming

Osborn established four rules of brainstorming that are designed to stimulate ideas, increase creativity, and give every member of the brainstorming group a voice. We recommend that the facilitator of your brainstorming sessions always factor these ideas into your sessions.

Rule 1: Quantity leads to quality in brainstorming

Don’t stop at one idea—encourage as many ideas as possible.  Remember, you are after ideas, not well-crafted solutions.  A higher number of ideas is more likely to produce that one idea that is worth its weight in gold than one or two pet ideas from either the boss or the loudest person in the group. To encourage idea generation, set targets for numbers of ideas and don’t stop until those targets are met. This could be 20 ideas from each member of the group or a 100 ideas from the group in total. Whatever number you set, it is all about momentum at this stage, seeking ideas rather than detailed solutions. Ideas should be recorded as simple statements, not lengthy explanations.

Rule 2: Leave your judgement and criticism at the door

The facilitator of a brainstorming session should make it very clear that there is to be no judgement or criticism of ideas during the brainstorming phase from anyone in the group, especially from the boss or other senior team members. There will be time for analysis later. Stopping to critique or praise ideas too early in the process will cause the team to lose momentum and shut down input from the less confident members of the group.  If this happens, you will end up with the same old and tired ideas that have probably been tried and found wanting in the past.

Rule 3: No idea is a silly idea

The whole point of brainstorming is to encourage people to think, innovate, get creative, and look at a problem from a different angle. In brainstorming, this means that wild ideas are not only encouraged, they are a necessary part of the process.  If people are coming up with “out there” ideas, it means that they haven’t stopped thinking about the problem.  Of course, most of the ideas will end up on the design room floor, but that is all right—because remember, it is quantity that will eventually lead to quality in brainstorming.

Rule 4: Broaden and build

You have assembled a team for a reason.  Not everyone in the room will see the problem the same way, and this allows for an idea to be broadened and built on by other members.  Think of this as a rapid-fire way to seed ideas that can then be taken on, added to, and built on. Encourage group members to “steal” ideas off other members and add to them or combine them with their own ideas. Again, this is meant to be a creative activity, so why not encourage team members to combine two ideas that look radically different to see what that looks like?  This rule might also result in team members taking a second or third look at an earlier wild card idea to bring it closer to a realistic way to solve a problem.


Creative design and transformation require many steps, one of which is brainstorming. Run properly, a brainstorming session will generate ideas to take forward and develop into more mature solutions.  These four simple rules could be the difference between a brainstorm or a brain fade—and right now, you don’t have time for brain fade.

Matt Wilson

Author Matt Wilson

Matt Wilson is a design and transformation coach specialising in individual, group, and organisational transformation. A graduate of the INSEAD Executive Master of Change program, he is passionate about the psychology of change and in particular, finding solutions to overcome resistance to change.

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