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How to Brainstorm Ideas Properly in 2021 (Examples + Tips!)

How to Brainstorm Ideas Properly in 2021 (Examples + Tips!)

Lawrence Haywood 16 Nov 2021 8 min read

“Come on guys, let’s brainstorm ideas!”

You’ve almost certainly heard this at some point in your life, and most likely, you’ve responded with a groan.

Brainstorming ideas is not always a fan favourite. It can be disorganised, one-sided, and generally negative for ideas and the people suggesting them.

And yet, brainstorming sessions are so fabulously fruitful for businesses, schools and communities to grow, learn and progress. With these 4 steps and tips, you’ll be running brainstorming sessions that get brains truly storming.

Brainstorm Ideas Meaning

Let’s start with the (often misunderstood) basics.

In its most simple form, brainstorming ideas is when a group of people come up with multiple ideas to an open-ended question. It usually goes something like this…

  1. A question is posed to a big group, several small groups or a room of individuals.
  2. Each participant thinks of an idea in response to a question.
  3. Ideas are visualised in some way (maybe through a spider-like mind map or simple post-it notes on a board).
  4. The best ideas amongst the bunch are chosen by vote.
  5. Those ideas progress to the next round where they’re discussed and refined until perfect.

You can brainstorm ideas in any sort of collaborative environment, but the best are at work, at school and as part of a community project.

GIF of AhaSlides brainstorm slide

Host a Live Brainstorm for Free!

AhaSlides lets anyone contribute ideas from anywhere. Your audience respond to your question on their phones, then vote for their favourite ideas!

Step #1 – Start with an Ice Breaker

It feels like we’re constantly breaking ice nowadays. If it’s not the collapse of arctic environments, it’s endlessly sitting in remote team meetings, catching up with colleagues for an all-too-brief period.

It may be hard to feel the benefit of ice breaking sometimes, but when you’re about to brainstorm ideas, it’s pretty much essential. Creating a fun, friendly, cooperative environment through ice breakers can increase the quantity and quality of brainstorm ideas, as well as help participants to build on each others’ ideas and remove negative criticisms of others’ ideas.

There’s one virtual ice breaker activity in particular that can generate a lot more quality in a brainstorm session. It involves sharing embarrassing stories with each other.

In one study, some teams were instructed to share embarrassing stories with each other before brainstorming. Other teams launched right into the brainstorming session.

We found that the “embarrassment” teams generated 26% more ideas spanning 15% more use categories than their counterparts.

Harvard Business Review

GIF of an open-ended slide on ahaslides - a good tool to brainstorm ideas
Sharing embarassing stories on AhaSlides.

As lead researcher Leigh Thompson put it, “candor led to greater creativity”. Opening up to judgement before the brainstorming session meant that there was less fear of judgement when the session began.

Here are a few other simple icebreakers you could run before a brainstorming session…

  • Desert island inventory – Ask everyone what 3 items they would take if dropped on a desert island for a year.
  • 21 questions – One person thinks of a celebrity and everyone else has to find out who it is in 21 questions or less.
  • 2 truths, 1 lie – One person tells 3 stories; 2 are true, 1 is a lie. Everyone else works together to guess which is the lie.
  • Live quiz – A 10-minute team quiz can be just the ticket for releasing stress and priming minds for collaboration.

💡 Need a free quiz? You’ll find loads of choices in AhaSlides’ interactive quiz template library.

Harry Potter Quiz thumbnail
Harry Potter
General knowledge quiz thumbnail
General Knowledge
Name that intro song quiz thumbnail
Name that Intro!

Step #2 – Lay out the Problem Clearly

One of Einstein’s most favourite quotes was this: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” Well, it actually wasn’t, but the message rings true.

The way you phrase your problem has a huge impact on the ideas that come out of your brainstorm session. It’s pressure on the facilitator, but there are a few best practices to make sure you’re kicking things off right.

Here’s one: be specific. Don’t give your team a lazy, generalised problem and expect them to come up with the perfect solution.

Instead of: “What can we do to increase our sales?”
Try: “How should we focus on social channels to maximise our revenue?”

Giving teams a clear starting point (in this case, channels) and asking them to work towards a clear end point (maximise our revenue) helps them formulate the path with great ideas.

You can even move away from the question format entirely. Try approaching problems from the end users’ perspective with a user story, which compacts all the information necessary for the problem into one simple sentence.

Graphic showing user stories on a board.
Framing questions as user stories is a great way to brainstorm ideas. Image credit: Mountain Goat Software

Instead of: “What feature should we develop next?”
Try: “As a user, I want [a feature], because [a reason]”

Doing things this way means you come up with a lot more mind maps, but each one will be quicker to make and much more detailed than the alternative.

As Atlassian says, brainstorming ideas this way helps to focus on the user and to come up with more creative ideas to solve their problems.

Step #3 – Set up and Ideate

You may have heard of Jeff Bezos’ two pizza rule. It’s the one he uses when he’s brainstorming ways to waste more billions on ostentatious rockets to nowhere.

If not, the rule states that the only people who should be present in a meeting should be able to be fed by two pizzas. More people than that increases the chance of ‘groupthink’, which can cause problems like unbalanced conversations and people anchoring onto the first few ideas that were brought up.

To give everyone a voice in your brainstorming session, you can try one of the following methods:

  1. Small teams – Set up teams of 3 to 8 people. Each team heads off to a different corner or the room, or a breakout room if done virtually, and comes up with their ideas. After a certain amount of time, you call all the teams together to discuss ideas and add them to a collaborative mind map.
  2. Group Passing Technique (GPT) – Sit everyone in a circle and ask each one to write one idea on a piece of paper. After some time, each person passes their paper to the next person, who builds on the idea, and passes it on. Everyone gets their paper back with a wealth of ideas built on top of their original one.
  3. Nominal Group Technique (NGT) – Ask everyone to brainstorm ideas individually and anonymously. Each person submits their idea, then each person votes for their top 3 ideas. The ideas with the most votes are discussed in-depth.
Two people having a brainstorming session with post-its on a window.
Having small teams can often work wonders.

💡 Try the Nominal Group Technique – Create anonymous brainstorms and voting sessions with this free interactive tool!

Step #4 – Refine to Perfection

With all ideas in the bag, you’re set for the final step. Time for a vote!

Lay out all the ideas in a visual way. This could be with an elaborate mind map across a huge whiteboard, or it could simply be post-it notes that you group together by the nature of the idea written on them.

With everything easily visible, relay the question and read through each idea aloud. Tell everyone to keep in mind the vital aspects of whittling down ideas to the best possible group:

  1. An idea must be cost-effective, both in terms of financial cost and cost of man hours.
  2. An idea must be relatively easy to deploy.
  3. An idea must be based on data.

SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) is a good framework to use to pick the best of the best. Starbursting is another one, in which participants answer the who, what, where, when, why and how of each idea.

Once everyone’s clear on the idea framework, elicit the votes. This can be through dot voting, secret ballot or a simple raise of hands.

👊 Protip: Anonymity is a powerful tool when it comes to brainstorm idea voting. Personal relationships can often tilt brainstorm sessions in favour of less well-rounded ideas (especially at school); having each participant submit and vote for ideas anonymously can help cancel that out.

After voting, you’ve got a handful of fantastic ideas that need a bit of polishing. Hand the ideas back to the group (or to each small team) and build upon each suggestion in a collaborative environment.

10 minutes later and you’ve just bagged yourself one or more killer ideas that the whole group can feel proud of!

Brainstorm ideas for the classroom thumbnail on AhaSlides

Free School Brainstorm Ideas Template!

Compelling class questions on engaging software. Students submit ideas and vote for their favourites using their phones.

Get started for free

Extra Tips to Effectively Brainstorm Ideas

The best brainstorm sessions are the sessions when brains are storming. When all participants are fully engaged in the activity, you might find that great ideas just don’t stop flowing.

  • Hear everyone – In any group, there are always loud and quiet people. To make sure the quiet have their say, you can use a free interactive tool that lets everyone contribute an idea and vote for their favourite. Orderly brainstorms are productive brainstorms.
  • Ban the boss – If you’re the one running the brainstorming show, you’ll need to take a backseat when it starts. Authority figures can cast an unintended cloud of judgement, no matter how well liked they are. Just pose the question then put your trust in the fabulous minds in front of you.
  • Go for quantity – Encouraging the bad and the wild may not sound productive, but it’s actually one of the best ways to brainstorm ideas. Getting out as much as possible in the early stages breaks the ice, causes laughter and gets the ball rolling before the quality ideas flow.
  • No negativity – Restricting negativity in any case can only be a positive experience. Make sure no one is shouting down ideas or critiquing them too much. Instead of responding to ideas with “no, but…”, encourage people to say “yes, and…”.
The brainstorm slide on AhaSlides showing how to Brainstorm ideas
Get a lot of bad ideas before the good ones flow!

Brainstorm Ideas for Business and Work

It goes without saying that all businesses’ needs are different. Still, here are some brainstorm ideas examples that work for most organisations:

  1. What 3 items would you like to have to get off a desert island?
    A classic ice breaker question to get minds whirring.
  2. What is the ideal customer persona for our newest product?
    A great base to launch any new product.
  3. Which channels should we focus on in the next quarter?
    A nice way to get a consensus on the marketing plan.
  4. If we want to head into the realms of VR, how should we do it?
    A more creative brainstorm idea to get minds flowing.
  5. How should we set out our pricing structure?
    A prime factor of every business.
  6. What’s the best way to increase our client retention rate?
    A good discussion with a lot of potential ideas.
  7. What position do we need to hire for next and why?
    Let the employees choose!

Brainstorm Ideas for School

There’s nothing quite like a brainstorm activity for students to fire up young minds. Check these brainstorm ideas examples for the classroom:

  1. What’s the best way to get to school?
    A creative brainstorm idea for students to discuss the pros and cons of different transport methods.
  2. What should we do for our next school play?
    To gather ideas for a school play and vote on the favourite.
  3. What’s the most creative use for a face mask?
    A great ice breaker to get students thinking outside the box.
  4. What was the best role to have in WWII and why?
    A great way to teach and gather ideas about alternative jobs in the war.
  5. What chemicals make the best reaction when mixed?
    An engaging question for advanced chemistry class.
  6. How should we measure the success of a country?
    A good way to get students thinking outside of GDP.
  7. How do we decrease the level of plastic in our oceans?
    A poignant question for the next generation.

🏫 Get these questions in our brainstorm ideas for school template!

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