The Who, What, When, Where, and How to Brainstorming

For any business, no matter the size, having staying power is a luxury never truly had. There’s always the danger of the next big thing that could threaten your very existence. As business writer Gary Hamel predicted, “Out there in some garage is an entrepreneur who’s forging a bullet with your company’s name on it. You’ve got one option now—to shoot first. You’ve got to out-innovate the innovators (Kelley, Littman, & Peters 2001 3) The importance of being innovative not only has become a business standard but a standard in relevancy, but how can one be innovative? Today we’ll look at the importance of brainstorming, and why if you want the title of an innovator you need to do it now.

What is Brainstorming?

Business dictionary describes brainstorming as the process for generating creative ideas and solutions through intensive and freewheeling group discussion. In this process, usually referred to as “brainstorming sessions”, every participant is encouraged to think aloud and suggest as many ideas as possible, no matter how outlandish or bizarre they may seem. Criticism is considered counterproductive of the purpose of a brainstorming session and is allowed only when the brainstorming session is over and evaluation session begins.

Who Should Use it?

Brainstorming can and should be used by any individual or business with the need to solve a problem or allow creative ideas to flow freely.

Why is It So Important?

“The best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas” Linus Pauling

Brainstorming allows you to get out all the muck so you can find that gem. For entrepreneurs and businesses specifically, labels brainstorming as an essential tool that can benefit in finding solutions to improving upon what already exists, potentially leading to more efficient practices and cuts in costs, or for creating the next big thing. Brainstorming also allows for the collection of different viewpoints, encourages critical thinking, builds teamwork and comradery, and most importantly can get you out of your own head when it comes to being stuck.

When Should Brainstorming Be Implemented?

Brainstorming should be used very early in the design/problem solving process, once a problem has been identified. Before any thoughts of prototyping should enter your mind, you should first hold a brainstorming session, inviting as many ideas as possible, sorting these ideas and evaluating what the consensus believes are the best.

Where are Ideal Locations?

Brainstorming sessions can literally happen wherever you deem fit, but a location that provides ample space and placement for large Post-It notes on the walls, and butcher paper on the tables for jotting ideas is what was ideal for the great minds at design firm IDEO (Kelley, Littman, & Peters 2001 59). The idea is for the creative atmosphere of brainstorming to be embedded in your day to day way of life or company culture and is “most definitely not about spending thousands of dollars at some glamorous off-site location” (Kelley, Littman, & Peters 2001 56).

How Do You Brainstorm?

Although there are many tools and various technologies that can streamline a brainstorming session I believe good old paper and pencil is the best method. Regardless of what supplies you decide to use, the most important element to a productive brainstorm is the facilitator. This person can either make or break a brainstorming session and is responsible for knowing when to “build” on the momentum of ideas being shared, and knowing when to “jump” when creativity appears to stall. Facilitators are also challenged with the task of asking the right questions to spark conversation within the group.

Tom Kelley, general manager of the world’s leading design consultancy IDEO, shares the agency’s secret to their most important process, brainstorming.

Seven Secrets for Better Brainstorming

(Kelley, Littman, & Peters 2001 56 – 62)


  1. Sharpen the Focus
  • Have a well-honed statement of the problem you wish to solve
  • Being too specific in your statement can constrict creativity
    • Ex: Spill-proof coffee cup lids
  • Being too broad in your statement can be equally damaging
    • Ex: Bicycle cup holders
  • A great statement would be:
    • Helping bike commuters drink coffee without spilling it or burning their tongues
  1. Playful Rules
  • Keep the environment light so ideas will flow no matter how wild. In this instance, you want quantity so can later find the quality.
  1. Number Your Ideas
  • Numbering your ideas while developing them allows you to gauge the productivity level, as well as the evolution of ideas without losing track of the thought process.
  1. Build and Jump
  • “Build” upon the momentum of ideas being shared through quality questions that continue to spark the creativity
  • If at a flatline in the conversation, “jump” to an earlier topic that may have been covered too quickly, or to a new approach that hasn’t yet been discussed.
  1. The Space Remembers
  • There is power in spatial memory so be sure to make sure ideas are being recorded where everyone can see them (this is where large post-it notes on the wall and butcher paper on the tables plays a key role)
  • Making ideas visible to everyone allows people to recapture their mind-set if you ever need to cover a prior topic or idea again
  1. Stretch Your Mental Muscles
  • A group warm up or ice breaker can be key in getting a quality brainstorm, especially if the group doesn’t brainstorm often or hasn’t at all

For suggestions on brainstorming warm ups and icebreakers check this pdf, 25 Great Icebreaker Activites


  1. Get Physical
  • Brainstorming sessions are predominantly visual but allowing them to become physical can improve the effectiveness of quality ideas. Providing various materials and tools can allow participants to not only share an idea but maybe show it through a quick build.

For further tips on brainstorming take a look at Design Shack’s article 10 Tips for Creative Brainstorming


To retain value in the consumer’s eyes, one must be innovative, be it improving upon a product or system that already exists, or creating the next big thing. Wherever your ideas to innovate lead you, be sure to start the journey at brainstorming. You’ll find “there’s great value in letting people’s minds run wild (Kelley, Littman, & Peters 2001 63).


Until Next Time,


The Empresario



Kelley, Tom, Jonathan Littman, and Thomas J. Peters. The art of innovation: lessons in creativity from IDEO, America’s leading design firm. First ed. New York: Doubleday, 2001. Print.


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