Brainstorming: The way we do it

Israel Bionyi Nyoh

How to create robust solutions to problems: Brainstorming can enable development of innovations and solutions to organisational problems. We share our approach to using the technique in bringing solutions in agriculture and rural development.

Groups of people assembled to think through a problem and come up with solutions. They start off the process slowly debating ideas and marshalling facts, each person sharing their thoughts. In less than five minutes, the atmosphere transforms into a battleground of ideas, with people violently shouting ideas to each other. While some systematically champion the discuss with rich vocabulary and mastery of the subject, others allow their ideas to die out, engulfed by the dominant few. The discussion continues for an hour or so and best solutions to the problem retained are strongest ideas. This scenario is very typical of many brainstorming sessions today. A session run exactly like this could find some answers to the problem but might not offer wide options or depth solutions to the problem. Brainstorming, though, is essential for innovation. Dynamic ideas developed in sessions can solve complex challenges and therefore, the need to have the right approach to brainstorming is critical.

Brainstorming became popular in the early 1950s when Alex Faickney Osborn, an advertisement executive wanted to improve the creative ability of staff. Osborn coined brainstorming in the book, Applied Imagination in 1953, after testing creative approaches with workers. Today brainstorming sessions run in different areas around the world. Large companies, charities, and institutions all over the globe more and more use the technique to breed new ideas, solve problems or innovate.

Osborn defines brainstorming as “a conference technique by which a group attempts to find a solution for a specific problem by amassing all ideas, spontaneously by its members”.

Osborn also identified a set of rules to guide brainstorming:

  • No criticism of ideas
  • Go for large quantities of ideas
  • Co-create knowledge building on other’s ideas and
  • Encourage wild ideas.

When to use brainstorming

Used to bring different perspectives to a problem, find key areas to focus on in a project or test new methods, brainstorming usually happens in a workshop or meeting with small and large groups working together on ideas.

Steps to the process?

There are several approaches to brainstorming. A Wikipedia curation on the tool talks of the following different approaches:

  • Nominal group technique
  • Group passing technique
  • Team idea mapping method
  • Directed brainstorming
  • Guided brainstorming
  • Individual brainstorming
  • Question brainstorming

We often organise brainstorming sessions and in our experience, we have successfully applied the following approach:


  • Prepare content and people: Think thoroughly about contents to explain the discussion and quality of participants to involve in the process.
  • Prepare a set of materials and information to use, including questions and carefully plan how the information would be delivered to the audience.
    Prepare the venue of the event and make sure all the logistics are well-arranged beforehand.


  • Ask the right questions: Ask a series of “right questions” for teams to explore during a series of idea generation sessions. “Right questions” guides people to give more ideas. It enhances participants’ understanding and enables new or unfamiliar perspectives to the problem. People write down ideas in silence on the subject in cards and post on a board or wall.
  • Divide into small groups for discussions: Divide participants into small groups to make sense of the information, discussing and clustering information and synergies according to their understanding.
  • Discuss group understanding of ideas in a plenary: Each group present their ideas and consider questions or suggestions if only it leads to more clarity and understanding of the issues agreed in the groups.
  • Help participants visualise group results as part of the whole process: Facilitation triggers participants to think of discussions in each focus group as part of the process. Facilitation can make sense of the information and let participants endorse a harmonious story about the ideas they all agree on.


  • Follow up. Analyse ideas further and follow-up on some participants’ ideas that make sense but could be further developed and recorded. The whole is then put together and shared with participants, explaining why certain ideas were stronger to solve the problem.

Is brainstorming effective online?

Brainstorming though very popular is hugely criticised as ineffective and a complete waste of time. Critics say extroverts and people with strong mouths or mastery of the subject usually dominate the discussion. Introverts may have great ideas not sourced in meetings because of the dominant forces present. They argue that brainstorming could be done better online. A February 2016 Harvard review suggested ‘brainwriting’ or ‘electronic brainstorming’ is the best way of doing brainstorming. The review argues that virtual brainstorming can easily drop the problem of a dominant character in group discussions, promote diversity, and anonymity leading to more contributions. According to the review, electronic brainstorming run through electronic meeting systems can also synthesise ideas, eliminating repetitions, saving time and money. The online brainstorming process needs specific technology to run the process.

However, whether online or on-site, whenever brainstorming applies, in whatever context using one or diverse approaches, the outcome must solve problems and bring innovation.

Know more


  1. SDC curation on brainstorming


  1. KS Toolkit curation on brainstorming


  1. Harvard reviews on brainstorming




  1. Mckinsey: Seven steps to better brainstorming


Important References

  1. Wikipedia on brainstorminghttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brainstorming
  2. Knowledge Master on brainstorming: http://conceptmaps.it/KM-BrainstormingOrganizations-eng.htm

Other readings

  1. What’s All the Hubbub About Brainstorming?


  1. History and use of brainstorming


  1. Stop brainstorming and start sprintinghttp://bit.ly/2aNTQTh