Basic Rules of Brainstorming

Brainstorming is often evoked as a free-form creative thinking exercise, but there actually are basic rules to brainstorming, and not every idea-generating exercise is a proper brainstorm. The following excerpt will clarify the form and objective of the classic brainstorm.

“Brainstorming is an exercise in structured spontaneity, in that participants are actively encouraged, for a specified period of time, to think of as many varied, even outrageous, ideas as they can. Because of this emphasis on divergent thinking, the technique has, in Adam’s (1979, p.136) words, “been heavily spoofed and is sometimes identified with weirdness rather than thoughtfulness.” The purpose of brainstorming is to reward originality of thought in an atmosphere in which habitual judgments are temporarily and deliberately suspended. The activity is generally structured around finding solutions to carefully defined problems. Groups are usually diverse and small (no more than twelve), and they engage in the activity for short periods (ten to fifteen minutes).

As formulated by brainstorming’s “founder,” Alex Osborn (1963), brainstorming sessions must follow four rules to be most productive: (1) no evaluation or criticism of ideas is permitted, to ensure that people are more concerned to generate, rather than defend, ideas; (2) participants are encouraged to suggest the most outrageous solutions they can conceive, on the assumption that these may often contain kernels of truth that can be extracted during the analysis session; (3) as many ideas as can be thought of are voiced, in the belief that out of quantity will come quality; and (4) participants attempt to build upon, integrate, and develop ideas that have already been voiced in the session.

During the period of analysis following the brainstorming activity, participants sort through the ideas and consider their appropriateness and feasibility. If more than one group is involved in the activity, a good idea is to ask groups to discuss ideas suggested by groups other than their own. This ensures that participants who suggested particularly fatuous ideas in the charged and enthusiastic atmosphere of the brainstorming session are not ridiculed or embarassed in the colder, more considered climate of analysis. Because these are difficult activities, brainstorming groups need leaders who will firmly remind participants of transgressions of the rules, particularly the tendency to offer criticism of an idea at the time it is voiced.

Participants in brainstorming groups are engaged in a form of role play. They are trying to suspend their habitually critical, skeptical reactions to proposals (for example, “It’s too complex,” “It’s too costly,” “Others won’t understand its purpose”) and to think deliberately in divergent ways. The danger of participants’ becoming enamored of the dramatic part of the activity (generating the ideas) and neglecting the analysis afflicts this technique in much the same way as sometimes happens with role play. On the whole, however, this is a useful technique to try with groups, since it has the one great advantage of rewarding various behaviors (generally wildy outrageous or excessive ideas) that are generally prescribed. It provides a safe environment for this activity and removes from participants the fer of punishment or ridicule that would normally inhibit these thought processes. Group members are able to engage in forms of imaginative speculation that they might normally avoid for fear of being perceived as devant, insubstantial, or suspect in some way. ”

Excerpt quoted from : pp. 118-119, Stephen D. Brookfield, Developing Critical Thinkers, Challenging Adults to Explore Alternative Ways of Thinking And Acting.

This title is available for loan from the COCo Resource Library.

If you want to know more about brainstorming and alternatives, consult the two links below:

How not to do a brainstorm video:

An argument for brainwriting, a brainstorming alternative: