Since Alex Osborn’s (the “O” of BBDO) seminal book “Your Creative Power” was published in 1948, the default action for any organisation looking to harness their creative power to come up with ideas is to try and do it in a group setting.  A brainstorm. The idea that getting a group of individuals together to generate ideas is more effective than an individual has been a well-held assumption, but still the notion that brainstorms don’t work, persists.

I’ll be honest, just the word brainstorm makes me feel a bit sick. The idea of enforced routine of creativity is not something that appeals to me. I dread the thought of someone opening another meeting with the request that we think “outside of the box” and do some “blue sky thinking”.

Behind the clichés and the rhetoric however, is a structure that put in place in the right way, can generate a significant number of ideas. According to the Pauling theory “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas”. Linus Pauling is a double Nobel Prize winner, so I guess it’s fair to say he had a couple of good ideas in his life and is worth listening to.

What stands out for me in the Pauling theory is that he implies that in order to have a good idea you need to have lots of bad ones. What I can take from that is that a successful session of idea generation is about quantity not quality and evaluation of those ideas can come later.brainstorm

There are of course counter arguments to this, with some proponents of the discursive brainstorm model – where ideas should be challenged and argued.

My opinion is that ideas should be challenged and argued, but after the event.  I have spent a lot of time arguing the merits of an idea in a brainstorm for it to be ruled out after about 20 minutes discussion. Not very productive at all.

My experience is that the difference between a good brainstorm and a bad one is the people you have in the room. The key is having a good mix of “thinkers” and “builders”. Some people are good at coming up with an idea and some build on that seed of an idea into something else – potentially something better. Have an idea, build on it, make it different, make it better, and move on to the next one.

Not every idea is going to be a good one, but it may well be the stepping-stone to a good idea, which becomes a great idea as people build on it. The lead should encourage building by the thinker and invite others to build on their idea “tell me more about that”, “how can we make that bigger?” “what else can we add into that?” etc.

The best people in brainstorms are those who have a wide range of interests and fields of expertise, they can call on varied experiences and angles of approach that encourage lateral thinking.  Surround yourself with different viewpoints and different demographics to ensure you aren’t getting a homogenous viewpoint.

Creating the right environment is also important, one that allows people to feel confident enough to speak up with an idea in the knowledge that they aren’t going to be laughed out or talked down. Going into the room with a flat hierarchy is key to this – job titles shouldn’t mean anything in a brainstorm. The best ideas might come from the unpaid intern and they should be encouraged to speak up without fear.

Here are some good tips to having a successful brainstorm:


Find people you don’t usually work with, so you don’t know how they think. Different people think differently.

Quantity not quality

What Linus Pauling said.


People need to be able to speak without fear of being put down. However, this comes from organisational culture rather than defined brainstorming rules, so think about the wider picture too.

Build up and out

The best ideas are often a combination of builds on an original idea.

Fill the gaps

Silence is the big killer in brainstorms; make sure you have a facilitator who knows when to move on to keep the flow going.

Be visual

A picture is worth a thousand words. Writing on a post-it note might work for you, but you want people to start visualising and building the idea, so help that process with a visual. A badly drawn sketch with stickmen works equally well.

Tristan Woods-Scawen is an account director at Kennedy Monk. Contact him on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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