Six Stages of Brainstorming

By Robert Nelson, CAE

The power of brainstorming as a creative thinking technique is enhanced by engaging the six stages of brainstorming during a brainstorming session. Although brainstorming has been used since the 1930’s and many, if not most, people have engaged in informal brainstorming, few have led formal brainstorming sessions. To get maximum benefit from a brainstorming session, it is important that brainstorming session leaders understand the six stages. J. Geoffrey Rawlinson originally identified the stages in the book he published for the British Institute of Management in 1971.

State the Problem and Discuss
Either the leader or the person who requested the session states the problem. If optimal diversity is present in the room, there will be varying degrees of familiarity with the problem. Therefore, time (usually not more than five minutes) is given to discuss the problem. It is important that the discussion not get into too much detail about the problem, as you don’t want to get into a discussion of solutions at this point and it is helpful that some in the diverse group are not overly familiar with the problem.

Restate the Problem
After the problem has been stated and captured on a flipchart, the group is asked to restate the problem in as many ways as possible. Often, the problem can be restated in 20 to 100 different ways. In asking the group to restate the problem, ask them to step back and look at the problem as a huge elephant. Ask them to look at it from different angles and sides, to climb over it and identify as many different facets as possible. All of the restatements should be phrases that begin with “How to…” Each restatement is phrased in terms of “how to” do something. The “how to” statements must make sense in a literal way; otherwise it is likely that a solution, rather than the problem, is being identified. If a restatement doesn’t make sense, the leader should ask the participant to restate the thought in a way that makes sense in the “how to” statement form.

Select a Basic Restatement
Selecting the problem restatement that will be used for brainstorming can be done in one of two ways: autocratic or democratic. Either the leader can pick the restatement that will be used or the group can pick it. It the group is asked to pick, the leader can ask can capture a few group suggestions (4 or 5) on a flip chart and then have the group narrow the list down to the top one (or two) by voting or another method. Once the top restatement is identified, it should be re-written in the following format: “in how many ways can we…” Reformatting the restatement transitions the group from the restatements to the identification of solutions.

Warm-up Session
A warm-up session is used to get the group to focus on the session and to get them used to “free-wheeling.” The leader’s objective during the warm-up session is to create some laughter and excitement in the room. Warm-up sessions are short, but can last up to 5 minutes. They are based on the audience throwing out ideas to complete a key phrase that begins with “other ideas for…” For example, other ideas for rubber boots or other ideas for a dining room table or other ideas for a fan, etc.

Brainstorming begins with the leader reading the chosen restatement and calling for ideas. All of the ideas should be captured on flip chart pages, with each idea (ideally) numbered. It is important that the flip chart pages, as they are filled, are posted on the wall for all participants to see throughout the session. It is also important to keep the session moving, so the leader should be prepared to offer solutions/ideas. The leader should also encourage laughter and noise. Ultimately, noise is good during brainstorming; either the leader or participants should be saying something at all times. Unplanned silence can kill a brainstorming session. If the session slows down, the leader can ask for a moment of “silent incubation,” by asking participants to read a list near them to stimulate more ideas. Then, after about a minute, the leader repeats the current restatement and the flow of ideas begins again. Other methods to re-invigorate a session include taking an idea that was previously stated and asking the participants to state variants of the original idea, using a second or third restatement, or taking a break to do an additional, funny warm-up session.

Wildest Idea
The final stage of brainstorming is the wildest idea. After all ideas have dried up, the leader closes the session by asking the group to find the wildest and most foolish idea. The wildest ideas are captured on a fresh spreadsheet. Once they are captured, ask the group to come up with additional ideas based the most wild and foolish ideas. This will generate a few more ideas (often 10 to 15) and end the session on a high and fun note.

Ultimately, conducting brainstorming sessions effectively takes practice. Through practice, you will be able to move through the stages in a seamless manner. Of course, there are some other tricks to the trade, but these basic stages will get you started on running powerful brainstorming sessions.

Robert Nelson, a Certified Association Executive (CAE) and principal of Nelson Strategic Consulting, brings over a quarter-century of successful executive leadership experience, working with Boards and high-powered CEOs in a not-for-profit setting.