Brainstorming technique

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Developed by Ragnhildur Ragnarsdottir



Brainstorming is a creativity exercise where individuals or groups of people generate ideas impulsively with the goal of finding solutions to a specific problem. It is a simple, yet powerful tool used in virtually all industries. The term "brainstorming" was originally introduced in the year 1953 by Alex Oxford in his book “Applied Imagination” and has now become one of best known idea generation method in the world. Brainstorming combines a relaxed, informal approach to problem solving providing an open environment that encourages everyone involved to participate. No idea is a bad idea no matter how wild they are and people are given the freedom of mind and action to spark off and reveal new ideas.[1][2]

A core function in a project manager's job revolves around creative thinking and problem solving every day. Through effective brainstorming, out-of-the-box solutions can be generated. In fact, in the PMBOK® Guide brainstorming is specified as a recommended tool and technique in some knowledge areas, such as Scope Management and Risk Management.[3] Since brainstorming usually requires multiple participants, the project manager functions as a facilitator of the session.[4]

In the following article the overall idea of the brainstorming technique will be discussed; the origin and when, how and why it should be used. General guidelines and rules that are recommended for project managers to follow in order to run an effective brainstorming session will be outlined. Furthermore, other brainstorming variations and extensions of the tool will be introduced following with limitations of the technique. Finally, annotated bibliography relevant to the article will be listed for further reading.

Overview of brainstorming


In the year 1942, the advertising executive and one of the founders of BBDO, Alex Osborn, published a book titled “How to Think Up” in which he presented the technique of brainstorming. Osborn originally used the term to “think up” to describe the process developed – something that was being used at BBDO as part of their ideation process. At that time he found that the atmosphere in business meetings was inhibiting the development of new solutions and proposed basic rules to change that. The term brainstorming became popularized in 1953 by Osborn in his book “Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Problem Solving”. Since then brainstorming has become one of the most widely used creative thinking techniques done in virtually all industries.[5][1]

What is brainstorming?

Alex Osborn described brainstorming as “a conference technique by which a group attempts to find a solution for a specific problem by amassing all the ideas spontaneously by its members”.[6] It provides many ideas quickly; ideas that may not come up any other way. It is a democratic way of generating ideas and it provides social interaction. Brainstorming is usually used in the early stages of product development, but it is in fact applicable through the whole life cycle of a project or program; at any time that new ideas or solutions to problems are required. Brainstorming is used everyday around the world by individuals or companies that work with idea generation, new market concepts, product development, problem solving etc. Brainstorming plays a big role in Risk Management for example; when identifying risks, assessing the situation and developing ideas. In addition to identifying risks, brainstorming can be used to understand the project stakeholders' views of the risks identified along with various other things.[7] Brainstorming can be done individually or within the project team and there are many variations or extensions from the initial idea. The bottom line is that you need to be able to generate ideas and allow them to grow into something viable.[3]


For the project manager, it's important to be able to recognize the benefit of brainstorming to the success of the project and provide an outlet for its occurrence. With that being said, the key attributes to an effective brainstorming session is to plan ahead and follow four ground rules:

  1. No criticism of ideas. The project team will feel free in generating new ideas when judgment is suspended. In addition to that, another more subtle rule is to avoid praise. Therefore, the team should avoid criticizing or rewarding ideas during the brainstorming session as it limits the idea generation and creativity.
  2. Welcome unusual ideas. To get a good list of suggestions, unusual ideas are encouraged.
  3. Go for large quantities of ideas. Quantity over quality. The assumption is that the more ideas generated, the more likely it is to produce a radical and effective solution.
  4. Combine and improve ideas. Encourages building on previously generated ideas.

According to Osborn, a lot more ideas can be created if these rules are followed. After the brainstorming session, the team can criticize, rate, rank, or vote on good ideas, but during the brainstorm the focus should be on getting as many ideas as possible.[5]

In addition to the four rules, there are few steps to guarantee an effective brainstorming session:[1]

  • Keep a relaxed and inspiring atmosphere. Meetings should be disciplined but informal. People usually feel more inspired when they feel comfortable. Try to avoid any interruption from computers and phones.
  • Define the problem or topic clearly. That prevents the brainstorming session going out of hand.
  • Choose a process leader/facilitator. The project manager usually is the facilitator managing the process and reminding the team of the ground rules.
  • Keep track of time. Brainstorming takes energy and if the session is too long, the more likely it is that participants lose focus and therefore waste time. The time can range from 15 minutes to several hours, depending on the project.
  • Record everything. Write down all thoughts, statements and ideas. It is a good way to have an oversight over the ideas.
  • There are no bad ideas during brainstorming. It is important to keep the ideas flowing whether they are good or bad. The goal is to produce as many ideas as possible. The analysing will take place later.

After brainstorming

After the brainstorming session the ideas need to be put in order and the best one selected. Therefore, the next steps are important; Organise, analyse and take decision. While there are many tools available to do so, only few will be mentioned here.

Affinity Diagram

Ungrouped data before affinity diagram section on the left and named groups after a session on the right.[8]

In large projects, where even several brainstorming sessions are required to cover the entire scope, the number of ideas needs to be reduced into something more manageable. The PMBOK® Guide recommends Affinity diagramming, which is a method for organising qualitative data into related groups for review and further analysis. Project managers can use the affinity diagram to help team members see the the pattern of what's being discussed and help identify potential solutions to problems.[3]

The affinity diagram organises ideas with the following steps:[8]

  1. Ideas are gathered together.
  2. Ideas are sorted into logical groups. If applicable, the ideas can be sorted into subgroups (and sub-subgroups if the amount of data is large).
  3. Header for the groups. After creating a hierarchy of related information, the groups and their subgroups are given names.
  4. The final affinity diagram is drawn formed by the groups and subgroups.

Finally, the results can be used for further analysis.

Decision Matrix Analysis

An example of a decision matrix for a Decision Matrix Analysis to choose the best ideas from brainstorming.[8]

When the ideas from the brainstorming session have been organised and analysed, they can be utilised to make a decision using the Decision Matrix Analysis. It is used to perform data analysis within the organisational structure created in the matrix. The matrix diagram seeks to show the strength of relationships between factors, causes and objectives that exist between the rows and columns forming the matrix.[3] Following are step-by-step instructions for the tool:[8]

  1. All options are listed as rows in a table, and the factors considered are listed as columns. It is the project manager and the team that decide the factors.
  2. Working the way down the columns of the table, each option is scored for each of the factor. Each option is scored from 0 (poor) to 5 (very good).
  3. Relative importance of the factors is decided, rated from 0 (not important for the final decision) to 5 (very important for the final decision).
  4. Each scores are multiplied by the values for the relative importance of the factor. The outcome will be the weighted score for each option/factor combination.
  5. The option that scores the highest is the most desirable option.


When the difference between options are quite subjective, Multi-Voting can be a good option to help choose between options as a team. It is a useful technique when there is a need of reducing a long list of ideas to a manageable number. The team votes on its acceptance or rejection which enables the project manager to select the most voted options. That results in a shorter list identifying the most important ideas to the team. The following steps should be followed in order to conduct Multi-Voting:[9]

  1. A list of ideas developed. This should already have been developed after the brainstorming session.
  2. Voted on ideas. Before the team votes on the ideas, the project manager decides how many votes each individual is going to be given. Generally, each participant gets to vote for roughly 1/3 of the ideas on the list. So, for example, with a list of 15 items, each participant would be allowed to place five votes (thus the name 'Multi-Voting'). However, that number can be altered.
  3. Votes counted. As the vote progresses, votes for each idea is counted and the process is complete. The idea with the most votes is chosen.
  4. Repeated. In the case of a particularly long list of ideas, it may be needed to repeat the process a couple of times. It will not always be necessary, but it is good to have in mind.

Variations and extensions of brainstorming

Over the years, various modifications and variations of the traditional brainstorming have been developed. It is a little like the process of brainstorming itself: One good idea begets another. Here, few popular variations will be mentioned.


Brainwriting, like brainstorming, has a goal of generating quantitive amount of ideas in a short time. But unlike brainstorming, it is done via writing, not speaking. Participants write their ideas on paper at the same time and exchange written ideas rather than shouting them out as happens during traditional brainstorming. For brainwriting, the following steps should be followed:[8]

  1. Ideas written down on a page for a specific time (usually several minutes).
  2. Ideas passed on to the next person in the team on a signal from the project manager.
  3. New ideas added to the list without interacting with anyone else.
  4. The process is repeated until the allotted time has run out.

At the end of the brainwriting session, all the ideas are collected for review. The team can then vote on the best idea or use another approach to determine what ideas to consider further.

The benefits of nominal group techniques are there might be a reduction of the social inhibitions and anxieties that might occur in traditional brainstorming as well as a highly efficient method for generating ideas. There will be a better chance for equal participation where quiet or shy participants have a chance to state their ideas. The drawbacks are that there will be limited interaction among participants which can cause a lack of synergy as the ideas are generated privately.

The Nominal Group Technique

The nominal group technique introduces structure to the process. It is a technique that enhances brainstorming (and brainwriting) with a voting process used to rank the most useful ideas for further brainstorming or for decision making.[3] The participants are given a problem or topic and asked to write down ideas for a specific period of time. Then all ideas are listed on a board where each team member reads out one idea at time and the project manager sees if any further clarification is needed. If so, the team member who proposed the idea has limited amount of time to explain the idea. Then, the team members give each idea a score following with summing the scores up, providing a rank-ordered list.[10]

Remote brainstorming

Remote brainstorming, also known as online brainstorming and electronic brainstorming, replaces physical and oral session with virtual and written one. Remote brainstorming can be done with synchronous and asynchronous communication technologies, but not matter which way is chosen they all have that in common that the Internet is used to share and develop ideas. Some general approaches for remote brainstorming can be:

  • Online chat. Distributed teams can then brainstorm using chat or instant messaging software. The session is recorded and the ideas that are generated can be prioritized later. One problem with using this kind of software is that it’s easy to lose track of the ideas as they scroll out of view.
  • Visual diagramming and mindmapping software. Some kind of visual diagramming and mindmapping software. Software like Inspiration, Mindjet and Mindmanager can be used for example.
  • E-mail. Participants can do individual brainstorming and send ideas to an e-mail where they are gathered and listed on some kind of archive.
  • Specialized online brainstorming software. Some companies have developed a software especially for remote brainstorming. That can include threaded idea generation, polls for rating ideas, idea generation and decision matrices where each idea is rated against a set of criteria etc.

The team members are then working in the presence of each other or remotely, but not sharing ideas verbally. This technique can be an efficient complement to nominal group brainstorming especially for large groups and when participants can not attend sessions or if they are in other countries.[8]


Brainstorming has proven to have numerous advantages, showing why it is as popular as it is today. However, not everybody agree on its excellence whereas it has some limitations. Brainstorming is about generating ideas. It does not help with analysing the ideas once they are recorded. There is usually a need for another technique to follow up the brainstorming session to organise and evaluate the ideas collected (like affinity diagram or decision matrix analysis). Moreover, brainstorming can sometimes be less effective than having the same number of participants generating ideas individually and then there may be other technique more suitable at each time. While brainstorming allows all participants to speak their mind and contribute to the discussion it may produce biased results if dominated by a strong participant. This can particularly happen in larger groups, where it is more likely that introverts recede into the background and refrain from contributing to the final session output. In order to deter such a behaviour it may be better to use technique like brainwriting. Furthermore, brainstorming session can be motivating for stakeholders and make them feel more engaged, but it requires their attendance which can sometimes be expensive and difficult to arrange. In those cases where stakeholders or other participants can not attend sessions, Remote brainstorming could be used instead.[4]

Finally, brainstorming may not suit in all circumstances but that is up to the project manager to decide which tool is the most relevant at each time. Brainstorming needs to be approached in the right way in order to be effective. Wrong approach in a brainstorming session may lead to argument, criticism and groupthink, where people tend to gravitate toward an idea because it seems popular.[11][12] In conclusion, by following the guidelines, in the right circumstances and with firm control of the project manager, brainstorming can be a useful tool to generate radical solutions to problems.

Annotated bibliography

Project Management Institute. (2013) A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). Available at: A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) provides guidelines for managing individual projects and defines project management related concepts. It provides project professionals with the fundamental practices that is needed to achieve organizational results in the practice of project management. Furthermore, it provides deeper understanding of when to use brainstorming in project management e.g. identifying risks, defining scope and developing project charter.

Wilson, C. (2013) Brainstorming and beyond: A User-Centered Design Method. Brainstorming and beyond: A User-Centered Design Method presents creative methods for generating product ideas and business solutions through speaking, writing and drawing using the creative thinking technique brainstorming and its variations; brainwriting and braindrawing. Each of these methods provides the reader ways to generate, present and evaluate ideas in order to begin building a strong foundation for product success. Moreover, each chapter identifies the strengths and weaknesses of the method, describes the procedures to planning and conducting the session, and suggests specific variations for specialised contexts.

Osborn, A. (1953) Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Problem-Solving. Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Problem-Solving was published by advertising executive Alex Osborn in 1953, where Osborn introduced the Creative Problem Solving (CBS) and through this creative process models he outlined a set of principles and procedures that could be used to facilitate creative thinking. The most known procedure described in this book is the creative thinking technique "brainstorming" and in this book the term was first introduced. The main message of the book was that creative thinking could be developed. People could improve their creative thinking skills through practice.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Hernandez, E. (2016) Leading Creative Teams. Apress.
  2. Project Management Institute. (2010) The Standard for Project Management. Project Management Institute.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Project Management Institute. (2013) A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). Project Management Institute. Available at:
  4. 4.0 4.1 Bartlett, J. (2004) Project risk analysis and management guide (PRAM). APM Publishing.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Journal of Creative Behavior. "Biography: Alex Osborn". Available at: .
  6. Osborn, A. (1953) Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Problem-Solving. Paperback.
  7. Office Of Government Commerce. (2009) Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2™. TSO. Available at: .
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 Wilson, C. (2013) Brainstorming and beyond: A User-Centered Design Method. Morgan Kaufmann.
  9. Newton, P. Effective Group Decision Making. Available at: [Accessed: 27. February 2018]
  10. Taffinder, Paul A., Viedge, Conrad (1987) The Nominal Group Technique in Management Training. Industrial and Commercial Training. Available at: .
  11. Silverstein, K. (2017) Brainstorming. Available at: . [Accessed: 24. February 2018
  12. Tworek, P. (2010) Methods of risk identification in companies' investment projects. The University of Economics in Katowice. Available at: .
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