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  • Writer's pictureDavid Nagai

Brainstorming – Rules & Tools

Updated: Feb 27, 2022

Have you ever been in a work meeting and your boss says, “Okay everyone, we have a problem. Let’s brainstorm. Who has an idea about how to fix it?”

Then the loudest and most senior members who probably were responsible for creating the problem quickly share what pops into their minds and an emergency plan is soon created.

Productive strategy, right? Actually, probably not.

If we rush our brainstorming efforts with quick solutions and no structure, we’re bound to (certain to) repeat the same mistakes and limited mindsets that caused the problem in the first place.

Instead, we need another approach that allows us to reach our full brainstorming potential. We need time, patience, freedom, non-judgement, equal voices, ground rules, and a structure.

This article is a short introduction to the ground rules for brainstorming sessions and some basic tools. Although rules and tools may sometimes act to keep things confined (restricted) and uncreative, these rules and tools build the foundation and structure that enable brainstorming to launch like rockets into space.

Clarify the Challenge

First, the facilitator, who will guide the entire session, must start by helping the group decide and clarify specifically what it is they are focusing on. It might be a problem that needs to be solved, something that could be improved upon, or a brand-new opportunity.

Ground Rules

Next, the ground rules must be clearly introduced and followed.

1. Suspend judgment

Most good ideas sound strange at first, but they are the backbone (foundation) of innovation.

This means that we must welcome any and every idea without judgment. Instead of saying, “Yes, but…” we can say, “Yes, and…” and then build on the idea more.

At a later stage we can critique and adjust ideas when we narrow down (limit, focus on) our best ideas.

2. Quantity over quality

Our goal is to come up with as many ideas as possible. Most of them will turn out bad.

This is called divergent thinking, where we expand outward in every direction where there are no limits.

Eventually, when we have to choose the best ideas and focus on quality and execution, we will practice convergent thinking, where we bring the focus back to the center around the best ideas.

3. Promote equality and diversity

The facilitator should try to make sure that everyone has a chance to participate as equally as possible.

Participants who are older, louder, speak faster, or have more confidence might have good perspectives.

However, equality of voices must be maintained in order for the diversity of voices and ideas to be fully appreciated and utilized.

Potentially, the youngest member with the least experience will have a breakthrough idea because of their open mind or understanding of the younger generation’s culture.

4. Wild ideas are great!

We need to encourage ridiculous ideas in order to set the stage (prepare) for more openness and novel (unique, original) ideas to be generated. Actually, it’s good to start with impossible or outrageous ideas so that we get the juices (energy) flowing and feel more comfortable being creative.


This article is not focusing much on specific materials. For recording words or ideas, you can always use big paper and pens/markers, a whiteboard, sticky notes, or a virtual brainstorming screen. The facilitator should somehow help categorize or store this information throughout the session.


Warm-up activity

It can be useful to start with a simple activity unrelated to the real topic.

For example, ask the participants how a random object could be used for multiple purposes.

If the object is a book, people might say it can be used as an umbrella, a computer stand, to make fire, a shelf, a shield, a fly swatter, or a desk.

Individual brainstorming

Having people create ideas before the session allows you to save time. It also helps quieter individuals feel more comfortable thinking of ideas without as much immediate pressure.

Another way to do it is to have people silently take five minutes alone to use any of the tools during the actual session and then share with each other and combine ideas.

Reverse brainstorming

Flip words, ideas, or question upside down.

Try viewing the problem as a great opportunity.

How could we make the problem worse?

How could we do the opposite of our goal?

What is the most dangerous idea?

Learn from existing models

Consider any companies, sports, cultures, religions, governments, personalities, school subjects, famous people, films, professions, shapes, colors, food, etc.

Word associations

Find random words in a dictionary (or from anywhere) or words that have an opposite. (Bigger-smaller, open-close, friendly-unfriendly, male-female, adult-child, dark-light, etc.) Look at the words and let them spark ideas.

Use images

Look at magazines, websites, etc. and let the images spark ideas. Participants could look at their own image resources or look together at the same images.


Now I’ll share five brief hypothetical (imagined) examples from an imaginary bathtub company that wanted to innovate their tub design. Here are some of the tools and ideas they came up with.

Reverse Brainstorming

Share ridiculous ideas:

Tub that floats in the ocean, portable pocket tub, tub in outer space.

A tub in outer space gave a new idea about aliens, and then importing unique tub materials from foreign counties.

Reverse brainstorming ­

Design a dangerous tub:

Electric massage current, tub for your car, include knives.

The knives idea produced an idea about cooking, and that led to them adding an adjustable counter/desk that allowed dining or working.

Word association

Famous person = Donald Trump:

Strong, business, rich people, elderly, wall.

The wall idea sparked another idea about an adjustable wall so that there could be two different temperatures or oils in the baths.

Use images

Image of kids playing in a forest:

Animal sounds, eco-friendly, toys.

Eco-friendly and toys were later combined to make floating kids’ toys that could be used as a monthly subscription. Then, as kids get bored or get older, they can return their toys in exchange for different eco-friendly varieties. Kids stay happy and parents don’t have to deal with old toys. The company started a separate toy subscription in many different areas besides only bath toys.


Just think about all the problems and opportunities we face in life and at work. Oftentimes a great idea is within reach, if only we make the time and space to ask the right questions and combine different ideas into something novel.

Creating a personal attitude and group culture of openness and curiosity is key to making this a daily reality.

Why don’t we practice every day to create spaces of less judgement and more curiosity about what might be possible?

Imagine what kind of innovations, both big and small, could enrich our lives and the world if we dream together.


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