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The New Rules of Brainstorming. Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Brainstorming. (2013). Leigh Thompson. Harvard Business School Press. New Rules. Developed based on research and years of experience.

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The new rules of brainstorming

The New Rules of Brainstorming

Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Brainstorming. (2013). Leigh Thompson. Harvard Business School Press.

New rules
New Rules

  • Developed based on research and years of experience.

  • Alex Osborn in Applied Imagination in 1953 invented word and basic concept of brainstorming.

  • He got most of it right.

Osborn s rules
Osborn’s Rules

  • Express ideas openly

    • Don’t hold back, get crazy, childish

  • No evaluation/criticism

  • Focus on quantity

    • As many ideas as possible

  • Build on ideas of others (synergy)

    • Combine ideas

Myths developed
Myths Developed

  • Groups are more creative than individuals.

    • People are pro-social and team oriented.

  • Get rid of rules, relax, no tension.

  • Brainstorm as a group first to get creative juices flowing.

Research busted myths
Research Busted Myths

  • Individuals more creative than groups.

  • Groups need guidelines, structure, and some pressure.

  • Brainstorm individually first, then in groups.

    • Individuals (and groups) need priming.

      • Stimulation of visuals, toys, phrases, props – expand thinking.


  • Brainstorm individually, then exchange ideas – a crucial part of creativity.

  • Two key elements in creativity

    • Attention/focus

      • Develop then exchange a lot of individual ideas before group meets, because a group often fixates on a few ideas and gets groups stuck, slows them down.

    • Incubation

      • By developing a lot of ideas individually, exchanging them, then waiting to meet in a group allows for the necessary incubation.


  • Myth

    • People should work close together in order to generate ideas.

  • No – privacy is important for initial idea generation (can focus better).

    • Idea generation works best in solitude … and with lots of priming.

  • Cave-and-commons workspace is best.


  • Groups can be pro-social, but…

    • Difficult to be unique or independent in a group.

    • Tendency to go along to get along.

  • Need some tension, pressure to keep focused, and to be unique, independent.


  • Ideal group size is five.

    • Large groups get confusing, too much duplication, too much free riding.

  • Experienced facilitator must keep discussion focused, open, spirited.

    • Passionately attack the problem, but respect the people.

      • Fair, spirited fighting.

    • Don’t allow storytelling, explanations, or wallflowers.


  • Use blackboard, whiteboards, flip charts to write everything down (memorialize ideas).

    • Take photos on iPad or phone.

    • Put in a boneyard or repository (Google Doc, wiki, blog) so group members can actively access ideas during, before, and after meetings.

  • Mood: Consistently positive and upbeat

    • Facilitator’s responsibility.


  • Diversity is critical.

    • Don’t put friends together.

  • If possible, regularly involve the input of of outsiders who are devil’s advocates.

  • Conflict is OK – manage it.

Group problems
Group Problems

  • Going along with the crowd

  • Riding the bus without paying the fee (free riding)

  • Team superiority complex

    • 90% believe they are in the top quartile.

  • The tyranny of the average

    • Regress toward the mean – satisficing

  • Dumbing down (playing it safe to be popular)

  • Evaluation apprehension

Group problems1
Group Problems

  • Cognitive interruptus (multitasking)

    • Fewer than 95% of people can multitask effectively (and 90% of people think they are in the 5%)

    • Takes a person seven minutes on average to recover from an interruption

      • Focus, focus, focus on generating a lot of ideas.

  • Being in a group requires a symphony of skills: Listening, speaking, taking turns, taking notes, and summarizing.

Group problems2
Group Problems

  • Production blocking (time wasted while group members queue up and wait to take turns expressing their ideas)

  • Competing for attention

  • Simultaneous talking

Making groups effective and avoiding free riders
Making Groups Effective (And Avoiding Free Riders)

  • Don’t make team too big.

  • Assign roles.

  • Strengthen team cohesion.

    • Team T-shirts

    • Focus on shared goals

    • Use same lingo

    • Talk “we.”

  • Increase diversity – not too much homogeneity.

Making groups effective
Making Groups Effective

  • Craft a team charter.

    • A document written by all team members specifying the team mission and expectations they hold for one another.

      • People are less likely to renege on an agreement they agreed to in writing.

Making groups effective1
Making Groups Effective

  • Cyberstorming

    • Google Docs, etc.

    • No fighting for attention, no production blocking

  • Brainwriting

    • Simultaneously and independently writing down ideas. No eye contact. Silence. Focus attention on idea generation.

Making groups effective2
Making Groups Effective

  • Raise expectations.

    • Brainstorm for ten minutes, rest, then double the number of ideas expected.

  • Separate people from the problem.

    • Attack the problem, not people.

    • Disagreement and conflict are OK.

    • Don’t get defensive.

    • Don’t be indirect – be direct but respectful.

      • People like directness.

  • When stuck, summarize.

Making groups effective3
Making Groups Effective

  • Neutralize alpha-dominant people.

    • Aren’t aware they are dominating the discussion, upsetting others, and making others loath to participate (doom loop) and give up.

    • In group of six, three people do 70% of the talking. In a group of eight, three people do 70% of the talking, etc.

    • Use forced democracy:



The new rules of brainstorming

  • Brainwriting

    • Simultaneous written generation of ideas.

      • No guessing

      • No confessions

      • All ideas anonymous

    • No longer than ten minutes in group sessions

    • Secret ballot (put stickers on favorite ideas)

    • Flag four-six most popular

    • Groups who use brainwriting are much more effective, especially when ideas are discussed (attention) and people reflect on them (incubation).

The new rules of brainstorming

  • Cyberstorming

    • Electronic brainstorming

    • Elegantly solve problems of production blocking

    • Because ideas are displayed for everyone, they can stimulate other ideas (synergy)

    • No one can talk too much, criticize ideas, or interrupt.

    • Difficult because people have to both generate and monitor ideas, but still more effective than old-fashioned brainstorming.

Rules for brainstorming
Rules For Brainstorming

  • Express ideas openly.

    • Don’t hold back, get crazy, childish

  • No evaluation/criticism

    • Generation first, then judging

  • Focus on quantity.

    • As many ideas as possible

  • Build on ideas of others (synergy).

    • Combine ideas

  • Keep groups small (five is ideal).

  • Keep sessions about 30-40 minutes long.

  • Individual brainstorming first (brainwriting), then in groups.

  • Have clear, accepted goals and expectations (structure).

Old rules
Old Rules

  • Groups benefit most from building and combining ideas (not generating lots of novel ideas).

  • Groups are better at evaluating and judging ideas, not generating novel ones.

  • Osborn’s old rules are effective because they are rules and provide structure.

  • Quantity rule is most important.


  • Set a clear goal.

  • Keep group focused on the task.

  • Restrict people from telling stories or explaining ideas.

    • Wasting time.

  • When no one is suggesting an idea, restate the problem and encourage ideas.

  • Encourage those people who are not talking to make a contribution.


  • Focus on process and resist inserting substantive ideas.

  • Be a good umpire – enforce rules.

  • Focus on volume and novelty.

  • Break problems down into small chunks.

  • Help people get in touch with their child (open, energetic).