Insights from Our Office

How to run a brainstorm for introverts (and extroverts too)

How-to-brainstormCocktail party trivia: Brainstorming was invented in the 1930s as a practical idea-generation technique for regular use by “creatives” within the ad agency BBDO. That all changed in 1942, when Alex Osborn — the “O” in BBDO — released a book called How to Think Up and excited the imaginations of his fellow Mad Men.

Since 1942, the idea-generation technique that began life in a New York creative firm has grown into the happy kudzu of Silicon Valley startups. Somewhere near Stanford, an introvert cringes every time the idea comes up of sitting in a roomful of colleagues, drawing half-baked ideas on Post-it notes, and then pasting them to the wall for all to see. (If this is you, watch David Kelley’s TED Talk on creative confidence, followed by Susan Cain’s on the power of introverts.)

I’ve run a lot of brainstorms over the years: with designers at IDEO, with Tom and David Kelley (I co-authored the book Creative Confidence with them), and with TED’s editorial team. And I’ve noticed that not everyone is down with the whole brainstorm thing. In fact, I’ve come to believe that there’s no one right way to run a brainstorm. You have to be willing to modify the format, length and parameters of each session to match the mix of introverts, extroverts and creative confidence levels in the room.

Below, 12 tips on how to run a killer brainstorm for (mostly) introverts:

  1. Circulate the question or topic before you start. For introverts who generate ideas best without the looming presence of others, knowing the topic in advance is key. This allows them to come prepared with several creative options — and not feel stampeded by extroverts who prefer to riff.
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  2. Seat the group at a round table. It worked for King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
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  3. Keep each session short. 10 minutes at the end of a regular meeting is fine, as some people might get a case of the woozies if they see a 60-minute session pop up on their calendar.
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  4. Number the group list of ideas as it’s generated. Skip the Post-its and just use big pieces of paper on the table, or a whiteboard if there happens to be one. The numbering part helps people feel especially accomplished as they go. A mental pat-on-the-back.
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  5. Aim for a specific quantity of ideas. 25 ideas, say. Let people know the goal at the start, and don’t stop till you get there. Keep going after you reach the goal if you want, but that’s just gravy.
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  6. Start at your left and go around the circle. Each person gives one idea at a time. No one gets skipped over. This will help you hear from all members of the group—and not just the ones with the loudest voices.
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  7. The default mode for a successful brainstorm is “Yes, and.” As in comedy improv, good brainstormers don’t waste time tearing down silly-sounding ideas. Instead, they either improve on the idea by adding something awesome to it, or generate a new idea quickly. Another way to phrase this is “build on the ideas of others.” This is one guideline I always mention at the beginning of every brainstorm, and reinforce throughout, since it’s the exact opposite of how large, traditional corporations tend to work with new ideas. The goal at this stage is to remix and add to others’ ideas — not filter or critique.
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  8. Write down every single idea that’s mentioned, and take a neutral, respectful stance toward each idea. Consciously or subconsciously, others will cue off your lead. You want everyone in the room to feel heard, to have permission to speak their piece, and to defer judgment during the brainstorm. Pro tip: Don’t attach people’s names to ideas.
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  9. Share back the unfiltered ideas list after the brainstorm ends. You can share this in an email, as a Google Doc — whatever’s best for your team. You never know which stub of an idea might spark the next great thing for someone else on your team.
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  10. If the word ‘brainstorm’ doesn’t work for you or your group, don’t use it. Call it design improv, call it a pitch jam, call it a ‘5-minute think’ — whatever. The name is way less important than the goal, which is to get people together in a manner that allows them to generate ideas worth spreading or solutions to problems worth fixing.
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  11. Modification #1: Passive brainstorm, 5-day version. One successful alternative to an in-person group brainstorm, if you’re all physically in the same office, is to tape a large piece of paper to an office wall near the kitchen or bathroom, with your question at the top and a pen for writing in answers (at IDEO, blackboard paint on the bathroom wall worked well). Leave it up for 5 days, then take a picture and transcribe it.
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  12. Modification #2: Passive brainstorm, 5-minute version. A second alternative to a meeting-room brainstorm is to throw a 5-minute inspiration break around 3 in the afternoon, when people tend to need a boost anyway. To kick it off, send a group email (or whatever works for your company culture) with the subject line: “5-minute inspiration break: [your question here]” — and ask them to discuss. One caveat: This method works best when you start the email string with a few options you’re already considering, and keep it time-boxed to 5 minutes.

Like other idea-generation tools, brainstorming was invented to make creative success easier, not more stressful — which is why creators are still using this technique 75 years after its invention. But coming up with lots of great ideas is just one step. The crucial next phase, often in a smaller group: filter the ideas list and start picking the best ideas to move forward on.