Brainstorming has been in use since the 50s, when Alex Osborn – an advertising executive who increasingly became fascinated by creative thinking – decided that the best way to generate ideas and find solutions to problems was to collaborate with your team. The general idea entailed a group of people sitting in a room together, sharing their ideas, and using one another as “springboards” for better ideas. His original four “rules” included:
- No criticism
- The more ideas, the better
- Build upon and improve existing ideas
- The more unusual the ideas, the better
“It is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one.” ~Alex Osborn
Osborn truly believed in his method, saying that “Brainstorming should enhance creative performance by almost 50% versus individuals working on their own.”
Unfortunately that figure’s unfounded, and there is actually very little proof that “traditional” brainstorming helps produce any more or any better ideas than the same people would produce if left to “brainstorm” alone.
In fact, according to an article by Dr. Tomas Chamorro published in the Harvard Business Review, “A great deal of evidence indicates that brainstorming actually harms creative performance, resulting in a collective performance loss that is the very opposite of synergy.”
There are two key reasons why this occurs.
Production blocking – this is when we have an idea, but while waiting for our turn to talk, we forget what it was, or we start to second-guess and question its validity while waiting and listening to other ideas.
Evaluation apprehension – anxiety about what others will think of us if our idea isn’t good enough, or if we say something “odd.” We censor and dismiss our idea before presenting it to the group.
But things have changed a lot since the 50s. We have more information than we could ever want, need, or consume at our fingertips, and consequently, many variations on the concept of “brainstorming.”
Used correctly, brainstorming can generate a lot of quality ideas in a short span of time. These are 11 variations you can use to fill up your content calendar, fast.
1. Associative brainstorming
When brainstorming blog post ideas, do you ever feel like you keep coming up with the same, generic, unexciting topics?
Associative brainstorming can help you climb out of this rut by using word association to get you thinking outside the box.
It’s really simple to perform.
To begin, you’ll need one word that closely relates to or summarizes the topic you want to generate blog post ideas around. You’ll also need somewhere to jot your associated words down, like a blank piece of paper or whiteboard. You could even go the digital route with a free program like Bubbl.us or WiseMapping.
This exercise should ideally be executed alone (although it can help to collaborate with your team afterwards), as the research clearly shows that individuals typically generate more original ideas than those working in a group. It’s also best if you let your mind run freely. Don’t edit your thoughts too much – write down any and every remotely relevant word that comes to mind.
Here’s an example that a member of my team put together. This took about five minutes.
And here are a few ideas I’ve come up with off the back of this (FYI, I’m not saying these are all good ideas; I’m just trying to demonstrate how fast and effective this is as an ideation tool).
- Are Your E-commerce Customers Waiting Too Long for Their Orders?
- E-commerce Store Owners: Do You Really Know Your Customers’ Rights?
- Selling on Amazon: What You Need to Know
- eBay vs. Amazon: Which Platform is Better for Your Store?
- Should You Start Shipping Internationally?
- Do Your Visitors Think Your Site’s a Scam?
All in all, this took about ten minutes, so just imagine how many ideas you could come up with if you spent an hour or more on this exercise.
“Most ideas are step-by-step children of other ideas.” ~Alex Osborn
This is an exercise that works best when you’re alone and free from distractions. It’s a variation on the “freewriting” method.
Freewriting entails sitting down and writing continuously for a set period of time. You should have no regard for spelling, grammar, or structure, or even what you’re writing. All you need is a pen and paper or a computer, and your starting topic. Then, you simply write down whatever comes into your head.
Freewriting is a remarkable exercise for overcoming writer’s block. It can even help uncover forgotten memories and knowledge or ideas you never knew you had.
“The results are sometimes unpredictable, but the most surprising images, characters, memories and stories started to pour out onto the page. Where was it coming from? I was mystified, and stunned. Somehow this practice had connected to that deep stream of creativity we all have running, somewhere deep underground, and allowed it to manifest in writing.” Joel Friedlander, The Book Designer
If you’re ever stuck for words, try it.
Freestorming is very similar. You begin with a subject in mind and write down anything and everything that comes into your head for a set period of time. No editing, no filters. If you think of it, down it goes.
Will most of what you write be unusable crap?
But among that crap might be something great, or at least something that triggers a bunch of genuinely good ideas. Perhaps one thing you wrote down will be a fantastic starting point for your next associative brainstorming session. One idea can lead to another.
Brainwriting is a group exercise in which each participant writes three ideas about a designated topic or problem on a piece of paper and passes it to the person next to them. The next person then uses those three ideas as triggers for the next three ideas of their own.
Each “round” is assigned a time limit, usually three to five minutes, but you can increase or decrease it in line with how much pressure you want (or don’t want) to apply. You can also change the number of ideas required in each round.
Brainwriting shares similarities with the freethinking technique just above, in that many of the resulting ideas probably won’t be very good. That’s okay and to be expected. The point of this exercise is to generate a lot of ideas, both good and bad.
After the exercise is over, sit down and go through all the ideas. Some of them will be scrapped. Some of them, however, might trigger better ideas. A handful might be ideas that are ready to go. Others might become subtopics for a blog post, rather than posts of their own.
Either way, you’ve got ideas to work with for your calendar.
4. Question everything
Start with an idea – the title of a recent blog post will work – and question everything around that topic.
You can perform this exercise on your own, or in a group.
Let’s try this out with a recent blog post of mine, “How to Turn Web Traffic Into App Users.”
- What is web traffic?
- Why should I care about turning web traffic into app users?
- What makes someone download an app?
- What stops someone from downloading an app they’re interested in?
- Do people prefer browsing websites or using apps?
Don’t be afraid to wander off topic. Just go wherever your mind takes you. If ideas pop into your head that aren’t questions, that’s okay. Don’t worry about the form your thoughts are taking – just write them down.
- What are the most successful apps and why?
- Lessons you can learn from the biggest apps of 2016
- Why do apps fail?
- Why my app failed: true stories
- Lessons you can learn from 2016’s biggest app fails
Again, I’m not saying these are necessarily good ideas – these are just thoughts at the moment – which is generally all they will be at this stage. But it does demonstrate how this process works.
5. Change two things
Get five or six people to pick a blog post title. This could be a post that already exists, or it could be a new idea from a previous brainstorming session.
Ask them to write the title at the top of an A4 sheet of paper (making sure not to take up too much space) and to meet in the boardroom (or wherever else you hold your creative thinking sessions).
To begin, have each person pass their sheet to the person sitting next to them.
Looking at a different title than the one they picked, they change two elements to create a new title. The sheets are passed on again, and the exercise is repeated until the group runs out of steam, or space on the paper.
Here’s a brief example of how this might work, starting with the title of my post: “10 Tools That’ll Help You Score Maximum Value From Your Content.”
- 10 Tricks That’ll Help You Score Maximum Value From Your Social Media Posts
- 10 Tricks That’ll Help You Leverage Your Best Customers
- 10 Tools That’ll Help You Build Relationships with Your Best Customers
- 10 Secrets to Building Relationships with Your Best Customers
- 10 Secrets of Effective Email Marketing
- 10 Little-Known Email Marketing Tricks
- 25 Little-Known Email Marketing Tricks
- 25 Email Marketing Tricks of the Trade
- 25 E-commerce Tricks of the Trade
This is also an activity you can carry out on your own, but fresh eyes and ideas mean you’ll get better results with more people. In this scenario, two heads are better than one.
6. Topic association
This shares similarities with associative brainstorming in that you use words and phrases as triggers for ideas. However, associative brainstorming focuses on single words and is designed to get you thinking outside the box.
This exercise is much more focused. It can help you form concrete ideas from the get-go, and can even begin to assist you in structuring your posts.
Like word association, this exercise is best executed as a mind map that can help you organize your ideas. It works something like this:
- Begin with a topic in the center of the page.
- Dot sub-topics around your starting topic.
- Link sub-sub-topics to each of these points.
Take a look at the picture below for an example of how this might work.
The central topic is “Ultimate guide to blogging.” The sub-topics are potential chapters for the guide, while the sub-sub-topics are points that could be covered within each of these chapters.
While in this case the mind map is being used to structure a single piece of content, it’s easy to see how this exercise could be used to generate lots of blog post ideas.
For example, in place of “Ultimate guide to blogging,” you would write a topic you want to generate ideas around, such as “Mobile apps.”
Around this, you might write things like “Designing mobile apps” and “Promoting mobile apps.”
From “Designing mobile apps” you could write “Choosing a mobile app designer,” “Deciding if your app idea has legs,” and so on. Under “Promoting mobile apps” you might write “On The App Store,” “On Google Play,” “User reviews,” and more.
Meditation is good for a lot of things, including (but not limited to):
- Reducing stress
- Improving focus
- Lowering blood pressure
- Improving sleep
- Helping academic performance
Meditation works as a problem-solving tool because, as we rid our minds of unwanted and distracting thoughts, we begin to see the things that matter to us more clearly. It will help bring ideas you didn’t realize you had to the front of your mind.
If you have no experience with it, you can learn how to meditate via blog post, YouTube video, or by finding a local teacher or center. There are also several highly recommended meditation apps that can teach and guide you, including:
While meditation is a prop-free exercise, if you’re using it as a brainstorming tool, it would be wise to keep a pen and paper close by to jot down any ideas that spring to mind.
8. Electronic brainstorming
Electronic brainstorming – sometimes referred to as virtual brainstorming – goes against the very notion of why brainstorming is supposedly effective – face-to-face collaboration. However, let’s remember that many people believe “traditional” brainstorming is ineffective; or at least, not as effective as brainstorming alone.
Let’s also consider the fact that the internet is literally an endless hub of information and ideas.
It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out then, how the internet can make your brainstorming more effective.
“Virtual brainstorming eliminates production blocking, the process where dominant participants talk too much, taking over the session and eclipsing their colleagues. It also enables feelings of anonymity, since ideas cannot be attributed to a specific person. This reduces evaluation apprehension. Lastly, if designed intelligently, virtual sessions can increase the diversity of ideas by preventing participants from being exposed to each other’s ideas during the idea-generation phase.”
To leverage electronic brainstorming, all your participants really need is an internet-connected device and somewhere to jot down ideas. A Word doc will do just fine.
However, if you want participants to be able to view each other’s ideas as they work, simply set up a shared Google Doc.
9. The criminal technique
Don’t string me up and hang me out to dry just yet – this one isn’t as bad as it sounds. I’m certainly not saying you should take someone else’s content and pass it off as your own. Nor am I saying you should steal their title and write your own blog post off the back of it.
Instead, this idea involves collating titles of successful blog posts in your industry, and changing those titles to similar, but more ambitious titles of your own.
Want to speed this task up?
You could search Google for a relevant topic and scrape the results.
Let’s run through an example.
I’ve used Buzzsumo to search for the term “E-commerce marketing.” I’ve also used the filters on the left of the page to narrow the results so they show me articles only. Here’s a snapshot of the results:
If you did this task yourself, you’d be working with a much bigger list of titles, but for the sake of this post I’m only going to talk about the three titles above.
What you want to do is change each title just enough that you can make the topic your own.
So “The 3 Step Guide to Building Effective Marketing Plans” might become “The 5 Step Guide to Creating Killer Marketing Plans.”
“The Ultimate Guide to eCommerce Email Marketing” might become “The Beginner’s Guide to Email Marketing for eCommerce Store Owners.”
And “The Beginner’s Guide to Influencer Marketing on Instagram” might become “The Startup’s Guide to Influencer Marketing on Twitter/YouTube/SnapChat.”
Pablo Picasso is widely credited with saying, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” While he may never have actually said that, the sentiment still rings true. Perhaps a better quote might be this one from one of the greatest minds in human history:
“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” ~Isaac Newton
Go with what you know works. Don’t copy outright, but use it as a stepping stone to something bigger and better.
10. The worst idea challenge
This is a fun exercise to try when nothing else has worked. It’s also great for stressed-out brainstormers who are feeling frustrated and disillusioned by the creative process.
You ask your team to share the worst possible ideas they can think of. Encourage them to shake off their inhibitions by making sure they understand that the more ridiculous and unworkable their idea is, the better. Add an element of competition by challenging them to come up with the unanimous worst idea of all.
Counterintuitively, when you’re done, you might find you actually have some very good ideas.
Brainstorming certainly has its flaws, and one of the biggest is how it may silence more introverted individuals, who can be reluctant to contribute their ideas for fear of ridicule. This exercise helps overcome this issue.
It creates an environment in which contributors are unafraid to share their ideas. If they have an idea that they think is good but they’re not sure if others will agree, the worst idea challenge lets them share it without fear.
If others think it’s good, then great. If they think it’s bad, that’s okay because so did the person who contributed it (or at least, that’s what everyone else will assume).
Once you’ve filtered out (and saved) any genuinely good ideas, challenge your team to turn the remaining “bad” ideas into “good” ideas.
The stress of having to come up with those “great ideas” can inhibit creativity. This exercise removes that stress and turns brainstorming into a fun activity that’s free of the pressure and anxiety to perform well or meet a specific goal – which is precisely the kind of environment that’s needed in order to generate great ideas.
11. Reverse brainstorming
We usually think about problems, obstacles, and friction in terms of how we can solve or remove them. We sit down with a problem we have or want to solve for our readers, and brainstorm a list of possible solutions to write about and provide them.
What if, instead, we approached it from the other direction? Reverse brainstorming requires you to generate ideas on how you could cause the problem in the first place, or make it worse.
Instead of thinking “How to Increase Consumer Trust in Your Website”, go with “How to Make Your Website Untrustworthy” and brainstorm ideas about that. Write them out. Once you have a decent list of ways to actively make your site appear shady and even dangerous, you can reverse those ideas to instantly have solutions to make a site more trustworthy.
This technique is useful when solutions don’t easily present themselves, or you need a new angle to spark ideas.
How to be more effective at brainstorming
Whatever brainstorming exercise you choose to use, here are a few tricks you can try to make them even more effective.
Welcome bad ideas
A culture of fearless free speech, in which participants aren’t afraid to speak up about all their ideas, good and bad, is vital to a successful brainstorming session.
If any of your participants are afraid to state an idea for fear of ridicule, you could be missing out on your winning idea. Even if the idea that’s being held back isn’t a great one, it could potentially trigger “the one.”
Never, ever make someone feel silly for contributing. Every idea should be welcomed, whatever you’re thinking deep down. Brainstorming sessions will only be useful if evaluation apprehension is eliminated entirely.
Determine your ideal group size
Too small a group and you might have too few ideas being contributed to the table. Too big and some people could struggle to be heard.
As a general rule, between four and seven is a good group size for brainstorming.
Lay Down the “Law”
Setting some rules and specific goals can significantly increase the quality and quantity of ideas in your brainstorming sessions.
One study led by Paul Paulus of the University of Texas at Arlington found that groups given a quantity goal generated more ideas and a higher quality score for those ideas. Next, they implemented a set of four explicit rules:
- Stay focused on the task at hand at all times
- Don’t just say an idea, explain it
- When the well runs dry, restate the problem using different words to encourage more thinking
- Prompt and encourage those not talking to contribute
The groups given a quantity goal and instructed to adhere to the four rules generated, on average, 50 more quality, unique ideas than groups not using those guidelines.
Encourage independent brainstorming
Brainstorming is traditionally seen as a collaborative exercise, the logic being that we produce better results when we put our minds together. However, you probably noticed that some of the methods highlighted above require us to work alone, even if only at the beginning.
This is because we don’t think as a group; our minds, of course, all work independently. That’s why we can focus better when we’re alone (it’s also part of the reason why meditation is such an effective exercise for generating ideas and finding solutions to life’s problems in general).
While getting together with your team to generate and discuss ideas is a valuable practice that should be encouraged, so is independent brainstorming. For best results, find time to do both.
“Without great solitude, no serious work can be done.” ~Pablo Picasso
Limit the Time
Brainstorming can and frequently does run away with itself. You need to set a strict time limit, and stick to it. And make it shorter than you might think you need.
“Studies of brainstorming show 75% of a group’s ideas come in the first 50% of time given allocated to them anyway. After that they run out of steam.” ~Leigh Thompson, Kellogg School of Management
Parkinson’s Law – named after Professor Cyril Parkinson – states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. That’s why your report takes a week to write if you give yourself a week to complete it, or the fact you’re most productive at the last minute.
Limit your brainstorming sessions to 30 minutes or less, depending on the size of the group. If you’re working alone, 5-10 minutes is probably more than enough. Once you have the right idea, give yourself a reasonable amount of time to draft, tweak, and polish the post.
You’ll be amazed at how much you get done in less time.
Appoint a Facilitator
Using a facilitator familiar not only with idea generation but also ways to stay productive has been shown to switch brainstorming into high gear.
One particular study had nine groups of students – 4 with a facilitator and 5 without one – brainstorm ways to deal with junk mail. Each group was assigned some variation or method of brainstorming, such as having a free discussion, setting a goal of X number of ideas, using brainwriting, using the nominal group technique (anonymously writing down ideas, then going through them as a group), and so forth.
The four groups using a facilitator not only came up with the four highest idea totals, but also the four highest original idea totals.
There is a great deal of research going into creative thinking, as more and more careers not only encourage it, but outright require it.
One of the more interesting findings? People that share embarrassing stories about themselves with the group before brainstorming come up with more ideas, better ideas, and more varied ideas. The researchers believe the simple act of telling an embarrassing story allows us to lose our inhibitions and evaluation anxiety – everyone has already looked foolish – and so we’re more willing to share ideas that might seem a bit off the wall at first glance.
“Candor led to greater creativity. Thus, we propose a new rule for brainstorming sessions: Tell a self-deprecating story before you start. As uncomfortable as this may seem, especially among colleagues you would typically want to impress, the result will be a broader range of creative ideas, which will surely impress them even more.” ~Leigh Thompson, Kellogg School of Management
Have a drink
This one’s admittedly a little controversial. It used to be the norm. If you’ve ever watched an episode of Mad Men, you’re already familiar with the 3-martini lunch. If you’ve ever been inside the office of a high profile executive (in real life, or via television and film), you’ve likely noticed the bar stocked with expensive scotch. Drinking at work used to be not only accepted, but even expected within certain industries and professions. Is it time to bring back the practice?
Stick with me. This one’s not just an excuse to get tipsy at work.
Multiple studies have proven that alcohol aids creativity.
“Alcohol worsens our working memory and impedes the brain’s executive processes, causing us also to become unaware of what’s going on around us and unable to concentrate on tasks at hand. That’s why people can’t drink and drive, or operate heavy machinery – they’re just not going to do it right. But what’s lost in our ability to focus is gained in our ability to think creatively. In 2012, researchers from the University of Illinois showed how creative people could be when happily drunk.” Anthony Rivas, writing for Medical Daily
The study quoted above split 18 ad executives into two groups. One group had unlimited access to alcohol. The other was only allowed to drink water.
After working for three hours on an ad campaign about binge drinking, the “alcohol” group not only had four out of five of the best ideas, but they also had the most ideas.
Now, I’m not suggesting you should gather around the boardroom table at 9 a.m. and drink shots until you’re under it, but getting your team together for a slightly boozy brainstorming session an hour or two before you’re due to wrap up for the day can’t hurt, right? The sweet spot seems to be around two beers. More than that, and you start to lose the benefits.
There’s even an aptly named “The Problem Solver” beer that has a scale on the bottle that shows you exactly how much to drink based on body weight.
It’s an idea gaining momentum: allowing employees to drink a reasonable amount of alcohol at work leads to happier workers, higher morale, closer relationship, and better ideas. Yelp! has an office keg (you must log in with your employee badge, and it keeps a public record of how much everyone is consuming), Arnold Worldwide Ad agency has a beer vending machine nicknamed Arnie (employees hang out there like they would around a water cooler), and creative agency ColleMcVoy in Minneapolis has a machine that disperses draft beer when employees submit their timesheet.
Worth trying out once, right? Or twice. For the sake of research, of course.
What brainstorming exercises do you use? How effective have you found them to be? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
Image credits: Vertical Measures