Seven steps to better brainstorming

Kevin and Shawn Coyne, authors of Brainsteering: Better Approach to Breakthrough Ideas, say you can significantly improve the odds of success by following these seven steps.

1. Know your organisation’s decision-making criteria
One reason good ideas hatched in corporate brainstorming sessions often go nowhere is that they are beyond the scope of what the organisation would ever be willing to consider. “Think outside the box!” is an unhelpful exhortation if external circumstances or company policies create boxes that the organisation truly must live within. Managers hoping to spark creative thinking in their teams should therefore start by understanding (and in some cases shaping) the real criteria the company will use to make decisions about the resulting ideas.

2. Ask the right questions
Decades of academic research shows that traditional, loosely structured brainstorming techniques (“Go for quantity – the greater the number of ideas, the greater the likelihood of winners!”) are inferior to approaches that provide more structure. The best way to provide it is to use questions as the platform for idea generation.

In practice, this means building your workshop around series of “right questions” that your team will explore in small groups during series of idea generation sessions. First, they should force your participants to take new and unfamiliar perspective. Changing your participants’ perspective will shake up their thinking. The second characteristic of right question is that it limits the conceptual space your team will explore, without being so restrictive that it forces particular answers or outcomes. It’s best to come up with 15 to 20 such questions for typical workshop attended by about 20 people.

3. Choose the right people
The rule here is simple: pick people who can answer the questions you’re asking. As obvious as this sounds, it’s not what happens in many traditional brainstorming sessions, where participants are often chosen with less regard for their specific knowledge than for their prominence on the org chart.

4. Divide and conquer
To ensure fruitful discussions, don’t have your participants hold one continuous, rambling discussion among the entire group for several hours. Instead, have them conduct multiple, highly focused idea generation sessions among subgroups of three to five people. Each subgroup should focus on single question for full 30 minutes. Divide 15 to 20 questions among the subgroups – about 5 questions each. Whenever possible, assign specific question to the subgroup you consider best equipped to handle it.

5. On your mark, get set, go!
Before the division into subgroups, orient participants so that your expectations about what they will – and won’t – accomplish are clear.

6. Wrap it up
By day’s end, typical subgroup has produced perhaps 15 interesting ideas for further exploration, up to 60 ideas in total. Have each subgroup privately narrow its own list of ideas to top few and then share all the leading ideas with the full group to motivate and inspire participants.

7. Follow up quickly
Decisions and other follow-up activities should be quick but thorough.

Traditional brainstorming is fast, furious, and ultimately shallow. By scrapping these traditional techniques for more focused, question-based approach, senior managers can consistently coax better ideas from their teams.

• Abridged from the McKinsey Quarterly. For the full article visit

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