When you put a group of smart, driven people in a room together, great ideas are bound to happen. At least that’s what we’d like to believe. Unfortunately, brainstorming sessions don’t always work out as planned.
The loudest teammates take over the conversation, people obsess over the first idea that gets thrown out, or, maybe worst of all, no one says anything. Suddenly, all the energy is sucked out of the room and your team leaves feeling deflated, confused, and with nothing to show for it but another brainstorming session on the books.
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But here’s the good news. Despite what other ‘experts’ might tell you, you don’t need a playbook of 20+ brainstorming techniques to get value out of these sessions.
Instead, there are just four core elements that make up all great brainstorming techniques.
We call this, the S.U.C.K. method. And it’s going to completely change the way you come up with new business, product, and feature ideas.
The little-known secret to better brainstorming: Make it S.U.C.K.
At the most basic level, brainstorming is the broad term for a number of techniques and strategies teams use to come up with unique and creative ideas or solutions to problems.
But let’s hold on for a second here.
Most of us hear the word “creative” and think it’s a code for throwing all structure, limitations, and restrictions out the window. This is a huge mistake.
The truth is that the most creative and innovative thinkers thrive on structure.
Booking an hour-long meeting to ask your team “what should we build?” or “how do we solve for X?” is a disaster waiting to happen. At best, you’ll get a few half-baked ideas floating around in your meeting notes. While in the worst-case scenario you’ll poison the well for potentially truly insightful ones.
Instead, the secret to effective brainstorming techniques and sessions comes down to building a system that mirrors the creative process but keeps you on task, focused on your goals, and working forward. And because everyone loves a good acronym, we’ve come up with the perfect one:
Make your brainstorming sessions S.U.C.K.
S.U.C.K. stands for Structure, Uniqueness, Constraints, and Kindness. These are the four key elements that make up every successful brainstorming technique.
Let’s look into each one and then show how you can use them in your team brainstorming process.
Structure: Make your brainstorming sessions mirror the creative process
Great ideas don’t just appear out of the ether (or get whispered in our ears by some mythical muse). Instead, they’re developed, shaped, and coaxed out through a specific process.
Yes, creativity is a process. And one that can be learned, developed, and repeated.
While we still don’t understand exactly how creativity really works, psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers have a pretty good idea of the elements of the creative process–which is a pretty good place to start when you’re choosing a brainstorming technique to use (we’ll get into those later).
Great ideas don’t just appear out of the ether. They’re developed, shaped, and coaxed out through a specific process.
To start, here’s a quick refresher on the creative process from our guide on How to Become More Creative Today:
- Gather. Every creative and innovative idea starts by building off your past experiences and connections. Think of this as gathering the ‘raw materials’ necessary to brainstorm something new. This includes understanding the space you’re working in, checking out current solutions, and giving yourself space to uncover tangentially related ideas.
- Digest. With the materials and tools in hand, the next step is to try them out. See what fits together and connects. In short, experiment and look for how things could be different or better.
- Step away (aka incubate). The best ideas need space to develop before you put them out in the world. After you’ve spent some time actively trying to brainstorm new ideas step away and do something else. This allows your subconscious to take over and find interesting connections you might have missed.
- Insight. This is the Eureka moment when a great, new, interesting, and creative idea emerges. You can’t control when this happens. But following the steps to this point is a good way to speed it up.
- Develop. A great idea is a good starting point. The final step of the creative process is to try it out, get feedback, and develop it further.
Right away, you can see how most brainstorming techniques fail to follow the creative process. They jump straight to step four without purposefully guiding the team through the ideation and experimentation steps.
The goal of brainstorming shouldn’t just be the end result, but in creating and codifying a repeatable system for coming up with innovative ideas and solutions.
Uniqueness: Brainstorm for questions before you look for solutions
The goal of brainstorming techniques is to help you come up with innovative and unique solutions. But there’s nothing worse than solving for the wrong problem.
While it’s important to listen to your users and build useful products, you shouldn’t limit yourself to what your current customers say they want when brainstorming.
There’s a quote that’s often misattributed to Henry Ford that says:
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
While the quote’s origins are suspect, the meaning is clear. The best opportunities come from looking for bigger problems to solve.
In business strategy, this is called the difference between red and blue ocean thinking.
Red oceans are all the businesses, products, and features that are known in your market. They’re red because they’re full of competition, turning the water bloody red.
Blue oceans are where all the potential ideas, features, businesses, and ventures live. They’re unexplored, untainted by competition, and full of deep opportunities for growth.
As you go through your brainstorming techniques, make sure you’re not only looking down the current path you’re on. Give your team opportunities to stare off into the distance, trek into the unknown, or even turn around. You never know what’s waiting for you a few steps off the well-trodden path.
Pro tip: Regularly invite new people to your brainstorming sessions, especially outsiders. Groupthink is one of the biggest threats to a successful brainstorming session. Having someone who is outside of your usual group give input can help you break free.
To get the most creative ideas out of your team, you need to ask the right questions.
Constraints: Keep brainstorming sessions guided, on track, and intentional
Brainstorming is all about the balance between space to think and come up with great ideas and being realistic about what can and should get done.
Constraints are the opposing forces that keep your big ideas and creative process in check.
While structure might dictate how and when your brainstorming session takes place, constraints are what keeps the actual brainstorming technique moving forward.
This is still pretty vague, so let’s get into the details a bit. Constraints can cover a few different areas of the brainstorming process.
- Brainstorming rules: How should your team act during the brainstorming session? These rules might come down to the brainstorming technique you use. But you should also have a few “house rules” such as:
- No criticism
- No bad ideas
- No interrupting while others are presenting
- Time constraints: When will brainstorming sessions take place and how long will you spend on each section of it? Time constraints help push creativity forward and also give you more opportunities to guide your team back on track when they get distracted.
- Topics covered: What will be discussed? What’s on the plate and what should be ignored for now? This is a delicate balance between being open enough to encourage blue ocean thinking but not too open that you get lost. If it helps, think about the core purpose of this brainstorm. Is it to get lots of ideas? Come up with creative ideas for a specific solution? Gather group consensus?
- Decision-making: Who gets the final say on what the next steps are? Make sure that there are constraints on the decisions and action items that come out of your brainstorm.
As the facilitator of the brainstorming session, it’s most likely up to you to set some constraints. Don’t think of these as ways to limit your ideas. But as a way to keep them guided and working towards your ultimate business or project goal.
Kindness: Make psychological safety your primary concern
Lastly, the best brainstorming techniques are kind. This means they provide space for ideas from everyone (not just the loudest majority) without fear of judgment or ridicule.
Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson calls this psychological safety:
“Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”
No one wants to feel judged when they speak up. However, psychological safety isn’t just some wishy-washy term for making sure you’re not hurting anyone’s feelings.
In a two-year study by Google on the qualities that make up a high-performing team, psychological safety was number one on their list!
Baking psychological safety right into your brainstorming techniques ensures you get the most diverse, well-rounded set of ideas from your team. However, it also helps with the follow-through after the session as team members are more inclined to work on solutions and projects they feel they’ve had an active part in deciding on.
Promoting psychological safety while brainstorming is often about leading by example. Your team will take cues from you and any other senior team members present.
So make sure you’re all on the same page by being open to different and weird ideas, seeking out input from quiet time members, and not allowing blame, overly negative feedback, or judgment of new ideas.
5 brainstorming techniques that S.U.C.K. (in a good way)
There are hundreds of different brainstorming techniques you can try as a team. But only a few of them follow the S.U.C.K. principles that ensure you’re getting the most out of your time together.
If you have the time and want to truly become a brainstorming superpower, try stringing a few of these techniques together in a way that mirrors the structure of the creative process.
For example, use question bursts to come up with the right problems, rapid ideation to think up potential solutions, 5 Whys to dig further, and then Mind Mapping or others to organize and decide on a plan of attack.
Here are our top suggestions for brainstorming techniques that S.U.C.K.:
1. Question bursts
To get the most creative ideas out of your team, you need to ask the right questions.
The ‘Question bursts’ brainstorming technique was developed by Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center, as a way to push past cognitive biases and ‘us too’ answers in brainstorming sessions.
Here’s how he explains it:
“Brainstorming for questions rather than answers makes it easier to push past cognitive biases and venture into uncharted territory. Yet lingering in a questioning mode doesn’t come naturally to most people, because we’re conditioned from an early age to just keep the answers coming.”
Start by bringing together a few people to think through fresh angles on the problem. Ideally, you’ll include outsiders with little to no experience with the issue. Once you’re together, follow this exercise:
- 2 minutes: Explain the problem including how things will get better once it’s solved and why you’re currently stuck.
- 4 minutes: Ask everyone to brainstorm only questions about the issue. No preambles. No solutions. Aim for at least 15 questions and capture them all verbatim on your tool of choice.
“Brainstorming for questions rather than answers makes it easier to push past cognitive biases and venture into uncharted territory.”
After the session, study the questions and look for the one that presents the most exciting reframing of the issue. This is a powerful starting point for going into the other group brainstorming techniques below.
As Hal explains:
“Underlying the approach, is a broader recognition that fresh questions often beget novel - even transformative - insights.”
2. Rapid ideation with gap analysis
Rapid ideation is a brainstorming technique that’s similar to question bursts, except you’re asking for solutions instead of questions. But that’s just where you’ll start.
By pairing rapid ideation with another brainstorming technique called gap analysis will help you turn those ideas into a solid and clear plan forward. Here’s a sample agenda for a rapid ideation brainstorming session:
- 2 minutes: Set the context of the problem with your team: background, budget, deadline, etc...
- 5-15 minutes: As individuals, write down as many potential solutions you can think of. Use sticky notes and don’t worry about filtering them, just go crazy (literally! Research has shown that sharing embarrassing or funny stories with your team increases the number of ideas you come up with by 26%!)
- 10 minutes: As a team, take turns sticking your ideas on the board. Group similar ones together and try to create a timeline from low-hanging fruit solutions (i.e. things that can be done today) to blue ocean ideas (big ideas that will be tackled in the long-term).
- 10 minutes: As a team, brainstorm any gaps you see on the board. Try to fill out a path from where you are now to where you want to be.
The golden rule here is to look for quantity over quality. Use time-blocked constraints to keep the ideas flowing and move quickly to come up with solutions.
Pro Tip: Take this brainstorming technique further by asking your team to anonymously provide ideas before you meet to discuss gaps and action items. This can free them from the fear of sharing ideas publicly and help you speed up the process.
You might also want to use the Brainwriting brainstorming technique here. This is where each team member gets 3–5 minutes to silently write down their ideas and then passes it to the person to the left who adds bullet points, additional thoughts, or creative ideas.
3. Step-ladder brainstorming
One of the fears of most brainstorming techniques is that the first few ideas will get all the attention (psychologists call this anchoring). With the step-ladder brainstorming technique, however, you can bypass anchoring by controlling who is in the room.
Here’s what this looks like in practice:
- 2 minutes: With everyone in the room, present the topic and problem you’re working on.
- Everyone leaves the room except for two participants.
- 2–5 minutes: The first two people brainstorm solutions together.
- 2 minutes: A third person comes back in and discusses their ideas before anyone explains the ideas that have already been discussed.
- 2–5 minutes: All three people brainstorm new ideas.
- Repeat by adding back in teammates.
This technique won’t work well with large teams. However, it’s a great way to build off ideas and introduce new angles instead of getting stuck on a single path early on.
Pro Tip: If you get stuck, ask people to dig into the 5 Whys. This is a simple brainstorming technique where you take a solution and ask “Why?” repeatedly to dig deeper to the root cause.
4. Mind Mapping
One of the hardest parts about brainstorming is keeping track of all the ideas and showing them in a way that promotes creative thinking.
Mind Mapping is a brainstorming technique where you write down each idea or topic on a whiteboard (or on Post-It notes) and then branch off it with new ideas, connected issues or, tangentially connected thoughts.
This helps keep track of your thoughts while also allowing more visual team members to make connections and contribute.
Try to remember the S.U.C.K. methodology when mind mapping and keep it constrained without judging ideas. If you get stuck, one interesting approach is to try rolestorming. This is where you ask “How would [some famous person in your industry] solve this problem?”
Just thinking through ideas from a different perspective can help you unlock your creativity.
5. Brain-netting (aka brainstorming remotely)
One of the hard things about working remotely is that it can be harder to facilitate a good brainstorming session. Video meetings sometimes work but can feel awkward (or exclude team members in different time zones).
That’s why you might want to think about asynchronous brainstorming techniques like brain-netting.
Brain-netting is essentially an online brainstorming technique that takes advantage of the technology you use each day. However, for best results, skip a real-time chat tool like Slack and instead capture ideas directly into your project management tool (like Planio!)
Here’s how brain-netting works in practice:
- Create a central repository for all your ideas. A Planio Agile board is a great place to store ideas as you can quickly turn them into issues, tasks, or add them to your product backlog!
- Define the problem and create a description for your team. Create an ‘issue’ that explains the problem at hand and another one for your brainstorming ‘rules’. Again, Planio is great for this as you can link out to other projects, issues, or files.
- Ask team members to spend 5–10 minutes coming up with ideas (at their leisure). Each idea can be made into its own issue with team members adding thoughts to any duplicates. Alternatively, use one of the techniques mentioned above, such as rapid ideation, gap analysis, or even the step-ladder method
- Discuss as a team about what ideas to move forward with. Come together as a team to discuss options. Or, keep it fully asynchronous and discuss via issue comments or Planio’s Team Chat!
What’s great about a technique like this is that it takes advantage of ‘bursty’ communication. Studies have found that teams are actually more productive and creative when they alternate between periods of intense collaboration and intermittent isolation.
Don’t forget what comes next. How to turn your brainstorming ideas into action items
Brainstorming techniques that S.U.C.K. are great for getting you into idea mode. But the ultimate goal is always to make a decision and move forward.
So whether you’re trying to come up with blue ocean feature ideas or just brainstorming ways to better handle bugs, make sure the end goal is always action. Using a tool like Planio to capture your brainstorming ideas lets you quickly transfer ideas into action items.
Planio issues include everything you need to flesh out your brainstorm ideas and add them to your product backlog, including a detailed description, files, status, priority, assignee, and even milestones and start and finish dates.
Organization probably should have made it into our core brainstorming elements (but S.U.C.K.O. just didn’t sound quite right!). However, by keeping your brainstorming and backlog in the same tool, you ensure that none of your great ideas get lost and every big thought gets the attention it deserves.