7 brainstorming techniques to help you generate better ideas

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Get the most out of your brainstorming sessions by using any of these creative techniques to foster meaningful discussion and new ideas for your business goals.

The best part of teamwork is the ability to come together to solve a problem. As smart as we all are, our intelligence is dwarfed by the collective knowledge of our team. Harnessing this knowledge through brainstorming is a great way to identify pain points and find new solutions to old problems.

With project management, brainstorming is usually an initial step in project phases, but it’s a useful process whenever a potential problem or risk arises.

While brainstorming ideas usually elicit images of entire rooms screaming at each other as a restless individual tries helplessly to write each contribution on a whiteboard, there are better ways to facilitate these discussions.

I have compiled a list of useful brainstorming activities that I have used many times in my professional career. I like to think of these techniques more as exercises in creativity rather than boring discussion sessions. Each technique uses unique roles and tools to better understand concepts and discover new perspectives.

1. SWOT Analysis

My first introduction to the concept of SWOT analysis was five years ago, thanks to the HBO series Silicon Valley. If you want a fun little explanation plus a laugh or two, you can watch this spoiler-free clip here:

I’ve been dying to reference Silicon Valley in one of my articles since starting The Ascent, and I finally got my chance. Now, for those of you who don’t like to have fun or have limited bandwidth and can’t watch the video, a SWOT analysis analyzes decision making. SWOT stands for:

  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses
  • Opportunities
  • Threats

Each time you “SWOT” an idea, you brainstorm these four categories of ideas until you feel like you’ve weighed all the possibilities that might arise from that decision. It’s the perfect four-pronged “pros and cons” approach before developing an action plan.

Here is a simple example I put together:

Idea: Buy a new car instead of a used one

  • Strengths: Probably more reliable than a used car, lots of new technology, nicer to look at, comes with a manufacturer’s warranty, easier price to negotiate on a newer car, low interest rates.
  • Weaknesses: More expensive, most new cars depreciate faster than used cars, higher recall potential, higher insurance premiums.
  • Opportunities: You look classy on the block with a new car (yeah right, I’m cool), feel more comfortable going longer distances with a newer, more reliable vehicle.
  • Threats: Potential for more problems if the car goes through a year of overhaul, Scotty Kilmer will judge you to buy new instead of used.

Don’t judge this analysis too harsh since I put it together in five minutes, but it will give you a great starting point for using a SWOT analysis in your next brainstorming session.

2. Mind mapping

Mind mapping is an effective way to brainstorm and, as the name suggests, to “map” your ideas. When creating your mind map, start with a central idea where all your brainstorming ideas radiate out from the center as “branches” in whatever creative way you choose.

Lesser ideas that expand from these primary ideas are called “twigs” and are represented in a “smaller” way. The idea is very similar to that of a concept map.

In my opinion, it’s a fun and entertaining way to brainstorm ideas, especially for those with artistic skills. Here is an example of a basic template I created:

Simple mind mapping example template.

You can even have multiple twigs extending from each branch depending on how many ideas you come up with. Image source: author

No matter how many branches or twigs you create, they all link back to the main idea. This will help you stay focused on the main goal rather than getting lost in your brainstorming.

3. Star bursting

I wish this method involved eating Starburst candy in some way. Starbursting is yet another visually best used brainstorming method to develop the business strategy around a new product or service. Starbursting focuses on six main categories:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • Why?
  • How?

The specific details of these categories are up to you and your team. These six categories form the points of a star with the product or service at the center.

Starbursting visual aid example.

I have to admit, I love using brainstorming techniques that involve art or design to tie it all together. Image source: author

When you and your team are featured, you don’t have to limit yourself to one answer per category. You have plenty of room for multiple answers for each until you’re satisfied you’ve covered all your bases.

4. Word bank

This technique goes by many names, from “word association” to “word assault.” The word bank is as simple as starting with one or two words related to what you’re looking to brainstorm, then everyone writes down the first words that come to mind. This is an easy brainstorming method that requires minimal effort.

When I say minimal effort, I mean it because the key to a successful word bank is to not overthink it. This type of brainstorming is great for coming up with content marketing topics, thinking about the potential risks of certain actions, or maybe even coming up with the name of a new product. The world is your oyster with this method.

5. Gap analysis

While I like to rate average-looking clothing stores, a gap analysis doesn’t require you to visit your local mall (please forgive those horrible jokes, I’m in a weird mood today). A gap analysis involves determining your current starting point and the goal you hope to achieve by asking the question:

“We are here. How can we get there?”

This is the perfect methodology to craft your project management steps and process map because this technique is so committed to moving from point to point. This technique does not employ any specific methodology, but rather encourages you to use a number of techniques to conclude this, including, but not limited to:

  • SWOT analysis
  • Mind Mapping
  • SMART goals
  • And all other types of planning, brainstorming tools

A gap analysis requires you to meet with your team to identify everything you will need to achieve your goal and the processes you will need along the way. It’s a more holistic approach than most of the techniques on this list because it’s so multifaceted, but it’s perfect for project planning.

6. Brain writing

Let’s get back to simple things after this more complicated technique. Brainwriting is similar to word banking in that it requires no artistry, templates, or categories.

You start by writing a business opportunity or an idea on a piece of paper, then without saying anything, you pass the paper to the next person in the room. That person then reads the idea silently and adds their own contributions related to that idea, and so on.

Once this process is complete and everyone has had a chance to add their thoughts to the document, you open up the discussion of those ideas. This method has several advantages over standard brainstorming, including:

  • Lack of vocal judgment from peers when writing ideas
  • Allows everyone in the room to be heard
  • Potentially inspires more solutions through the accessibility of written ideas

It’s a particularly useful solution for introverts who feel drowned out during meetings and gives everyone a chance to contribute to a solution.

7. Six Thinking Hats

My dad used to tell me to “put my focus on thinking” when he asked me a question I had trouble answering, like “Who ate all the oatmeal cookies?” That’s a tough question to answer, and when I was a kid I wondered what a hat would do to get me out of this situation. Fortunately, the “six thinking hats” is a technique in which certain “hats” are actually useful for finding answers.

This technique uses not just one metaphorical thought cap, but six individual caps instead. The Six Thinking Hats is a team brainstorming technique that allows different people to use their strengths to come up with answers to business questions. The six hats represent different perspectives for thinking about solving a problem:

  • Blue hat: This hat is the director of the conversation. Their purpose is to control the flow of dialogue and encourage discussion when ideas dry up.
  • Black hat: This person thinks about the negative aspects. They are the cynical thinkers who look for the potential risks and pitfalls of making certain decisions. If there is a weak point in the plan, the black hat will find it.
  • Red Hat: These are your emotional thinkers. They look at problems and follow their instinctive inclinations. The red hat is the perfect person to help bridge the gaps between different hats trying to understand the emotions behind certain decisions.
  • Yellow hat: The yellow hat is juxtaposed with the black hat. Where the black hat thinks cynically, the yellow hat is the positive thinker. They help find the value of certain decisions by highlighting potential positive outcomes.
  • Green hat: The green hat is the creative type. They have a very “outside the box” way of thinking, which leads to new ways of approaching problems.
  • White hat: Finally, the white hat is the analytical thinker. They offer solutions and reviews based on previous data and knowledge.

Brainstorming using the six thinking hats technique essentially allows you to transform your team into a fully functioning Sherlock Holmes in all his glory. You will approach any problem by looking at it from all angles and perspectives.

The Ascent will get you through brainstorming and succeeding

Project management is not just about coming up with ideas. You need a project management plan, an execution strategy, and the project management software to keep it all running smoothly. That’s why, at The Ascent, we have the resources, software reviews, and how-to guides you need to navigate every project smoothly.

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