Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

3 Smart Ways to Brainstorm Better

When was the last time you brainstormed?

Was it over a group assignment in high school? Maybe over a particularly challenging DIY project? Or was it this week, at work?

Brainstorming is a tried-and-true way many managers encourage their employees to generate ideas.

The goal is to get people in a room with a white board—and snacks, hopefully—and let the fantastic, creative ideas fly.

Here’s the twist: We may have been going about it all wrong. The New Yorker reports that research consistently proves that traditional brainstorming—the type you’ve likely been doing your whole life—is less productive than sending people off to think by themselves. (Although there is a type of brainstorming researchers recommend—we’ll get to that.)

This could be good news when you’re privately brainstorming ways to ace your employee review, but it could cause some problems in the office. Namely, you can’t just opt out the next time your boss herds you into the conference room. (Plus, you might miss the snacks.)

We talked to a brainstorming expert—yes, there is such a thing—to find out why this is, and how you can be a better brainstormer in three easy steps.

This Will Make You More Creative

The New Yorker writes that a key principle of most brainstorming is the absence of negative criticism. That’s supposed to encourage people to speak up, since no one wants to volunteer ideas that get shot down. But research shows that it’s not brainstorming that’s ineffective so much as brainstorming without any criticism. This is because criticism encourages us to “engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints.”

In an experiment at UC Berkeley, a test brainstorming group encouraged to give negative criticism blew groups without criticism out of the water by generating nearly 20% more ideas. The same professor, Charlan Nemeth, showed in a separate study that people are more creative when exposed to dissenting opinions.

“There’s this Pollyannaish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings,” she tells The New Yorker. “Well, that’s just wrong. Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.”

3 Tricks to a More Productive Brainstorm

Gerald “Solutionman” Haman is the founder of four separate innovation and creativity organizations and set the world record for brainstorming by hosting a session with 8,000 people who generated 454,000 ideas for government improvement in Singapore Stadium. In the 20 years since he founded his innovation company SolutionPeople, he has helped clients generate over three million ideas, valued at $2 billion.

Clearly, he believes in brainstorming. We asked his advice for how to do it right:

1. Get Comfortable

Haman Says: “I’ve found that if your feet are comfortable, your brain is comfortable. One client actually calculated that people who wore socks generated 13% more ideas that those who did not.” When you’re comfy, you can devote your full attention to the task at hand.

You Can: Get appropriately comfortable. You probably can’t don sweatpants at work, but you might be able to kick off your shoes under the conference table or wear pants instead of a skirt when you know there’s a creative meeting. Pick a spot at the table where you can see the board or screen easily, and bring a sweater in case the room is cold. This principle is doubly true (and even easier to pull off) when you’re brainstorming by yourself at home.

2. Start Asking

Haman Says: “During the past 20 years, we have helped our clients generate over 3 million ideas by asking over 10,000 questions. We have an entire question bank!” He built a tool to facilitate innovation, which includes basic but crucial questions such as, “What is needed, wanted, or wished?” among other images, questions, and ideas that prompt creativity. Unexpected questions lead to unexpected, and potentially great, ideas.

You Can: Speak up. Haman and his team aren’t the only ones who can ask questions! You can achieve a similar effect through asking questions and expressing your (possibly dissenting) opinion. The best ideas come from friction, such as between people in different departments. Speak up, ask questions, express your opinions. Remember: Criticism and conversation are key to a productive session. But frame your contributions as improvements rather than refutation: “This might work even better if we…”

Even outside of the workplace, it can be wise to ask the opinion of someone you trust before acting on an idea you have. By allowing them to ask questions or poke holes in your ideas, you may wind up with a better plan than you started with.

3. Don’t Give Up

Haman Says: “Invest more time in brainstorming sessions. I have a model called the M-Curve that shows that old ideas are generated during the morning of a typical one-day brainstorming session, and new ideas are generated in the afternoon. Near the end of the sessions is when the best new ideas and breakthroughs occur.”

You Can: Stretch it out. Sure, your team might only have the conference room for 45 minutes, but you can make your personal brainstorm last much longer. Before your meeting (that morning or the night before, not en route to the room!), jot down the ideas you already have. That way, you’ll be in the right mindset to generate fresh ideas once you hit the table. If you’re planning a brainstorm, you might want to break it into two sessions so your group can meet, take a break, and then come back stronger for round two. The same goes for brainstorming at home: If the right idea doesn’t occur to you right away, revisit the problem later in the day.

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, LearnVest. For more financial and life advice that’s sound, savvy, and actually fun to read, check out:

  • If your profession is one of the most well-rested, we’re a little jealous.
  • It may seem impossible, but you can start balancing work and family in 10 easy steps.
  • Mixed signals no more: Fend off creepy co-workers with these four tips.
  • Photo courtesy of Gonzalo Álvarez Marañón.