Brainstorming rules? That seems bogus. Isn’t creativity about keeping things loose and freeform? Well, yes and no. It may seem odd that there would be rules for brainstorming, but it actually works. Our brains like structure and parameters. Brainstorming rules provide some parameters and when we have a clear problem to work on it gives our brain focus. Essentially, the rules are a way to trick our brain into coming up with more ideas! This type of thinking is called Divergent Thinking.
Brainstorming rules helps free our mind to focus on the challenge rather than worrying about offending someone with a whacky idea or whether or not it is ok to add to someone else’s idea. When I lead creativity trainings, I present these rules to the group. I hang up a poster and print out smaller sheets for each table. Seeing the rules visually means participants don’t have to remember them and it reinforces their importance.
Here are the 4 brainstorming rules I use:
  1. Suspend judgment
  2. Seek wild ideas
  3. Build and combine on ideas
  4. Go for quantity

Let me explain each rule.

  1. Suspend Judgment – During the initial ideation phase you want to suspend judgment of your ideas. Let them all out – good, bad, and ugly. Some people say there is no such thing as a bad idea. I disagree. Many bad ideas will come out, but that’s a good thing. Let them flow! A poor or mediocre idea might spark a better idea from you or someone else. Don’t worry about the quality of the ideas. There will be a chance to evaluate them later. You are suspending judgment, not stopping it all together.
  2. Seek Wild Ideas – If you are trying to be creative then it helps to get a bit wild. Can you solve your problem using elephants, hay bales, or a hot air balloon? While the wild ideas might not get implemented, they help the team go in a new direction and lead to new ideas.
  3. Combine and Build on Ideas – Creativity is often about making connections between two separate things. Combine two or more ideas for a new idea. Build on each other’s ideas too. Don’t keep track of who said each idea. That makes it harder to build and combine ideas. The ideas are owned by the group. While giving credit may seem generous, it can detract from the group feeling like they collectively own the idea. It also means they may not be as comfortable modifying and changing the idea.
  4. Go for Quantity – In creativity there is a concept of the third third. The first third of ideas you generate are going to be fairly mainstream. For instance, imagine your challenge is, “how might we improve our online presence?” Inevitably, the initial ideas will include things like start a blog or post on social media. While these are valid ideas, they are not necessarily creative. If you keep going, you get past the typical and often the last third of your ideas are some of the best. The trick is that you can’t really get to that third third without going through the typical ideas first. So, keep going. Can you get 100 ideas? How about 500 ideas? Number them as you go and see how many you can get.
These rules help your brain engage in divergent thinking. Share them with your team and use them anytime you are trying to generate creative ideas.
It is helpful to also make the rules visual. Most people find it difficult to remember them without seeing them. To make this easier for you and your team, I have created a hand-drawn downloadable poster. You will get a PDF file that you can print up to 24” wide (about the size of flip chart paper). I have my poster laminated and use it all the time when I lead creativity trainings.

Order your PDF Poster here.

Let me know how the Divergent Thinking/Brainstorming Rules help.
What changed when your team used them?

After you generate a lot of ideas you can then shift into convergent thinking where you evaluate and select the top ideas. I’ll share the rules for those in the next post.