From the Archives -> Brainstorming Tools

I’d like to spend some time looking at how to deal with getting and organizing ideas.  I thought this quick reminder would be a good place to start.

In all of the work I do, one of the most critical is helping to identify opportunities for improvements and/or cost savings.  There are many sources for these potential projects, and we will delve into them over time, but today I’d like to discuss the art of brainstorming.

Free form is not unstructured

Whether you are looking at top-down, bottom-up or outside-in sources for improvements, at some point you will need to actually think about what you can improve.  And while I am partial to structured thinking and methodical project generations, there is great potential in free form thinking.  But don’t mistake “free form” for “completely unstructured.”  Not many great idea come out of a room full of people staring at their navels.  You can use well established tools and methods for free form idea generation.

Great brainstorming sessions have a few common traits.

  1. A defined time limit.  Without this, you can go spiraling off into the void.  A time limit will keep you focused.
  2. A defined problem to be solved or goal to be reached.
  3. A method of recording results.  Sticky notes work great.  I’m also a fan of whiteboards, depending on the method being used.
  4. Someone assigned as facilitator to drive the exercise and make sure time is productive.

There are many different methods you can use.  Here are a couple of my favorites to get you started…

Y to X trees

We’ve talked about these at length already, but they have great potential as idea generators.  Don’t forget them.

Worst Idea

This method starts with someone, usually the facilitator, throwing out the worst solution to a problem they can think of.  For example, if you are looking to reduce the cost of labor, fire all employees and replace them with robots.  Robots powered by hugs.  Bad idea, indeed.  But hearing bad ideas can often stimulate our minds to think of incrementally better ideas, and get the creative juices flowing.

Back to Front

A reverse Y to X, in some ways.  Start with your end state, take each attribute of your desired outcome, and drive backwards to the source.  If your outcome is sweet, tasty sausage, you can define the components (casing, meat, spices, etc.) and then determine the best source for each.  The answers you find might be very different than how you currently start a process.

Six Hats

In this exercise, participants are assigned a specific colored hat.  Props are most certainly appropriate.  Each hat represents a way of thinking about the problem.  The real power of this method is when the participants begin to feed off of each other, not just thinking in isolation.

  • White – Analytic: Considers only “known” facts.
  • Red – Emotions: Focuses on instinct and emotional reactions to problems.
  • Black – Obstacles:  Seeks and calls out roadblocks to success.
  • Yellow – Benefits:  Looks for opportunities to gain more from a solution, focused on the common good.
  • Green – Creativity:  Attempts to get teammates to think in new ways or areas within their color.
  • Blue – Meta:  Often the facilitator, this person focuses on the thinking process.

There are plenty of other methods out there that work, but these are some of my favorites.  We will cover more of them in the future, I’m sure.

Do you have a favorite brainstorming tool or method?  Feel free to share them in the comments!


  1. Dwane,
    I love these types of exercises. Design school revolved around brainstorming. I cannot help but think of a visual version of this commonly used to flush out ideas. When determining a logo concept you might run it through changing any one of the following cues: size, shape, color, texture, line, orientation or juxtipositon. Any one or several choices when altering a logo can transform the visual solution. I think by letting the list guide your thought it can open your mind to see more solutions.

    I’m bookmarking this post!

    • Thanks, Lyn. I’ve built a lot of project tools and templates, and several methods of evaluating ideas, but idea generation is an area that needs more of my attention. This was the first stop!

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