Brainstorming is sometimes pictured with thunderstorm imagery. Its creator, Alex Osborne, was referring instead to storming an objective - with fast and furious creativity.


Creative thinking requires tools such as the brainstorm and the affinity diagram. Brainstorming is simply listing all ideas put forth by a group in response to a given problem or question. In 1939, a team led by advertising executive Alex Osborn coined the term "brainstorm." According to Osborn, " Brainstorm means using the brain to storm a creative problem and to do so "in commando fashion, each stormer audaciously attacking the same objective." Creativity is encouraged by not allowing ideas to be evaluated or discussed until everyone has run dry. Any and all ideas are considered legitimate and often the most far-fetched are the most fertile. Structured brainstorming produces numerous creative ideas about any given "central question". Done right, it taps the human brain's capacity for lateral thinking and free association.

Brainstorms help answer specific questions such as:

  • What opportunities face us this year?
  • What factors are constraining performance in Department X?
  • What could be causing problem Y?
  • What can we do to solve problem Z?

However, a brainstorm cannot help you positively identify causes of problems, rank ideas in a meaningful order, select important ideas, or check solutions.

To conduct a successful brainstorm:

  1. Make sure everyone understands and is satisfied with the central question before you open up for ideas.
  2. You may want to give everyone a few seconds to jot down a few ideas before getting started.
  3. Begin by going around the table or room, giving everyone a chance to voice their ideas or pass. After a few rounds, open the floor.
  4. More ideas are better. Encourage radical ideas and piggybacking.
  5. Suspend judgment of all ideas.
  6. Record exactly what is said. Clarify only after everyone is out of ideas.
  7. Don't stop until ideas become sparse. Allow for late-coming ideas.
  8. Eliminate duplicates and ideas that aren't relevant to the topic.

A brainstorm starts with a clear question, and ends with a raw list of ideas. That's what it does well - give you a raw list of ideas. Some will be good, and some won't. But, if you try to analyze ideas in the brainstorming session, you will ruin the session. Wait. Later, you can analyze the results of a brainstorm with other quality improvement tools. In particular, affinity diagramming is designed to sort a raw list, using "gut feel" to begin to categorize the raw ideas. It is most often the next step beyond brainstorming.