Creative Thinking

by Jayne Cormie


Allow yourself to be brave enough to think unique, individual thoughts and then have the courage to share them with colleagues.

Tina Catling and Mark Davies

The definition of brainstorming is ‘a group technique of solving specific problems, amassing information, stimulating creative thinking, developing new ideas and so on, by unrestrained and spontaneous participation in discussion.’

The concept of brainstorming was popularised by Alex Osborn in 1938. He referred to it as a ‘think up’ process. The term came from the idea of using the brain to storm a problem.

Brainstorming can take place in groups or individually.

Brainstorming rules

These four simple rules should be stated at the beginning of a brainstorming session in order to gain maximum input of participation and output of ideas.

The four rules of brainstorming


Create a flipchart poster stating the brainstorming rules and display it in the room. Alternatively, print individual copies of the rules on the back of the meeting agenda.

Brainstorming resources

Brainstorming sessions will be more effective if prepared in advance. The following are a few ideas to facilitate the brainstorming process.


Send a personal invitation to every participant one week before the brainstorm, outlining the creative task, stating the outcome of the session and suggesting that everyone thinks about the creative task in advance and brings their thoughts and ideas with them.

Brainstorming room

Prepare the room before the brainstorm in order to create an environment that stimulates each of the five senses:

  • Sight – visual posters and flipcharts
  • Smell – aromas (for example, lemon stimulates the brain)
  • Sound – music to stimulate creativity; research has shown that classical music creates a state which is conducive to creative thinking by slowing down the brainwaves
  • Taste – offer a selection of brain foods, such as nuts, raisins and grapes
  • Touch – include executive toys and interesting objects.

Capturing ideas

The traditional way of capturing ideas as they are suggested is to write them up on flipchart paper and stick them around the room. However, this is not the most effective method for two primary reasons:

  1. Linear notes – the brain is not designed to think in a structured linear way and this method limits the ability to associate, combine and connect ideas.
  2. It makes processing the ideas more difficult because it doesn’t help people to see emerging themes.

There are two alternatives to flipchart notes.

Post-it notes

Provide everyone with a post-it pad and ask them to write their ideas on the post-its. Write only one idea per post-it note. The post-it ideas can then be stuck to flipchart paper. At the processing phase, the ideas can be moved easily and grouped into themes.

Mind Maps®

Create a large group mind map of ideas. Start by creating a brain dump mind map and then continue developing the mind map by building on the ideas as they emerge, creating new ideas.

For more on how to use mind maps for brainstorming, see The tools to think creatively.

Group versus individual brainstorming

Brainstorming is a common process which is used everyday by individuals and groups. However, the process tends to be ad hoc and lacking in structure, often leading to disappointing results.

Group brainstorming

In group brainstorming, a number of individuals contribute their individual and collective knowledge and experience to the brainstorming process in order to generate new ideas. However, the facilitator must carefully manage the group dynamics in order to make sure that the brainstorm is a success:

State the four brainstorming rules up front

Ensure that everyone contributes their ideas – don’t let a few confident/creative/extrovert individuals hijack the process.

Incorporate both individual and group thinking techniques. For example, brainstorm individually initially and then encourage everyone to contribute their ideas as part of the group thinking process.

Individual brainstorming

Brainstorming is also beneficial when stimulating new ideas on an individual level and can be used in a wide variety of situations: finding ideas for birthday presents, planning holidays, thinking about goals, decorating the house, designing the garden and so on.

Any of the Creative thinking tools, especially mind mapping, can be used to brainstorm solo.

How to run a brainstorming session

There are three main steps in a brainstorming session, as described below.

Step one – brain warm-ups

Brain warm-ups get the group into the right mind-set for brainstorming. These quick and easy exercises will kick-start the process by stimulating idea generation, breaking down any barriers to creativity and building confidence, encouraging people to proactively participate in the session and contribute ideas. It will make the creative process flow much more freely and easily.

These warm-ups can also be done individually if you are brainstorming on your own.

Warm-up 1 – word association

The first person says a random word. The next person then says a word associated with the first person’s word and so on until everyone has played. To make it more challenging, go around the whole group as quickly as possible!

For example: cat, dog, bark, tree, flower, bee, honey, sugar, sweets, chocolate

Warm-up 2 – connections

The aim of this warm-up is to find the connection between two unrelated objects. This is an excellent exercise to stimulate lateral thinking.

For example:

A clothes peg and a photograph

  • hang photos up to dry with a clothes peg
  • take a photograph of the peg

A coat-hanger and antelope horns

  • hang clothes on the antelope horns
  • make antelope horns by bending the coat-hanger

Warm-up 3 – opposites

Think of twenty common words and write them down on a flipchart. Include some easy ones to start off with, making them progressively harder. Next to each word, write down the first word that comes to mind when you think of what the opposite of that word.

For example: black/white; love/hate; sweet/sour; fast/slow; courage/cowardice

Step two – brainstorm

One of the great barriers to original thought is the thought you are already carrying around in your head. When your mind is filled with solutions, it’s nigh on impossible to conceive a newborn thought.

Doug Hall

There are two phases of the brainstorming step.

Phase one – brain dump

The first phase involves conducting an initial brain dump of all the ideas which already exist within your head or within the group. If you attempt to brainstorm without first emptying your head(s) of these in-the-box ideas, it will be almost impossible to think outside-of-the-box. Simply state the creative task and capture all the initial ideas generated on a flipchart or make a mind map of them.

Many groups do not move beyond this phase of the process, either because they think that this is what brainstorming is or they lack the knowledge and/or skills to complete phase two of the process. However, this approach leads to in-the-box-thinking with few out-of-the-box-ideas being generated.

Phase two – brainstorm

This phase is applied when the group reaches the point of struggling to come up with new ideas. The aim is to stimulate lateral thinking by applying Creative thinking tools and techniques to the creative task. Depending on the time available, the thinking styles within the group and the creative task, one or more tools can be used to generate new ideas.

It is important during this phase to remind participants of the four brainstorming rules: no negativity or criticism; freewheeling; quantity versus quality, and build on ideas.

Capture all ideas suggested, using flipcharts and/or group mind maps.

Step three – process ideas

The final phase of the brainstorming process is to process the ideas by evaluating and selecting all ideas captured. To select ideas quickly and easily, use the dot voting technique: give each person ten or more sticky dots and ask them to vote for their favourite ideas by sticking dots against those ideas. The winning ideas are those with the most dots. See the page on Processing ideas for more details on how to evaluate and select ideas.

Using a facilitator

A facilitator is a process guide: someone who makes a process easier or more convenient. Using a facilitator to run the brainstorming session means that the participants can focus on releasing their creativity rather than being concerned with the actual process of brainstorming.

For more information on facilitation, visit the Facilitation topic.