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With every breath, the possibility of a new aspect of self arises.

Wayne Muller

Life Coaching

Building Focus, Energy & Courage - to Make a Better Life for You

Unleash your Creativity with Brainstorming


Why Brainstorm?

Often I'll ask my clients to come up with a list of possibilities. Sometimes it's a list of ways to solve a problem they face, other times it might be a list of things they would like to own. It's usually hard going, because most of us are not taught how to let our creativity run free. Brainstorming is a technique which will allow your creative juices to flow freely. Done properly, it's great fun, and it's really empowering. So I often use it with my clients to flesh out fantastic new possibilities. This article will allow you to use the technique for yourself.

Brainstorm Magic

The basic idea behind brainstorming uses a natural thinking mode we all have; our minds create new ideas by bending, building on or adapting existing ideas. So in the diagram - the yellow idea suggests to us the orange one - and the orange one suggests the red one.

The critical thing to note here is this: You might never have thought of the red idea if you had not seen the orange one first. So each idea has two ways of being valuable. Firstly, it might be a really great idea which you can take and use, but more subtly - it might be a really dumb idea - but it acts as a bridge to a fantastic idea which you would not have thought of otherwise.

Stepping Stones

That is where the magic of brainstorming lies - in its ability to flush out really creative ideas that would not be available to you by any other means.

How To Brainstorm

The process I describe here is the one I used in the corporate world with my teams for more than fifteen years on three continents. We got good at it - we knew the ropes, and we really let rip! Some of our greatest successes were grown from the seeds liberated through brainstorming. Here's how to do it. I'll describe the optimal process, and then give you some variations which you can fit to your own circumstances.

  1. Ideally have between 5 and 10 people in the brainstorm. Do it in a closed room. Do it in the afternoon. Order in coffees and cakes. These events should be fun and looked forward to.
  2. Nominate a leader or facilitator; they are also the "pen man". Have them stand up at the front with big pen and paper. Their job is to set and maintain a positive mood as they coordinate the brainstorm. They spell out the rules:
    • Speak when it's your turn
    • Any and every idea, however wacky, is a good one
    • Do not criticize nor discuss any of the ideas during the brainstorm
  3. They visit each person in turn and ask them for an idea. They write the incoming idea down without modification. When the sheet is full they stick it up on the wall for all to review as the brainstorm proceeds. They should keep the pace fast and the mood light-hearted and non-critical.
  4. When a person is invited, they say one idea. They do it quickly - max five seconds - or else they say "pass". But they should resist the urge to say "pass" very often; instead - say something ridiculous. Someone else may take your ridiculous idea and mutate it into something incredibly powerful. And if that happens - you did your job.
  5. If an idea occurs to you when you are not being invited write it down and say nothing until it is your turn.
  6. No-one makes long comments about anyone's ideas. A giggle is OK, a "hell yeah" is alright - the mood should be up-beat and casual - but no negative noises and positively no discussion of the idea at that time.

    THIS IS CRUCIAL yet, in my experience, beginners get this wrong, and if they don't fix it, it simply won't be a brainstorm. So if someone starts up with "Hey yeah - that's such a good idea, but how would you get by the problem of ..." or "well, that will never work..", then the facilitator must jump in immediately, and say "Uh uh! Remember guys - no discussion! - who's next?". They might need to do that ten times, but they must establish the "no discussion" rule. Positively, but firmly and relentlessly until everyone learns.
  7. When the flow dies right down, the facilitator should announce that you are moving to "ad hoc mode" in which anyone can call out ideas in any order. Continue to write them down without discussion.
  8. The facilitator should keep going past the point where it would be comfortable to stop, but they will eventually call a halt.

That's it. You will end up with a long list of stuff. Some of it will be obvious and un-interesting. Much of it will be entirely ridiculous and useless. But in there should be some ideas which are immediately workable - or which suggest a way forward. That is the fruits of your labours, and in my experience, you'll find gems in here you would not have found any other way. and they will change your life.

Brainstorming Variations

This is the ideal but in many instances (and usually in personal coaching) this is not possible, so here are some variations:

  1. I brainstorm with clients by phone. There are usually only two of us. We alternate in placing ideas "on the table". We both have pen and paper with us, and we both write down all ideas and keep them in front of us during the session.
  2. If you need new ideas, why not meet up with a friend to do this - by phone if it's more convenient.
  3. I have had some success brainstorming by email, and where there is no better alternative - it's worth doing.
  4. Brainstorm with your family - perhaps over a meal. You'll be very pleasantly surprised - children are gold dust in these situations.
  5. Brainstorm over lunch at work.
  6. Brainstorm in the car going to work if you're car pooling, or even on the bus with a friend or a stranger!

Brainstorming Applications

So now let's take a real-life example from my coaching practice and show YOU how brainstorming can REALLY help.

In this case, my client presented me saying she hated herr life and wanted a nice shiny a new one. This is very common.

The problem is that - if I ask them "what don't you like?" they may be able to come up with a short list. If I ask them "What would you like to replace those things with?" they are often unable to provide a good answer, and certainly not one which inspires them to try to make it happen.

The problem is that they are very often in a less-than-resourceful state; they are fed up with their situation. They want it changed, but they are often negative, tired, perhaps a little angry, and even skeptical. And they aren't in the mood to "play games".

So I start them on the brainstorm, and in this context I am both facilitator and co-brainstormer. I am also choosing my ideas to help to guide my client into more productive ways of thinking, and I'm interjecting guiding comments to lead us into fruitful areas. Here's a transcript extract of an actual coaching session (I often record them with permission). This is reproduced with permission.

C: OK then, so I'll let you start. What would make your life fantastic?
A: Getting out of this job
C: I'll add - a nicer climate
A: Oh! We can do that?!
C: We can do anything in a brainstorm - your turn
A: Err. Err. Err. Sorry, I'm thrown
C: OK, just relax. I'll add in another one... A Big House on the Hill
A: OK! House-wise, I do need to fix the damp problem. So. Well - I'll just have that! Fix the damp.
C: Great! OK... talking of damp... put in a fantastic swimming pool
A: HAHAHA. If only this were real.
C: You mean it's not? Come on - your turn.
A: OK, so... let me see... new house, swimming pool, damp, climate. Well - a nice holiday abroad! I don't have to own them - I can borrow them by taking a holiday; I haven't had one in years.
C: Wow. That's fantastic! So, now - a nice new glamorous car.
A: Why thank you. And a double garage to put it in.
C: On the side of the new house no doubt. OK. I'll add in a wonderful sense of peace.
A: Oooo, that's a bit of a change of pace. And I'll add in more self-confidence with hunky men.
C: And I'll add in more hunky men to be confident with.
A: OK then, I'd better be more presentable myself, so I'll have a thorough style make-over.
C: And I'll add a £200 monthly budget to keep your new style top notch.
A: Well, then I suppose I should lose some weight. Can I add negatives? If so I'll add minus 2 stone in blubber.
C: You got it. I'll add in a fantastic new hobby which you find you love and which naturally helps you to control your weight.
A: You've done this before! OK OK.. Um um um um. Well, now I'm thin and stylish, I want a set of fancy new friends to socialise with.
C: And I'll add in one very special friend.
A: Someone I can confide in and learn from. I want a role model. OK. I want a mentor.
C: Work mentor?
A: Dunno.
C: OK - maybe both. Ermm. Looking back at the list, going back to your job. I'll give you a sense of purpose - a knowledge of what you're here to do.
A: Why thank you again. And I'll add the courage to follow the path I find for myself, or the path you found for me - whatever!
C: We'll call it "the path" and not worry too much how it got there. How about a wonderful view.
A: Eh? You mean from home?
C: Yeah, why not!
A: So. Oh wait. I want to see the world! I want to travel.
C: Even better. And I'll give you the kind of job which will allow you the funds and the time to travel.

This went on for a long time, but I hope you've seen enough to get the idea. Several things are worthy of note here:

  1. "A" was low when we started, but within a short space of time she was very upbeat and having fun. The fun side of the brain is where the creativity (as well as the fun) happens.
  2. You can already see a loosening of attitudes about what kind of a life "A" can lead. She is seeing new possibilities and loving it. She has been placed in a resourceful state.
  3. From her newly-resourceful state she was able to talk about her weight issue, and accept the impact it had on her social life.
  4. See how "A" - in her resourceful, relaxed state moved easily between related areas of her life - like her weight and her social life, and how fixing one would lead to new ambitions in the other.
  5. You can clearly see the stepping stone principle at work. She took the new house ideas and morphed it into the (perhaps more practical) fix the damp idea. She also took the pool/climate/house/damp scene and turned it into a holiday abroad - a very nice creative leap - and again from something which is not perhaps immediately practical to something that definitely was.
  6. In just this short extract you can see several concrete, practical, useful ideas emerging which she would not have found alone, and which we may not have found together - without brainstorming.

So there you have it - brainstorming is fun, it's easy, it's inexpensive, it's flexible and it's really great at helping you to find creative ideas in a hurry.

Go forth and brainstorm!




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