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Brainstorming Tactics: How to Get Unstuck

We've all been there. Your boss walks up to your desk and has a great vision for what the team needs to accomplish, and it’s up to you to make it happen, and you don’t know where to start. Maybe it’s not your boss, maybe it’s a client, or maybe it’s your idea, but you just don’t know how to bring this vision into reality. The challenge is so big or you’ve gotten so lost on the road you don’t know how to solve it. 

You're stuck. So what to do?

For me, the best thing to do when you get stuck is to pull a group of people together into a brainstorming session with some clear guidance and rules. I'm a fan of design thinking and IDEO’s human centered design toolkit. I find that their rules work remarkably well. So here they are*:


Before the brainstorm set up the specific challenge or problem you are trying to solve. IDEO suggests using the “How might we ____” phrase, which is a great way to set it up. Your challenge could be, “How might we increase online donors” or it could be “How might we inspire policy makers to view our site.” Make sure everyone understands the topic and the specific problem you are trying to solve.

Everyone should have a stack of post-its, a sharpie (or thick pen). Before you begin, go through the rules for the brainstorm to ensure its success:

The Rules

  1. Defer Judgement
This is serious. No “But my boss wouldn’t like that” or “That doesn’t make sense for this project” or “I like that, but how would we build it?” Don’t let those thoughts hinder your creativity! I know it sounds really weird, and is uncomfortable, but you never know where a good idea comes from and who it may come from. You can still ask questions for clarity or to push the idea further, but there’s no criticism here, not yet.
  1. Encourage Wild Ideas
The brainstorm is a magical world where rules and technology don’t matter. Think big, think strange, think bizarre, think wild. The idea being, this will help you think of what you actually want to do. Not what you want to do within the timeline and budget. Once you have clarity about what you want to do, you can bring it down into something that is more attainable. But, in the meantime, go big!


  1. Build on the Ideas of Others
For those of you that have done improv, this is a key idea. You can’t say “Why would your Mom be here? She couldn’t be here, she lives in Chicago.” Instead you would say “I’m so excited that your Mom is here, I’m glad she took that late flight last night to make it in time. We should all go to a play together since your Mom loves theater.” Take something from what someone suggests and take it a step further.
Think: Yes and... rather than: But...
  1. Stay Focused on Topic
We want to encourage wild, creative ideas, but it has to be on topic and focused on what you are trying to design for. Make sure everyone understands the topic before you begin the brainstorm. Remember to keep your group’s “How might we ____” statement in mind.
  1. One Conversation at a Time

Listen to each other and let everyone have time to explain their ideas.

  1. Be visual
Rather than writing your idea down on the post-it, draw it! It doesn’t matter how bad your drawings are, the sketch will help illustrate and conceptualize your idea, and allow people to quickly understand it.
  1. Go for Quantity
Crank out as many as you can. IDEO recommends getting 100 in one session. Focus on quantity, rather than quality, and the quality ideas will come out of that.
Post It notes from a recent brainstorm. 

Then What?

As people are explaining their ideas, group them together into similar themes. You may need to do another brainstorm with a narrower focus to follow up on the themes you found. If not, have everyone vote for their three favorite ideas.

Now is the time to bring reality back into the picture. Look at the ideas that have the most votes and ask are they feasible? Can you create a version that would work? Can you combine two ideas? Is there one within the top three that you feel comfortable moving forward with? Take that idea and begin to flesh out some more of the details.
The beauty of the exercise is that you now have a group of people that were part of the brainstorm that you can come back to for feedback or to test out new ideas/iterations.

Good luck! I hope this helps you get unstuck.