6 Brainstorming Tips for Social Innovators and Beyond

Some of the most successful and innovative solutions to global problems once started with a group of people sitting in a circle, quickly throwing out ideas. Wondering about ways to brainstorm with your team in a more effective and inclusive way? Read on.

We happen to think idea generation is an art form. It's about setting a safe, creative space for people to feel like they can say anything, be wild, and not be judged, so that new ideas can be born.

Here at OpenIDEO, we've experienced many different iterations of the classic brainstorm—in small huddles on the floor, in large groups around a conference table, and via video calls spanning multiple time zones. To help energize your next brainstorming session, we asked Program Lead Chelsea Takamine and Senior Community Designer Ashley Tillman for their favorite practices on generating better ideas, no matter the context.


A stack of Post-its or small pieces of paper. A blank wall or table (if you don’t have Post-its). A quiet space. An open mind. A group of eager brainstormers. 

1. Shhhh — start quietly

One of our favorite brainstorming techniques is to start the session in silence. Brainstorming sessions often tend to be quite a verbal process, requiring folks to speak up and insert their voice into the discussion. Optimal brainstorming processes are different for everyone, so we like to create an opportunity for folks who process and think in different ways. 


Instead of jumping right in, set a small amount of time for the group to quietly brainstorm and write ideas on Post-its. Not only does this allow for some quieter space for introverts, but it can also lead to increased diversity of ideas, as people won’t be influenced by the ideas of the group when they are generating (i.e. avoiding “groupthink”). Get creative with it! If your brainstorm stalls in the middle, you could also consider having a silent brainstorm at that point.

2. Build, but don’t dwell

In our experience, brainstorms are most valuable for generating a large number of diverse ideas. In order to optimize your time, we recommend that you avoid dwelling on your ideas. In fact, try not to discuss them at all and set that expectation from the beginning. Allow folks to share one of their ideas, place their Post-it on the wall, then promptly move on to the next idea. Start discussing only after everyone has shared all their ideas. Another way to approach this is to go around in a circle, allowing everyone to say one thought at a time, until each person has finished sharing their Post-its.


Stick to the “one idea per Post-it” rule. Steer away from crowding all of your ingenious ideas onto one single Post-it. Once you’re done sharing your ideas, you’ll be able to group all the Post-its on the wall and organize them by theme or pattern. The goal is to have as many ideas as possible.

3. Think beyond words

Whether it’s visuals or sounds, tapping into your other senses can help you get more creative. Quick drawings or sketches not only get you thinking with a different part of your brain, but they make your ideas more tangible and allow others to interact with your concept in different ways. On OpenIDEO’s Challenges, we love seeing contributors include photos, mockups, and even videos or GIFs to bolster their idea submissions and make them more memorable. This year, we saw the power of visual language in the form of our Cybersecurity Visuals Challenge, which asked designers to contribute images for their reimagined concepts of cybersecurity. 

Another non-verbal tactic is to set the atmosphere for optimal productivity and idea-generation by playing music in the background, be it the relaxing sounds of nature or upbeat, lyric-less tunes.


To help provide a clearer direction for where you’d like to take your ideas, consider doing a fun homework assignment before you meet up with the group. Create a simple digital mood board by curating a series of illustrations, graphics, color palettes, or quotes tied to the theme or question in mind. Feel free to show it to your group to help illustrate your ideas when sharing during the brainstorm session.

4. Create an inclusive, judgment-free zone

Creative spaces don't judge. They let the ideas flow so that people can build on each other. You never know where a good idea is going to come from—the key is to make everyone feel like they can say the idea on their mind and allow others to build on it. Often, in a group setting, it’s natural that the most vocal person may dominate the discussion and potentially block out some valuable concepts. Work to build a brainstorming culture that doesn’t stifle any voices by giving everyone the opportunity to speak. 


Set expectations upfront with your group before diving into the brainstorm session. Make it clear that you: 1) want all voices heard, 2) want to keep to time constraints (even when it feels uncomfortable) and 3) will only have one conversation at a time to keep people from talking over each other.

5. Ideate from the edges

Unconventional ideas can often give rise to creative leaps. When you put forth an oddball idea and it’s met with negative feedback, it actually can reduce your ability and desire to think creatively and generatively. This is problematic because we know that some of the biggest successes are slight iterations of not-so-great ideas. A wild idea might be two or three iterations away from a transformational idea. Just take a look at this idea from an innovator to put insects to work to turn food waste into animal feed, or this proposal to use drones to plant trees in vulnerable coastline communities.


In your brainstorming process, try envisioning all the ideas that might be possible without the constraints of technology, materials, or finances. You never know—under the right circumstances, your wild idea just might become a reality.

6. Lead a virtual brainstorm

Brainstorming doesn't strictly have to happen in person. Having a globally distributed community—including team members, Chapter organizers, and OpenIDEO contributors spread across the world—means that we've had to become experts at ideating across great distances.

A video brainstorm call with 20+ participants isn't an unusual occurrence at OpenIDEO.

Virtual brainstorms should be active, not passive. Design the session to be both accessible and engaging for people coming from different places. To start, send out the agenda and prompts to your group in advance so they have time to digest the information beforehand—especially if anyone speaks a different first language. Make sure to leave extra time to allow for questions and discussion, and provide the recording and/or transcript afterwards to continue building on the brainstorm.


Preparation is key. For smooth virtual conferencing, hash out the details by reminding your group to join by video (not just audio) and to make sure they’re in a quiet and uninterrupted space with pen and paper in hand. For a quick energy boost, start with an icebreaker that helps your fellow brainstormers connect with each other, whether it’s sharing what time it is where they’re located, or drawing a doodle of what they’re seeing out the window. 

The key to great brainstorming is to lead with empathy, keep an open mind, and have fun. We hope these six tips come in handy the next time you're brainstorming—perhaps for one of our upcoming Challenges. After all, collaborative thinking is the engine that drives OpenIDEO's innovation platform forward.

Have a great tip for coming up with ideas to solve tough problems? We'd love to know. Share them with us on Twitter by tagging @OpenIDEO