Brainstorming isn’t as effective as many believe it to be. While sharing ideas in groups is essential, the typical, unstructured format of brainstorming sessions leads to groupthink, a situation where the first few ideas are quickly validated before more creative ideas can come to light. Early ideas also provide a template or anchor for the type of themes that will be validated in the meeting, reducing the likelihood of participants thinking differently. This is often referred to as conformity pressure.

The first ideas to surface in a brainstorming session are often low-hanging fruit – in other words the least creative. When a team rallies behind these ideas it’s usually because it takes less time and energy than developing their own ideas. If your brainstorming sessions are only delivering the most obvious solutions you should use our list below to integrate more effective exercises into your brainstorming processes.

The list below is a small sample of dozens of brainstorming exercises and alternatives we’ve tested as part of our own workflow. We hope you will find a solution that fits the needs of your team.

1. The Design Sprint

The Design Sprint is a complete design prototyping workflow. However, we often look to the first four steps as a replacement to brainstorming:

  1. Understand: Introduce the problem
  2. Define: Define the customer and goals
  3. Diverge: Individual ideation
  4. Decide: Group review via silent voting

Unlike unstructured brainstorming, the Design Sprint seeks to limit the amount of time for each sprint to five days. The most critical issue this method resolves is groupthink. The Design Sprint allows individuals to work independently to develop their ideas before bringing them to the larger group, increasing the likelihood of out of the box thinking.

The Design Sprint is an agile process where teams can jump between stages to iterate and improve an idea. It also allows the team to bounce from individual ideas to group discussion and vice versa to reach the final steps (5. Prototype and 6. Test) more quickly.

2. Storyboarding

While storyboarding won’t replace every brainstorming session it is an important process to have in your toolbelt. Designing through storyboarding is all about creating a narrative through which a problem is solved. Visualizing the story through storyboarding will help your team comprehend each step in a process or flow. Most importantly, storyboarding helps identify conflicts in the narrative so more research can take place before testing a proposed solution.

In our office, storyboarding is often a quick and supplemental activity. We use sticky notes and tape to gather notes, customer insights, images, and more on a whiteboard. We then analyze the data points to find patterns and group ideas together. As the patterns become more defined, we can move items into a sequence to form our narrative. Finally, we remove extra materials from the board that does not help tell the story.

Storyboarding is about trying to acquire a deeper understanding of a problem by exploring it through narrative. Telling a story through different perspectives can help your team better understand customer needs and ultimately lead to more effective problem-solving.

3. S.C.A.M.P.E.R.

The SCAMPER technique is less a replacement for brainstorming and more of a method for structuring your brainstorming sessions to produce better results. SCAMPER provides a process for questioning and examining existing ideas from different perspectives in order to make them better. The acronym SCAMPER provides the backbone:

  • S: Substitute: What would happen if X instead of Y?
  • C: Combine: What would happen if X and Y combined?
  • A: Adapt: What changes would be required under a different context?
  • M: Modify: What to modify the project to create more value?
  • P: Put to another use: What other applications might this project have?
  • E: Eliminate: What to remove to simplify the project?
  • R: Reverse: How to reorganize to make the project more effective?

This is only a brief overview of the questions. Each of these letters contains a series of questioning designed to test your solution to a given problem rigorously. With each question you expose assumptions that need testing, learn more about the problem, and get closer to the best solution. This detailed process makes SCAMPER a valuable technique to integrate into your brainstorming sessions.

4. Reverse Brainstorming

Instead of trying to determine how to solve a problem, reverse brainstorming flips the brainstorming process on its head. Teams should try to identify how to cause a defined problem rather than developing solutions directly. This unique thinking can shine a light on the problem from a new perspective, often illuminating new solutions – or even solutions to problems not previously defined.

Some common steps to follow for your next reverse brainstorming session include:

Step 1: Define the problem to be solved during the session

Step 2: Invert the typical brainstorming process as in the example below

Step 3: Collect inverted solutions – accept all solutions without criticism

Step 4: Share the cases that make the problem worse then invert them to find solutions

Step 5: Evaluate the results as a group to identify the best solution

An example of a reverse brainstorming activity might be to ask the team to identify ways to lower productivity in an application. While this is not the goal of the session, this approach might especially be more natural for analytical thinkers to reveal additional problems and/or solutions.

The reverse brainstorming steps begin and end similar to a typical brainstorming process. However, the middle steps are modified to identify solutions by examining how the problem could be made worse. Reverse brainstorming can be applied during a typical discussion meeting as either a group or individual activity.

We hope our list of alternative brainstorming methods has inspired you to take a closer look at how you can integrate one or many into your team brainstorming sessions. This is only a short list of conventional techniques so make sure to subscribe to our Un-Cork blog to receive our upcoming posts on brainstorming and design process!


One last look at your old brainstorming sessions: