Brainstorming is an Actual Process Invented in the 50s and None of Us Have Been Doing It

Brainstorming is an Actual Process Invented in the 50s
None of Us Have Been Doing It

The ad man who inspired Mad Men created brainstorming to be brutally efficient, so where did we go wrong?

by stillman brown

how to brainstorm process

How do you “brainstorm?”

Do you sit in a room with one or two other people and write things on a pad? Fill a boardroom with a team and put the best ideas on the white board? Feel like you’ve succeeded after you’ve got a few dozen ideas?

Guess what? You’re doing it wrong.

Don’t feel bad. Most people don’t understand the method behind true brainstorming, and even fewer know its almost-forgotten origins.

Brainstorming Was Developed in 1953 and It’s a Real Process

alex osborn

In the 1930’s and 40’s, Alex Osborn was a hot shot ad executive. His firm, BBDO, was the real life inspiration for Sterling Cooper, the fictional agency featured in Mad Men.

Osborn developed the concept of “Brainstorming” as a way to get more creativity out of his underlings. He thought of it as “storming” a problem using the brain, the way troops would storm a battlement.

That’s very different from what most of us think brainstorming is, right? Osborn was attacking a problem, not putting his feet up and freewheeling.

For Osborn, brainstorming wasn’t just idea generation – a sentiment echoed by modern experts. According to executive director of Design at Stanford Bill Burnett, “Brainstorming for its own sake is a misunderstanding of the process.”

Brainstorming as it was created is a particular sequence of coordinated moves designed to penetrate and destroy a problem.

alex osborn brainstorm

How You’re Doing Brainstorming Wrong

See if this sounds familiar…

Your boss gathers the team into a room and announces that there will be a brainstorming session. You throw out some ideas so everyone knows you’re contributing, but it’s more an exercise in office politics than a hardcore problem-solving session.

After an hour someone takes a picture of the notes on a whiteboard, and you all walk away, never to hear from those ideas again.

Using Alex Osborn’s Mad Men version of brainstorming, let’s break down what’s wrong with this picture:

  • There’s no preparation; no one has prepared the battlefield with goals, targets, or even a clear problem
  • There’s no follow-through

Most of all, everyone leaves satisfied because they put a bunch of ideas up on the whiteboard.

I think I hear Alex Osborn’s ghost slamming his scotch down on a perfectly crafted mid-century modern end table…

What Brainstorming Should Be

Let’s break down the specific method that Alex Osborn created and other designers, academics, and thinkers have honed over the decades. 

    1. Prepare: Get your materials and lay the foundation for the brainstorming session by defining the specific problem or question you want to attack
    2. Generate Ideas: Generate a free flow of ideas that will lead to innovative solutions to a given problem, emphasizing quantity over quality and deferring judgement
    3. Put Ideas in Buckets: After the generating phase ends, group your ideas into clusters or “buckets” according to common features so they’re organized and themes can emerge
    4. Generate Action Steps: Decide which ideas or groups of ideas are worth pursuing and create specific actions to do so
    5. Act: Prototype it. Any idea can be tested for worthiness, not just a physical product. If you’re accomplishing something, carry out your action steps
    6. Analyze: What resulted from your actions? What new data do you have about your problem or question? It’s time to reflect on your initial action steps
    7. Brainstorm Again: Using your new data, start the process over until you’ve defeated your problem or answered your question

This might seem a lot less fun than the idea-fest that a lot of brainstorming has become, but ask yourself: do you want to get something done? Or fill up a white board?

brainstorming with post it notes

How To Brainstorm (The Right Way)

To illustrate the process, let’s break down a specific example using the seven steps above.

We’ll start with step 0: Gather your pens, paper, whiteboard, markers, crayons, post-its, or whatever gives you greatest freedom of expression.

We’re talking a lot of s*** about the lame kind of brainstorming but post-its are still fun and the recommended tool by Bill Burnett; more on why below.

1. Prepare

by asking the right question. It should be open-ended and compelling. And you should care about it.


How do I stop my career from feeling stagnant?

Pro tip: For some good ideas to get you started thinking about what you want to brainstorm, check out our awesome cheatsheet for creating rock solid Short Term Goals.

2. Generate Ideas

In this step, Osborn specifies “deferring judgment.” In other words, don’t judge any idea as good, bad, or too crazy that comes up. Save evaluation for later on. Now is the time for wild, uninhibited ideas.

Osborn also recommends going for quantity. Just think of as many ideas as you possibly can. Write them down, draw them, talk them out in a voice memo or video, just get them out of your head and into the world.

This is the point where most people stop, but the key to productive brainstorming is to continue on.

How do I make my career less stagnant?

  • Read books on career development
  • Negotiate for a raise
  • Set up informational interviews with people in positions above mine
  • Find a mentor
  • Quit my job
  • Start a new career
  • Figure out how much time I spend working and is it enough?
  • Go back to school to get an MBA
  • Start a foundation
  • Talk to my boss about why I want to move up in the organization
  • Can I do what my company does better on my own?
  • Volunteer at Habitat for Humanity
  • Go to networking events in my town
  • Get more active on LinkedIn
  • Start a blog
  • Have an informal focus group with my friends and ask them what they think I should do

3. Put Ideas in Buckets

After you conclude creating ideas, you’ll notice that they tend to cluster around different themes. These are your “buckets.”

Bill Burnett of Stanford recommends using post-its so that you can physically move ideas to different areas. He also recommends giving silly names to the buckets, like “If gravity were not an issue ideas” or “Crazy grandmother ideas”.

This is the step that allows you to evaluate and build on the ideas that seem to be sticking.

Career Boost Buckets:

  1. Seek Advice From Smarter People
  2. Take a Hard Left Turn
  3. Social Network My Way To The Corner Office
  4. 13-year-old Super Me Ideas

brainstorm post it notes on wall

4. Generate Action Steps

Now that you’ve put all the ideas in their buckets, rank the ideas within each bucket to decide which ideas you want to take action on. Choose the top 1-3 ideas and make a plan.

Once you execute some of your ideas, you’ll get feedback from the experience, and you can start brainstorming all over again.

Career Action Steps

I decide to take an action in each of my 4 buckets to see what feedback I get:

  1. Set up 3 informational interviews with people whose jobs I might want to work toward
  2. Have a pizza, beer, and What Should I Do With My Life party. Ask my friends if they have any insights
  3. Build out my Linkedin and start a personal website to build my online profile and track the results
  4. Look into what it would take to be an astronaut.

5. Act, 6. Analyze, and 7. Brainstorm Again:

You’re doing it! Action will give you valuable data to analyze and inform your next brainstorm.

You know the steps. What could go wrong?

Researching this post I found three common mistakes that new brainstormers often make. Let’s call them…

The Three Sins of Brainstorming:


Not spending enough time honing the question


Not allowing enough time for ideas to develop, diverge, and go unexpected places


Not reflecting on the results of your action steps

The good news is, brainstorming the right way means doing it as many times as you need to get results. So you’re going to get better!

How Can You Start Brainstorming Right Now?

We almost always think of brainstorming as a group activity. In his classic book on brainstorming, Applied Imagination, Alex Osborn actually said 12 people was an ideal number for a brainstorming session.

In the years since Osborn’s innovation, however, studies have shown that individual brainstorming can actually be much more creative. The reasoning is that in group settings, ideas tend to converge on the same few thoughts too quickly, limiting overall creativity.

If you’re working on a personal life question, you can launch your brainstorming by shaping your question and then using freewriting, word association, or drawing a mind map to start generating ideas.

Some personal brainstorms might include:

  • What can you do to be happier in your career
  • What do you want to do with you life
  • How to fight better with your partner
  • What is a new habit that will improve your life
  • How to make more money/get a raise
  • How to meet your life partner
  • How can you improve your marriage
  • What is the subject of your screenplay

If you have access to a group, like friends or coworkers or even social media outlets, tap them. An initial brainstorm with others may be enough to launch you on Action Steps that you can later refine on your own.

(Real) Brainstorming Can Solve Problems, Big And Small

The 5th Avenue ad men heyday. The Apollo moon missions. Silicon Valley.

Great moments in innovation often have a lot in common: small groups of highly skilled, motivated people who get together and brainstorm.

It’s pretty cool that anyone has access to the same process, isn’t it?

Done right, brainstorming is a skill that will boost your creativity and productivity both at work and in your personal life by giving you a tool to tackle difficult and vexing problems.

So – what’s your question?

How Do You Like To Brainstorm? Share Your Ideas, Buckets, And/Or Action Steps Below!

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Stillman Brown

Stillman Brown is a writer and TV producer who has created prime time content for National Geographic, Discovery, Travel Channel and many others. His interests span science & the natural world, personal growth, and food. He lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.