Not another boring "brainstorming" session

Not another boring "brainstorming" session

"Oh no, not another brainstorming session."

If you're like me, I'm betting you want to be as efficient as possible with your day. You DON'T want to spend 90 minutes wasting time in a "brainstorming" meeting that you know won't go anywhere and will leave you feeling bored exhausted.

But what if it only took a few minutes, and what if it wasn't exhausting? What if it was energizing and left everyone feeling empowered to take action instead?

Why the usual brainstorming method doesn't work

There are AT LEAST five problems with the usual lets-go-around-the-table approach:

  1. Getting stuck on one or two ideas, as people inevitably want to "chew on" the idea and its pros and cons. Some people inevitably monopolize the discussion and force the group to get stuck discussing their pet idea. You run out of time after only 3 or 4 ideas were put forward.
  2. Some ideas never get heard, because some people are self-editing, and others are too quick to shout them down or react negatively.
  3. It is exhausting and boring to muddle through half-formed ideas, to fight with people who want to monopolize the discussion, and to figure out whether any one idea is worth pursuing further
  4. There usually isn't a method for selecting the idea that seems best, nor to follow up on it with action items

There is a different way. It's called affinity diagramming.

The first time I saw it in action my jaw hit the floor. Not only were everyone's ideas heard, the process was FAST, and we got WAY MORE ideas than we could have through the usual "let's go around the table and each say one idea."

With affinity diagramming, you don't get stuck on one person's ideas, and you don't get bogged down simply because it takes time to chew over each idea. Everyone gets to have a voice, and all the ideas get a fair hearing. The group gets a chance to process the ideas and select which one seems best at the time.

Affinity diagramming works if you are genuinely interested in soliciting ideas from your team, and encouraging better problem-solving from them as a group. It not only helps to delegate the work, but it creates buy-in because everyone get to be involved in the process. 

The process is simple


  1. Announce a problem or issue that needs the team's ideas.
  2. Everyone is given scratch paper, post-its, whatever is at hand to write on. 5-10 pieces.
  3. Take 2-3 minutes, and have each person write down ONE idea per post-it
  4. OK to use phrases
  5. NO judgment about how many ideas are given
  6. After 2-3 minutes, count how many ideas were generated


  1. Gather everyone up at the white board. (Standing up and moving around really assists the speed of the process.)
  2. One at a time, each person goes up to the white board and posts their ideas, saying them out loud. 
  3. Do not evaluate any idea yet. This step is only to clarify the idea for the group and eliminate any confusion about what was written on the post-it
  4. This should take about 5-6 minutes
Grouping all the ideas helps bridge to action points

Grouping all the ideas helps bridge to action points


  1. Once all the post-its are on the board, have a group of 2 or 3 people rearrange the ideas into groups, according to similarity. Don't feel constrained by any preconceived categories. Do what seems best or natural as you look at the ideas.
  2. Try as best you can to do this without speaking. Believe it or not, it's faster if you don't talk!
  3. OPTION: Swap to a different group of 2-3 people halfway through this sorting process.
  4. It's OK to have some post-its flying solo, but try to group most of them
  5. When there is consensus that every idea has been sorted, have someone label each step.
  6. Take a picture of the result!

Now you have 20-40 ideas in several groups, where before you would have had only 4 or 5.


  1. Read each idea out loud, and have everyone vote with a show of hands whether they like that idea. (Start with whatever theme makes the most sense. You can do more than one theme.)
  2. Tally the votes right on the post-its. This gives everyone a visual of which ideas are getting the most votes.
  3. Once you have determined the top idea, determine action items for that idea and assign to each team member accordingly (or have team members volunteer for the action items.)
  4. If you do not know what the action items should be, or need further help from the team determining those, repeat the affinity diagram with a narrower question. For example, if the first diagram was about "solving the budget crisis" and the top idea chosen was "grow our revenue through rentals" you can now ask everyone to write down ideas specifically for how to do that.

Participants rave about how motivating this is.

The reason, I believe, is that it taps the RIght Brain in a number of ways, by utilizing movement, visual processing, and idea generation all at the same time.

Save yourself and your team from the next boring brainstorm. They'll thank you afterward, AND have a clearer picture of how to solve the problem.


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