Location: Main Page-> Resources-> Reading Room-> Creative Problem Solving->What is Brainstorming?
International Center for Studies in Creativity International Center for Studies in Creativity Logo ICSC Home Page General Information Educational Programs Faculty & Staff Resources Distance Learning Graduate Programs ICSC Workshops On-Line Literature Search Site Map
Reading Room

What is Brainstorming?

by Sue Steege, 1999

  • Convergent thinking- Choosing among many options to reach a conclusion. Creative Problem Solving- A process which provides an organizing framework for generating new and useful outcomes or actions, using both divergent and convergent thinking.
  • Divergent thinking- Generating many possible ideas or options in response to an open question or challenge.
  • Facilitator- The person charged with the responsibility of providing the process expertise for a Creative Problem Solving session.
  • Freewheel- To encourage all ideas, even those which might seem wild, silly or outrageous. One of four guidelines for divergent thinking.

Brainstorming is a well-known, though often misunderstood tool in Creative Problem Solving. This paper examines the origins of brainstorming, defines brainstorming as it exists in Creative Problem Solving (specifically addressing common misconceptions about brainstorming), explores the guidelines for brainstorming, and looks at some brainstorming variations.

Introduction to Brainstorming: The Origins

Simply put, brainstorming is a group process for generating ideas using the four divergent thinking guidelines of deferring judgment, striving for quantity, freewheeling and seeking combinations (these will be explored fully later in this paper). The word brainstorming was coined by Alex Osborn, a pioneer in the field of Creative Problem Solving. Osborn developed this technique when he was President and Founder of an advertising firm in the 1930's and 1940's. He used it to help his employees generate many new ideas for the advertising business and it was so successful that it began to be used in many different kinds of situations where ideas were needed to help solve problems. Osborn's advocacy for the technique of brainstorming helped to spread the good word and he is a key reason that brainstorming is as widely used and known as it is today. Brainstorming has developed and changed somewhat since Osborn created it, but conceptually it remains his baby.

Brainstorming: What it Isn't

Brainstorming is a common term, but it can be greatly misunderstood. Some myths surrounding brainstorming include seeing brainstorming as an individual process, as the entire process of Creative Problem Solving, and as synonymous with group discussion. Brainstorming, as it is understood in the framework of Creative Problem Solving is not an individual technique. From it's beginnings in Osborn's advertising agency, brainstorming was a group process in which a group of people worked together to generate many ideas. Groups are able to use brainstorming to provide a wide range of alternatives and build on those of others, as well as provide energy and a variety of viewpoints.

Brainstorming is a group process. It is a common misconception that brainstorming makes up the whole Creative Problem Solving process. This is not so. While brainstorming is a technique of divergent thinking (and there are others), Creative Problem Solving involves both divergent and convergent thinking. That is, in order for a challenge to be met, one must both generate many ideas (brainstorming) and select the idea that will solve the problem best (convergent thinking).

The more accurate view is that brainstorming is one tool in the toolbox for Creative Problem Solving. Understood in this way, brainstorming is a powerful instrument for solving problems creatively. Brainstorming is a group process, but it is not synonymous with having a group discussion. It is a tool which has specific elements. A group discussion may or may not reach a goal of generating many ideas or options and is not likely to be structured in such a way as to insure that outcome.

These are the things brainstorming isn't. Here, again, is what brainstorming is: a group process for generating ideas using the four divergent thinking guidelines of deferring judgment, striving for quantity, freewheeling and seeking combinations. We now move to exploring these divergent thinking guidelines so crucial to the process of brainstorming.

Guidelines for Brainstorming

The four guidelines for divergent thinking are critical to the process of brainstorming. The guidelines are the rules for successful brainstorming. They are deferring judgment, striving for quantity, freewheeling and seeking combinations.

  • Defer judgment. This guideline is really the basis for the other three guidelines. It implies the process of waiting to judge ideas and options until after there are many ideas and options generated. The ability to defer judgment is important both externally (when considering the ideas of others) and internally (when considering one«s own ideas). Deferring judgment helps to generate a higher quantity and quality of ideas.
  • Strive for quantity. In Creative Problem Solving, we believe that with quantity, one is more likely to get quality. If one generates many ideas while brainstorming, there is a likely chance that one or more of them will be the creative solution to the problem.
  • Freewheel. This guideline suggests capturing every idea that comes into one«s mind, even if it seems crazy or out there. While brainstorming, it is helpful to give one«s self permission to be playful and strive for originality. This guideline necessitates use of the imagination.
  • Seek Combinations. This guideline asks brainstorming participants to build on previously stated ideas. Old ideas can be modified, altered or combined to generate new ideas. This is also known as piggy-backing or hitch-hiking.

Variations of BrainstormingThere are several variations of brainstorming. Two of the most common are brainstorming with Post-its™ and brainwriting. Brainstorming with Post-its™ is a technique which helps accommodate the speed with which ideas are generated when brainstorming. Each group member has a pad of Post-its™ and a pen-sized magic marker. When group members think of an idea or option, they write it legibly on a Post-it™ (one idea per Post-it™), say the idea out loud, and hand it to the facilitator, who sticks it up where all can see it.

This brainstorming variation makes it easier for the group to hitch-hike on each others ideas and also helps make sorting and convergence easier. Brainwriting is a brainstorming variation that is useful in changing the pace of a brainstorming session. When brainwriting, group members write down their own ideas first, then pass them to each other. Each group member then makes modification on those ideas presented to them by others. Brainwriting is a quiet activity because group members do not talk to each other. Rules for divergent thinking still apply.


Although often misunderstood, brainstorming is an important tool in the process of Creative Problem Solving. As such, it offers powerful possibilities for the generation of ideas and options that lead to creative solutions for problems and challenges.


Isaksen, S. G. , Dorval, K. B. , & Treffinger, D. J. (1994). Creative approaches to problem solving. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

Isaksen, S. G. (1995). On the conceptual foundations of creative problem solving: A response to Magyari-Beck. Creativity and Innovation Management, 4, 52-63.

Isaksen, S. G. , Dorval, B. K. , Treffinger, D. J. (1996). Brainstorming. Think: The Magazine on Critical and Creative Thinking, 7, 11-14.

Parnes, S. J., ed. (1992). Sourcebook for creative problem solving. Buffalo, NY: Creative Education Foundation Press.

Parnes, S. J. , Noller, R. B. , Biondi, A. M. , eds. (1977). Guide to Creative Action Part 3. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.


AJD 12/02

Buffalo State College