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In general, people tend to brainstorm in groups. That particular method of generating ideas has become a standard solution for teams trying to solve problems.

However, due to globalisation, organisational challenges, time, and resources, you see more and more companies organising idea campaigns in the cloud where participants are brainstorming and coming up with ideas on their own. In this post, I'm going explain solo brainstorming techniques that work.

Why you should consider brainstorming by yourself


Brainstorming actually isn’t reserved
for groups of people, though that’s  
how most of us think of it. As an
entrepreneur with deadlines, I’m quite
familiar with brainstorming on my own.

You’ve probably used many of these methods already in your life. But if you want to become a better product developer or marketeer e.g., regular brainstorming will help you become more resourceful, s brainstorming:


  1. Gives you new ideas.
  2. Helps you work through problems.
  3. Improves your creative thinking.

As I looked through the following brainstorming techniques, I began to see 3 underlying approaches to brainstorming that I thought would be useful for you. Once you understand how they work, you can mix and match them for the best results.

1. Use associative brainstorming techniques to get out of your box

Association is a powerful way to get past typical thinking, and to get out of the box. We generally come up with ideas that are obvious at first and associative brainstorming is a good way to artificially force yourself past that point instead of hours of work.

It’s a kind of shortcut that taps into the subconscious, the associations you already know but don’t allow yourself to think.

Associative brainstorming technique 1: word storm

word-storm-example A word storm is where you write down
the words that come to mind when you
see another word. You might start with
a word or two based on your project or
challenge, and begin writing down any
word that comes to mind. These words
are then grouped together according to
how they are related to each other.

You’ll quickly create words that are associated or related, according to categories.

There is a word storm website (http://www.lonij.net/wordstorm/wordstorm.php) that can help you get started with word storm techniques.

Associate brainstorm technique 2: word association

word-association-techniquesWord associations are the same as a word storm, except that you don’t group according to how the words are related to each other. It works better as a technique to get creativity flowing when you don’t want to bother with over-thinking how words are related.

Start with a word or two, and write down the first words that come to mind. Don’t over-think the process; you should be surprised at the words that pop into your head, particularly as you get warmed up.

The goal is to find those “hidden” words that people associate with a topic that you don’t immediately think of.

Associate brainstorm technique 3: mind mapping


Using a mind map is a way to visually organize data and information. Mind mapping has proven popular, particularly
if you are better able to understand data visually instead of
as lists.

Organized around a central idea, a mind map works like the branch of a tree. Ideas and then sub ideas that are associated with the main idea branch off from the central idea.

A Mind Map is effective for breaking down (complex) issues and getting insight into all elements that are related to it.


Associate brainstorm technique 4: visual association

visual-association-techniques While visual associations are useful
in the “challenge creation and exploration
phase”, it is best done by people who aren’t
on the core team (employees, customers)
so that their associations are honest and
not tainted by being too familiar with the problem.

Visual association is much like word association. Think of a Rorschach test, in which you jot down whatever words or thoughts come to mind when you see an image. The control for this method is what images you will use.

In the end you create a moodboard that is reflecting your challenge and/or strategic innovation areas.

2. Get inspired

copy-pasteThe iPhone wouldn’t have been possible without going outside the box. Take off the blinders and look at domains other than your own. Some great innovations have come from cross-functional brainstorming. Organisations routinely use cross-functional collaboration to address complex problems. When on your own, you can check out websites and publications that address a different audience.

Looking away from your immediate area of expertise also helps to spark lateral thinking and gives you the chance to build upon other people’s ideas: new ideas from outside and inside your business http://www.springwise.com/ideas/

Look at cross Industry Innovation, this refers to innovations that come about by applying cross-industry analogies or by transferring approaches from one industry to another: have a look at the Cross Industry Innovation Toolkit with 50 inspiring companies and industries you can learn from: www.crossindustryinnovation.com



More sources of inspiration:

+ 3200 innovations to inspire your thinking: http://www.moreinspiration.com/

History-watching: http://www.paleofuture.com/

Extinction timeline 1950 - 2050: http://pradt.net/imgs/book/grand/extinctiontimeline.jpg

Look for Power combinations.

Explore combinations of techniques that work well together, or that you seem to excel at.

For example, maybe doing word associations first, and then moving into a mind mapping exercises is the best way to understand the challenge and come up with valuable ideas. Perhaps product designers find great success in starting with inspiration from other businesses and then using a mind map to organize those ideas.

In the end, you have to discover your own combinations that get the job done.

3. Take a new view to gain an entirely new perspective

While associative brainstorming and looking at other businesses helps you find entirely new paths,  finding a new view works when you’re on the right track but just not able to nail it down.

Gaining an entirely new perspective technique 1: WHAT IF

what_if_why_notIt’s that feeling of being so close, but not quite there. “What if-ing” is an appreciative brainstorming technique used to expand on ideas. It can expand average ideas into excellent ones. It eliminates “yeah butting,” discourages filibustering, and other common tactics used to put ideas down. And, it can generate brilliant solutions for difficult problems.

 Ask, “What if…” By simply asking, “What if?”, you can turn everything on its head.

Many fiction writers advocate asking yourself “what if” not only when you’re stuck, but even when the writing is going well. Wondering what might happen if something changed, and using your brainstorming mind to run with it, is a good way to get a different view on the project or problem.

“What if… you asked a fool?”

“What if … it had an attitude?”

“What if …it made noise?”

Have a look at 100 “what if” questions at: http://www.dontheideaguy.com/100whats/



Gaining an entirely new perspective technique 2: ask questions

asking_more_questionsBy moving away at what you know, you can push aside the curtain and finally see the answer. This is where questions come into play.

Write down the questions you have about the project or problem. Then, for each of these questions, start listing the answers quickly.

As you begin to answer the initial questions, other questions will come to mind that are associated with the answers you’re jotting down. Write down these sub-questions and do the same procedure.

In a way, it’s like creating an outline that is based on questions.


Gaining an enritely new perspective technique 3: forced limitations

freedom_in_limitationsForced limitations is a way to solve a difficult problem by creating a different problem.

With the idea that “necessity is the mother of invention”, forced limitations narrow the field of resources, options, time, or outcomes—and forces you to work with less. Often, having too many options is paralyzing, and forced limitations sparks creativity.

Think of Apollo 13.

They needed to get a square peg into a round hole in a limited time, using limited materials, in a way that could be recreated by the Apollo astronauts. And they did.

Imagine, though, if they had any materials they wanted, and all the time in the world. How many billions would it have taken, how many government contracts, how complicated would it have been, to get to the ultimate solution?

Sometimes the limitations are, as in Apollo 13, not at all arbitrary. They are real.

But sometimes you have no limitations and you need to create some fictional limitations to get the same effect. Maybe you’ll choose to reduce the time allowed for a solution, the materials available, or narrowly defined goal.

Whatever it is, you’ll see that creativity has a way of growing when there is less to work with. Forced limitations have a way of cutting to the chase and getting the things done. 

After your brainstorm - Take a walk

take_a_walkAfter 45-60 minutes of Solo brainstorming just stop. Step away from your desk. Cut the cord. Unplug. Go outside. Change your environment. Doing something physical like taking a walk is usually recommended when you have exhausted your brain. Walking away from your notes could help the brain make sense of the information before it feeds the solution back to you.

There are many brainstorming sources online that can help you with the first process – generating ideas. But it is you who has to sit down with the ideas and go through them to find the gems in the rough. Polishing the best ideas is the toughest part because it takes reasoning/skills and intuition.

Give these brainstorming techniques a try, and see the difference they’ll provide the next time you are exploring challenges and thinking of solutions on your own. Have fun!

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Elena Ozeritskaya

Elena Ozeritskaya

Elena Ozeritskaya is an expert on Customer Insight with a passion for creativity & innovation. During her time at Unilever and Syngenta, she was responsible for driving innovation projects with Custom