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Journal of Nursing Administration:
doi: 10.1097/NNA.0b013e3182378a53
Departments: Strategic Leadership for Organizational Change

Brainstorming for Breakthrough Thinking

Shirey, Maria R. PhD, MBA, RN, NEA-BC, FACHE, FAAN

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Author Information

Author Affiliation: Associate Professor, Doctor of Nursing Practice Program, College of Nursing and Health Professions, University of Southern Indiana, Evansville.

The author declares no conflict of interest.

Correspondence: Dr Shirey, College of Nursing and Health Professions, University of Southern Indiana, 8600 University Blvd, HP-2044, Evansville, IN 47712 (

Supplemental digital content is available for this article. Direct URL citations appear in the printed text and are provided in the HTML and PDF versions of this article on the journal’s Web site (

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This department highlights change management strategies that may be used in strategically planning and executing organizational change initiatives. With the goal of presenting practical approaches helpful to nurse leaders advancing organizational change, content includes evidence-based projects, tools, and resources that mobilize and sustain organizational change initiatives. In this article, the author discusses brainstorming as a viable innovation technique and goal-based change intervention.

Creative thinking is needed for innovation and change. Because imaginative ideas do not always surface when they are most needed, leaders benefit from useful tools and techniques that can accelerate idea generation. Brainstorming is a technique that, used alone or in combination with other methodologies, can ignite organizational innovation. Brainstorming is a technique used by the world’s largest companies; however, it is not always executed effectively. This article explores brainstorming as a viable innovation technique and goal-based intervention.1 Suggestions for effective brainstorming are presented supporting breakthrough thinking and organizational change.

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About Brainstorming


Brainstorming is a group creativity technique used to generate ideas and facilitate problem solving. A brainstorming session typically occurs in a panel format and includes a leader (or facilitator), recorder, and 10 to 12 panel members. The session may begin with a larger group, which then breaks into smaller groups to discuss the question of interest. The leader maintains the rapid flow of ideas focusing the discussion and eliciting full group participation. The recorder captures the discussion, freeing the leader from the often conflicting task of having to document the group’s ideas. Panel members contribute their ideas regarding the discussion question and validate that their comments are accurately captured.

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History and Usage

Alex Osborn,2 an advertising executive, is credited with pioneering this technique. In his popular book, Applied Imagination, Osborn introduced brainstorming as an alternative to the conventional business meeting. Brainstorming refers to using the brain to storm a creative problem using a commando style attack that resolves a common conundrum.3

Brainstorming has multiple applications and is a technique that is used in both large and small companies as well as across a wide range of departments. Brainstorming sessions help to answer specific questions such as the following: What opportunities face us this year? What can be done to solve a specific problem? What factors are contributing to a given problem? What can we do to advance an important organizational priority?

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The evidence base related to brainstorming is mixed. The early work of Osborn2 suggests that group brainstorming produces more ideas and thus is more effective than having individuals working alone. Not all researchers share the belief that identifying many ideas within a group offers the best chance of generating creative ideas. Diehl and Stroebe4,5 affirmed that, given equal time, “real” groups brainstorming together produce fewer ideas than “nominal” groups of individuals who write down their independent thoughts. Sutton6,7 offers yet another perspective suggesting that drawing a hard line between individual and group creativity is pointless. Sutton6,7 argues that what really matters is that the 2 approaches mingle as the creative process unfolds. Brainstorming should not only generate new ideas but also combine and extend them. Sutton7 warns that if the goal is simply to collect creative ideas without expanding them, brainstorming sessions are a waste of time and an employee suggestion box would be a more efficient alternative.

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To ensure that brainstorming produces many spontaneous ideas, Osborn2 originally developed 4 distinct brainstorming rules. The rules include withholding criticism of ideas, aiming for many ideas simultaneously, building on each participant’s ideas, and encouraging unusual and even “wild” ideas. When followed, these rules produce more ideas, which can then be refined to develop useful solutions. The brainstorming mantra is that quantity breeds quality. All brainstorming sessions begin with a specific question, which aims to solve a unique problem. Brainstorming participants provide ideas about a topic continuing the process until time runs up or the group runs out of ideas.1 The brainstorming session begins with a clear question and ends with a raw list of ideas,3 which then need to be sorted, analyzed, and prioritized using quality improvement tools (ie, affinity diagramming).

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There are 2 common limitations associated with brainstorming. These are perceived lack of participant preparation for brainstorming and lack of advanced tools or creative approaches to complement the brainstorming process.

Osborn’s2 original approach assumes that before the brainstorming session, extensive participant preparation is not needed. This lack of participant preparation before the session may be easily addressed depending on the brainstorming session’s desired outcomes. In a free-flowing discussion, the desire may be to have no previous preparation so the ideas can be spontaneous and not tainted toward a certain viewpoint. Conversely, enhancing previous knowledge regarding the problem may enrich the discussion. Preparation could elevate the discussion assuming that the preparation materials are profound and enlighten individual thinking.

Most brainstorming sessions use conventional approaches, which include flipcharts with markers and group members (who may or may not be formally trained) acting as facilitators or recorders. More elaborate and highly effective tools, however, exist to complement and amplify brainstorming. Given the cited brainstorming limitations, this article introduces both suggestions for better brainstorming preparation and a complementary tool (mind mapping) to expand the brainstorming session.

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Toward Better Brainstorming


Tapping into individuals experienced in brainstorming may offer suggestions, which enhance idea generation. Table 1 presents a synthesis of expert suggestions6-9 helpful for enhancing the brainstorming session. These suggestions expand upon Osborn’s2 original work and include problem statement focus, participant and setting selection, structures, processes, and outcomes.

Table 1
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Mind Mapping

Mind mapping is a creative way of note taking, which visually “maps out” ideas.10 This tool amplifies the brainstorming session and may involve either a manual or electronic approach. An example of the manual approach to mind mapping may include the use of a trained team consisting of a facilitator, scribe, and technical assistants. The facilitator’s role is to lead the brainstorming session. The scribe who may also be an artist or cartoonist captures the essence of the discussion visually representing it using a mind map. The technical assistants work to address logistics leaving the facilitator and scribe to focus exclusively on the brainstorming session. Figure 1 represents an example of the manual mind mapping approach using a professional brainstorming facilitation team (See Figure in color, Supplemental Digital Content 1, which depicts a visual summary of an introductory discussion that took place as part of a larger brainstorming event, It captures mind map images from a 3-day summit designed to build an international research agenda for certification in nursing with the intent of better linking certification with patient outcomes.11 The invited participants attending this certification industry summit focused their brainstorming session on addressing what they, as a group, could do to solve the problem of limited research documenting the empirical outcomes associated with nursing specialty certification.

Many electronic mind mapping programs are commercially available to complement a brainstorming session. One example of professional mind-mapping software is MindView.10 This software program can convert a long list of ideas into a colorful, highly organized diagram, which can center and direct the group’s facilitator driven brainstorming session.

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Facilitation of an effective brainstorming session is a leadership skill that takes time to master. Combining the right talent with useful resources helps leaders to tap into employee ideas and accelerate problem solving. Brainstorming is just a single technique that, when used alone or in combination, addresses complex problems leading to creative solutions. Enhancing brainstorming preparation and using complementary tools can lead to “brainstorming sessions on steroids” and this effort fosters breakthrough thinking.

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1. Litchfield R. Brainstorming reconsidered: a goal based view. Acad Manage Rev. 2008; 33 (3): 649–668.

2. Osborn A. Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Thinking. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons; 1953.

3. Skymark resources page. Brainstorming. Available at Accessed August 1, 2011.

4. Diehl M, Stroebe W. Productivity loss in brainstorming groups: toward the solution of a riddle. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1987; 53: 497–509.

5. Diehl M, Stroebe W. Productivity loss in idea generating groups: tracking down the blocking effect. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1991; 61: 392–403.

6. Sutton R. The Truth About Brainstorming. Available at Accessed August 1, 2011.

7. Sutton R. Eight Tips for Better Brainstorming. Available at Accessed August 1, 2011.

8. Eikenberry K. Re-inventing Brainstorming: Ten Tenets for Better Idea Generation. Available at: Accessed August 1, 2011.

9. van Wulfen G. 25 Rules for a Perfect Brainstorm. Available at Accessed August 2, 2011.

10. Mind mapping resources page. Mind Mapping. Available at Accessed August 1, 2011.

11. American Board of Nursing Specialties. Nursing Certification and Competency Summit: Building an International Research Agenda. Available at Accessed August 1, 2011.

© 2011 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.