The Brainstormer’s Code

31.05.2017 |

Episode #3 of the course How to lead a productive and creative brainstorm by TD Haines


“The code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.” —Hector Barbosa, Pirates of the Caribbean


An effective brainstorm requires you to keep the balance between lots of different user-types. That’s why a Brainstormer’s Code is so effective. With it you can create a safe creative environment that lets every idea shine.


The Quick Witted and the Deep Thinkers

Some people will be able to react immediately to any prompt you throw at them. Some won’t. Neither path is wrong, so we’re going anti-Robert Frost here and letting people follow both paths. You will allow some quiet thinking time after each question you ask, when you need the participants to come up with unique thoughts.

Have the people who can respond quickly write their ideas down and think of more. This allows everyone ample chance to have pure thought around the idea. The key flow is: ask a question, give one or two minutes of quiet thought and writing, then collect ideas.


The Extroverts and the Introverts

Another balance you need to manage is between those who are quick to share their ideas and those who are more reserved. Again, both paths are acceptable in the pursuit of new ideas.

A speaking order allows everyone ample chance to share their ideas. It can be frustrating to less assertive speakers when someone dominates the discussion. Plus that would keep all your ideas stemming from one view point, and the goal is to have a variety. You don’t have to make the introverts the first speakers, but you are creating a culture in the room that everyone will have a chance to share. Less cutting each other off = more fun.


The First and the Last

Many times, the first idea gains the most traction. It’s the freshest, it’s exciting, and people get sucked into discussing it and adding on. But you lose the potency of the later ideas.

You need an idea sharing structure. Again, applying constraints helps push people to creativity.

After they’ve had their quiet thinking time and they are going to share their ideas in your speaking order, follow this process.

Go around and everyone share the tweet-sized version of their idea. Keep it short, focus on the root idea, use metaphors and analogies to draw connections. “My idea is like Netflix for pet adoption.” Just a little detail and then boom, move to the next person. Don’t let anyone go over 30 seconds to share. Nobody is commenting on ideas… yet.

Go around again and give people a chance to add on or level up an idea. Maybe they want to clarify their own idea and give more details. Or they can build up another person’s ideas. This is where we’re organically taking ideas a little deeper. You can have as many of these rounds as you see fit. If there are still fresh ideas to mine, keep going. Later rounds can break from the speaking order. Don’t let anyone say “That won’t work because ___.” Finding ways to make it work come later; don’t let them shut down disruptive thoughts. Only “Yes and ___,” not “No but ___.”


The Participants and the Facilitator

You and the participants are in a symbiotic relationship. They are narrowly focused on the problem and prompts you provide. You are focused on creating an effective ecosystem and watching the big picture. You need to be looking for the big picture connections. Bring ideas together. Summarize ideas to clarify them. “So what you’re saying is ___.” Listen for hidden solutions. You’ll even find connections between ideas from one prompt and a later one. You need to call this out.

Also let the participants know that you will cut them off. Maybe they are:

• Talking too long

• Saying how an idea won’t work

• Speaking out of turn

It can be difficult, but for this to work, you need to kindly remind them of the code. They are welcome to write down a constructive idea and share it when it’s their turn.

The hardest balance between facilitator and brainstormer is this last one. You cannot submit ideas to the brainstorm. You need to keep a big-picture view of the brainstorm and not get wrapped up in participating. Your goal is to help connect ideas together, reframe the problem, and ask questions to deepen the thinking of the participants. It’ll be tough, but I know you can do it!



• Write your Brainstormer’s Code on your brainstorming plan.

• Are there any ground rules that you need to add to create a balanced creative environment for your roster?


Recommended book

Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, James Macanufo


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