From ideas to answers, and even feedback, the good ol’-fashioned brainstorm seems to be the default solution. However, if it’s creative ideas that you’re after, a brainstorm isn’t always your best bet. Today, I’m sharing 4 alternatives to the traditional brainstorm.

Jeffrey Paul Baumgartner wrote a really interesting article back in May of last year on why brainstorming is not very creative. Aside from the history lesson of the origins of the brainstorm (which I actually found pretty interesting), Jeffrey highlights the three intrinsic flaws of brainstorming:

-People shouting out ideas is less creative than writing them down

-Reserving judgement and prohibiting criticism reduces creativity

-After the idea generation bit, decision makers tend to choose moderately creative ideas over highly creative ideas

What I’m doing today is offering four alternatives to the traditional brainstorm. As they are all based on the traditional brainstorming model, each idea will retain some of those intrinsic flaws, but I’m hoping that they’ll help you unlock an additional reserve of creativity whilst generating plenty of ideas.

So, here it goes:

When You Need a Ton of Ideas, Fast: Brainwriting 6-3-5!

Aside from sounding pretty darn cool, brainwriting 6-3-5 is one of my favourite ways of generating creative ideas for clients (I’ve seen everything from “dinosaurs wearing t-shirts” to ideas that start with “probably impossible, but…”).

It was via a blog post written by Stacey Cavanagh that I was first introduced to the concept of brainwriting, and since we gave it a blast, we’ve not looked back! Essentially, brainwriting takes the best bits of brainstorming (multiple brains, ideas, and ways of thinking) and adds much-needed structure to help you generate 108 ideas in just 30 minutes.

The basic concept of brainwriting is that you take:

6 people (these don’t have to be marketers, but they do need to be willing) whom you get together in one room around one table. You give them a spreadsheet and ask them to fill in the first row of boxes with 3 ideas in the time limit of 5 minutes. When the five minutes is up, you pass the sheet with your three ideas to the left where the next person reads the previous ideas and uses these to shape their next three ideas which they fill in on the second row. This continues until the sheets are full just 30 minutes later.

The benefits of this kind of structured brainstorm is that’s it’s very quick and efficient; you know you’re going to get your 108 ideas in your half an hour rather than just crossing your fingers and hoping someone shouts out something that grabs your attention in your standard brainstorming session.

The non-verbal nature of this exercise also provides an opportunity for those who may have otherwise been overwhelmed by those who can shout loudest to present their ideas.

As with any exercise, there are always cons. From personal experience, I have found that brainwriting isn’t a match for everyone. Some find the pressure to come up with 3 ideas in a limited time frame particularly stressful. Forcing people who don’t cope well with stress in these situations will just result in ideas that reflect their emotions towards the task in hand. Try to pick participants who will enjoy this kind of pressure; it’ll benefit you, the client, and the mood in your office.

You’ll also find that in many cases the same idea will crop up over and over again. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are the best ideas, but likewise it doesn’t mean that they should be disregarded. Judge it on a case-by-case situation!

For a full run-down of how to perform a brainwriting 6-3-5 session, you should check out Stacey’s original article: The 6-3-5 Method of Brainwriting.


When You Need Ideas for a “Boring” Industry: Think Sideways!

If you work at an agency, you’ll know that thinking up content ideas for some clients is considerably easier than others. But just because an industry is deemed as “boring” doesn’t mean that the content should be lacklustre; you just need to approach the ideation and creation process a little differently.


Robin Swire was faced with coming up with content ideas for car parks. Yep, you read that right; content for car parks. On the surface this seems like a near-impossible task. Who in the blogosphere would link to car park content? Rather than freaking out (well, maybe just a tiny bit), Robin started to think sideways, and he and his team ended up creating a pretty awesome campaign off the back of it. Here’s how:

When faced with difficult industries, sitting down with a pen and paper and mapping out related topics can really help to broaden your mind. Rather than focusing all of your attention on the core product or service that your client offers, what other topics are appropriate to discuss? For example:

Car Parks > Driving > Legality > Drink Driving > Drugs > Fines

Car Parks > Driving > Men & Women > Sexism > Good Vs. Bad > Competition

Immediately this takes us away from the “Top 10 Weird Car Park Layouts”, “Strangest Things Found in a Car Park”, and “Bad Parking” content and towards something relevant, yet not directly related. By having a big board of related concepts, you can then start to either traditionally brainstorm, brainwrite, or collaborate and come up with a bunch of ideas which can then be further refined until you have a handful of ideas that you’re ready to approach your client with.

Check out Robin’s blog on Moz to see the outcome of thinking sideways for an otherwise ‘boring’ client.


When You Need Your Team to Be More Creative: Split the Session!

Whilst exercises such as brainwriting and brainstorming can help to generate ideas that we may have never thought of on our own, it can also hinder the creative process as it doesn’t allow individuals time with their thoughts – something that is necessary if you want a diverse range of well-thought out ideas.

Carson Ward explains that “people tend to come up with more ideas on their own when compared with a traditional brainstorming group” because typically, group work has a production-blocking effect. When you need individual creativity, and the collaborative effects of teamwork, you could always try splitting your session to allow time for individual brainstorming, and group discussion.

Carson offers three simple steps for getting the most out of a split session:

-Get everyone together and explain the problem or goal.

-Have your individual participants go away and write down their ideas, which they will then present to the group one-by-one.

-After every person has presented their ideas, then you can discuss them as a group.

When you brainstorm and work this way, you really do get to have your cake and eat it as it harnesses the best of individual and collaborative brainstorming. Whilst it’s more time-consuming than brainwriting, and more focused than thinking sideways, it’s a great way to get a ton of ideas, and the opinions of your peers all rolled in to one.

For more advice on how to be more creative, read Carson’s article: A Research-Based Guide to Brainstorming Link Bait – or Anything Else.


When You’re Stuck in a Creative Rut: Freewrite!

Okay, so this isn’t really an alternative to brainstorming, but it could unlock the door to your creativity. More of an individual task than something you’d do as a group, taking five or ten minutes out to do a little freewriting could help you capture those fleeting ideas that pop in and out before you even realise you’ve had them!


The basic idea is that you sit and write continuously for a set period of time. Often you disregard the rules of spelling, punctuation, and grammar as the idea is to keep the words flowing from your fingertips with no pause for thought. What you’re left with is often raw and unusable, but it can be very helpful for collecting initial thoughts and ideas in a short amount of time.

Unlike brainstorming where ideas are methodically listed, freewriting results in sentences and paragraphs where one idea leads on from another, or goes on a complete tangent, as you write about whatever comes to mind.

To freewrite successfully, you’ll need some time to yourself – plug your headphones in, clear your desktop of distractions (if you prefer to handwrite, get your notepad out), and then just start writing! Make no corrections, just keep pushing forward. If at any point you can’t think of anything to write, then write that until you think of something else to say. You can also do more focused freewriting exercises where you spend a couple of minutes mulling over your chosen topic before beginning.

After you’ve finished your freewriting, have a read and keep an eye out for any keywords or phrases which could be developed in to a longer piece of writing or more ideas. You’ll probably end up deleting or throwing it away, but hopefully it will have come in useful before you do!

So there you have it: four alternatives to the traditional brainstorm! How do you like to come up with new ideas for clients? I’d love to hear your methods (no matter how weird or wonderful!)

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Lauren Roitman
Lauren Roitman works for Boom Online Marketing as an Account Manager. The task she enjoys the most is coming up with content ideas for clients, especially if there’s any way for her to tie food into the content in one way or the other.