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The 5 best brainstorming tools for business

By: Emily Finlay

Brainstorming offers many benefits for managers and leaders that are looking for new ideas and innovative solutions to their problems, making it a common activity for most teams. An NIU study discovered that one reason for this popularity may be the camaraderie that it inspires.

During the course of the study, researchers found that teams that focused on gathering as many options as they could—and then building off of the ideas shared—significantly increased cohesiveness.

Brainstorming can strengthen an employees’ commitment to a team and job, as well as increase support for the direction taken, which may make implementation easier.

You can make brainstorming sessions more productive by using certain templates to keep track of your group’s ideas and encourage them to share new perspectives on the challenges at hand.

There are many ways to create and use a brainstorming template. Below, we’ve organized the top brainstorming tools to use within your business. Whether you’re working with a remote, in-person, or hybrid team, you can find an option that works for you.

1. Whiteboards

There are many ways to use a whiteboard to brainstorm when meeting in-person. On the most basic level, you can use it to simply list all of the ideas your team comes up with. If you want to encourage more creativity, there are several brainstorming templates you can use with your whiteboard.

Example whiteboard templates include:

Timelines. These diagrams are best utilized when you’re determining the timing for a project and/or a series of deliverables. For example, you can create a calendar that covers the dates leading up to your deadline and brainstorm the best ways to complete the required tasks within that time.

This enables you and your team to see how your various deliverables fit into the total timeframe and whether the dates you choose are actually feasible.

Concept maps. You can start a concept map by writing the main concept in the center of your whiteboard, and use lines to connect this main idea to other concepts related to it. This is also known as a concept cloud.

For example, you could brainstorm all of the elements to host a successful fundraising event by writing the name of the event in the center. You can then diagram the goals, costs, vendors, and other factors required to pull off the event, helping you plan for the activities and tasks ahead.

2. Poster boards

Poster boards work in a similar fashion as whiteboards for in-person meetings, but they are more permanent (since you can’t erase them) and often more portable. Using one or more poster boards, you can use templates to enhance creativity and encourage greater critical thinking about the topic at hand.

Example poster board templates include:

The Disney Brainstorming template. This process is similar to the Six Thinking Hats method of decision making, though it’s a bit more structured.

The Disney template uses four different perspectives to examine and refine your ideas to identify the best options: “Spectators,” “Dreamers,” “Realists,” and “Critics.” Each perspective should have its own category (e.g., by creating four separate columns or boards).

Next, follow these steps:

  • Start by looking at your problem from an outsider or “Spectator’s” point of view. For example, if your goal is to improve low social media engagement, you could write down observations that fellow employees have made about your posts, e.g., they find your posts too complex, uninteresting, or infrequent.
  • For the “Dreamers” board, write down any solution you can dream up, such as featuring a cameo from a famous industry expert or holding a massive giveaway.
  • Narrow these options down to those that are the most executable and likely to have the greatest success, and note these ideas on the “Realists” board.
  • Finally, review the potential obstacles and risks for each solution, such as lack of resources or content, noting them on the final “Critics” poster board. You can also use this step to narrow down your options to those that are most likely to succeed.

SMART goals template. SMART goals are goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-based. This template can help you understand your goals and determine the best ways to achieve them. If you want to design a new product, for example, you can use this process to identify what you want to create and how you will develop it.

Start by dividing your poster board into five columns and labeling each with one letter of the acronym:

  • Specific. Your goals should be specific, so define the who, what, where, when, why, and how in order to nail down the details of what you’re trying to achieve.
  • Measurable. Determine how you’ll know when your goal is accomplished, such as what key performance indicators (KPIs) or metrics you’ll need to hit.
  • Attainable. Your goal needs to be realistic and achievable, so be sure to closely examine any factors that might affect your success and what steps you can take to help mitigate them.
  • Relevant. For goal-setting to work, you have to aim for the right things at the right time. Ask questions such as:
    • Is it the right time to pursue this goal?
    • Is this goal worth the time, effort, and money it requires?
    • Does this goal align with your team or organization’s mission and overall goals?
  • Time-based. Creating a timeframe for your goals helps you prioritize them and ensures that you actively pursue them. Choose a deadline to accomplish your goal by, including any milestones along the way.

3. Sticky notes

When you want the ability to easily and quickly move the elements of your diagram around, consider using sticky notes. You can place these notes on a template you draw on a whiteboard or poster board, or simply use more sticky notes to label different sections of your chart on a wall.

Example sticky note templates include:

Lotus Diagrams. This diagram helps you move ideas from a general concept to a specific plan. Start by placing one word or concept, such as, “Launch new website for Product X” in the middle. Use eight more sticky notes to create a grid-like box around that concept with general ideas that relate to it, such as the different pages you want to include (e.g., product features use cases, a blog, etc.).

Next, you’ll surround that box with eight more boxes to create the full lotus flower. Each box will surround the center box and act as a “petal” that contains its own 3×3 grid of related ideas. For example, you could use these petals to outline the types of content you want to include on each webpage.

Brainwriting. Rather than having employees state their ideas out loud, brainwriting asks team members to write their thoughts down on sticky notes. Start by having each person write down a solution to the problem you’re trying to solve, and then arrange these sticky notes in a row.

Next, each worker should then focus on the idea shared by the person on their left or right, adding new ideas related to the original thought or expanding upon it on a new sticky note.

After placing those new ideas beneath the first ones, your team will then shift to the next idea in the row. You can use this process to come up with and explore new features that you can add to the next iteration of your product, among other purposes.

4. Spreadsheets

For some projects, you may prefer to use a spreadsheet to collect and organize your team’s ideas. You can use templates that utilize the rows and columns of a spreadsheet to analyze your ideas.

Example spreadsheet templates include:

Brainstorming worksheets. These enable you to list out and compare the effectiveness of your various ideas. You can start by labeling your columns in the following way: “Ideas,” “Pros,” “Cons,” and “Rank.” As you brainstorm, list each idea in its own row under “Ideas.” Then go through each row, adding and debating the pros and cons of each option.

As you analyze the different solutions, rank your ideas using a numbered scale (e.g., from one to 10). This will help you determine which solution is the most effective overall.

For example, you can use this template to determine which new content management software tool would best fit your needs and provide the most benefits and features for the cost.

Idea Evolution Matrix. You can use this matrix to see how well your ideas meet your criteria for executing them, such as how much time and money they will take and how they align with your company’s mission.

List your ideas in the first column and your criteria on the first row. Go through each idea and rate how important each factor is for that suggestion on a scale of one (low importance) to five (high importance). Then, decide how important each criterion is and rate it on the same scale.

Multiply the rating given for each criterion by the rating you gave to each idea for that criterion and add up the scores for each idea. Whichever suggestions have the highest scores are the options that are most likely to produce the results you want.

For example, you can use this matrix to see which decision-making process works best for a specific project. By evaluating how well each technique meets the project’s and team’s requirements, you can choose the one that will help your team work efficiently and successfully complete the project.

5. MindManager

Since the majority of brainstorming templates are visual diagrams, MindManager® is a great option. It’s a collaborative, visual productivity and mind mapping solution that offers dozens of pre-made templates that you can customize to suit the unique problems your team is trying to solve, as well as the workflows your organization uses.

With MindManager, multiple users can use the newly enhanced co-editing feature to edit diagrams simultaneously, enabling more collaborative and engaging virtual brainstorming sessions among remote teams. You can also easily download your maps or share a link to them with all necessary participants and key stakeholders to keep everyone in the loop.

Example brainstorm templates within MindManager include:

Mind maps. Mind maps are diagrams that begin with the main idea in a shape in the middle of the map. Next, branches are created from this concept and focus on the main sub-topics ideated during the brainstorm. More branches are created from the sub-topics to further expand each of the ideas.

For example, you could use a mind map to outline your goals for the upcoming year. The sub-topics might include higher productivity, more sales, and less spending. You could then add potential ways to achieve each of these goals via additional branches.

Bubble maps. These charts visualize the various ways you can describe a word or concept. You start by writing the noun or main idea in a large bubble, and then branch off into new bubbles, each with an adjective that describes it or a noun that is a close synonym. Next, you add new bubbles with more adjectives that build upon the original descriptor. This map can help you expand the concept and the way you’re thinking about it.

For example, you can choose a theme for an ad campaign, such as “Symptoms of work stress,” and use a bubble map to develop new angles and copy for your ads, such as “overwhelmed,” “tired,” and “burned out.” In this way, bubble maps are a great way to expand upon certain concepts or ideas you come up with in brainstorming sessions to start mapping out next steps.

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