Brainstorming, Part 3

In this third part of my series on brainstorming, I will explore individual brainstorming. In Part 2, I noted that brainstorming was first devised as a group activity. However, many researchers now agree that individual brainstorming is as effective as group brainstorming, or maybe even more so.

Individual Brainstorming – An Introduction

Individual or personal brainstorming means that one person brainstorms alone, without a group, typically by using techniques such as free writing, word associations, and mind mapping.

It can be very helpful if either

  • no group is available,
  • as preparation for a group brainstorming,
  • if a private matter is to be solved, or
  • if individuals feel that they are more creative when they work on their own.

The “rules” are very similar to those of group brainstorming. As in group brainstorming, the point is to get into a flow of generating ides. Focus on quantity rather than on quality and just write down whatever comes to your mind. Don’t stop to think overmuch. Switch off your inner critic and don’t evaluate any of the ideas in the first stage.

Location requirements are also the same: No distractions! You work best if you feel comfortable and have all the material at hand before you start. That way, you don’t have to interrupt your flow of ideas to get up and get something.

Also, it is vital to address a specific question during brainstorming. The more specific I formulate my question, the easier it becomes to collect ideas that are very palpable solutions helping me to reach my goal. If the problem/goal is very complex, try splitting it up into smaller parts and brainstorm each part individually. You can also use brainstorming to find out what parts your broad topic might consist of, though.

For example, my topic for this blog is creativity, which is HUGE. If I were to sit down and brainstorm for a post, I could ask myself: What aspects belong to the concept of creativity? The amount of ideas would be enormous, though, and would have such a wide range that it would be utterly impossible to turn all that into one post. But it was good to start big because I now have many possible sub-topics. I can pick one. Let’s say I choose creative techniques. Then I brainstorm creative techniques. The one I like best might be brainstorming, and so I start with that and brainstorm the concept of brainstorming. 😉 You see, the more specific the outset, the more helpful the ideas are for the actual goal.

Advantages of Individual Brainstorming

Many of the disadvantages of group brainstorming do not occur in individual brainstorming, such as social loafing, group dynamics, and fearing rejection or criticism by the other group members. We are not interrupted in our thoughts by listening to the ideas of others, and even introverted people can freely output their ideas without being interrupted or preempted by more extroverted group members.

We can also develop ideas that we like without having to find a consensus with others. There is a phenomenon often termed “groupthink” that leads groups to reach irrational decisions because of misdirected dynamics within the group. We don’t want to disagree with someone although we have a different opinion, suggestions get chosen out of sympathy for the person who made them rather than for their quality or applicability, an error in reasoning made by one person permeates through the entire group, and so on. If we work alone, all we have to consider is our own preferences, not the egos or opinions of other people. The ideas can stand for themselves and we are freer in our creativity.

When working on our own, we are also more flexible in choosing when and where we want to brainstorm. Different people have different preferences. A room that one person might find comfortable might be distracting for another. One might be more creative in the morning, the other in the evening.

Ideas can be developed at the brainstormer’s ideal pace, and one may delve into ideas fully that might have not received attention in a group brainstorming.

Another good thing about individual brainstorming is that it works well for both ‘organized’ and more ‘chaotic/unorganized’ thinkers. These terms say nothing about the quantity or quality of output a person may produce, but rather about how linked and organized the ideas are at the moment they come out. On some days we might think in a more structured fashion than on other days, and depending on how much we have previously thought about a certain topic, the more or less organized our thoughts might be when we brainstorm. If you are very organized and chaos drives you crazy, you can organize your ideas as you write them down, for example using a mind map. If not, just pour them out on paper and organize them later when you wrote down everything you could think of.  But caution: To be an ‘unorganized thinker’ sounds so negative that many are tempted to try organizing too early and thereby block themselves. Don’t let that bother you. Only organize during brainstorming if it comes naturally.

Disadvantages of Individual Brainstorming

It might be true that when we brainstorm alone, we are not blocked by the fear that other group members might criticize our ideas. But: We ourselves are often our own fiercest critic. Especially when we are left to ourselves to brood over our ideas. Many people tend to think that their ideas are not good enough, that others are better, that they are just amateurs. While those ‘accusations’ are often unfounded, it takes determination to banish our inner critic.

What is more, if we work alone, we miss out the chance to be inspired by other views, to feed off each others’ ideas. If group brainstorming is done well, ideas may be triggered by what another group member said and the result might be something none of the participants might have thought of on their own. There are many different perspectives and viewpoints and fields of expertise that can be combined toward a common goal. As individual brainstormers, we cannot draw on the experience of others and our viewpoint might stay limited to our own range of knowledge. In a group, the range of ideas might be broader.

If we develop an idea as an individual brainstormer, we might run into difficulties or problems that we cannot solve on our own because we lack the relevant expertise in the given field. Then we might get stuck. Whereas if we work in a divergent group, chances are that someone else’s knowledge or creativity might help to solve the issue. Working alone, it might also be more difficult to find errors in reasoning that we are making because there is no-one to point them out to us.

I have found, though, that if we are aware of them, many of these disadvantages can be overcome. The hardest part is probably to ignore one’s own inner critic. Especially if we come to the point where we are to choose one idea over others and go public with it. By researching and reading about our topic and talking about our ideas with friends, we can get other viewpoints into the picture. If we run into difficulties that research alone cannot solve, why not talk to a real expert who might be able to help us out?

In Conclusion

The value of group and individual brainstorming has been discussed over and over again. There have been psychological studies highlighting the effectiveness of one or the other. But does it make sense to draw a clear line between individual and group brainstorming at all? Robert Sutton, professor at Stanford GSB, suggests that the best results are obtained by a judicious combination of both, saying that people working alone might generate more results and that those ideas are often  more creative, but their applicability can only be tested in interaction with others. Creative people, he observes, continuously switch between individual and group brainstorming without even noticing it.

Of course, he’s writing about teams developing business products, not about individuals being creative. Naturally, we don’t have to hold meetings about our private creative ideas. However, sharing a hobby with like-minded people might give you great new impulses for your next or in-progress project. And it is often much more fun.


Hold out! There is more to come. 😉 Brainstorming, especially individual brainstorming, is a popular method in creative writing to find ideas or to overcome difficulties. In Part 4, I will present some techniques that are helpful in writing. Stay tuned!

Categories: Creativity | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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