Brainstorming: Barriers and Guidelines

In an earlier post, I wrote about the six stages  that are basic to good brainstorming. Understanding barriers to creative thinking and following the six guidelines below will enhance the success of any brainstorming session.

Barriers to Creative Thinking

J. Geoffrey Rawlinson, in his book on creative thinking, argues that barriers to creative thinking can be overcome in brainstorming sessions by identifying the barriers up front with the audience. The theory goes that if you identify and accept the barriers as barriers they are removed as barriers. After conducting brainstorming sessions around the world for almost 3 decades, I tend to agree with Rawlinson. The benefit of discussing the barriers is especially true when dealing with audiences that are analytical in nature, such is often the case with managers.

Before actual brainstorming begins, the leader should write the six barriers on the Board or on flip chart sheet, which should be visible to the group throughout the session. The leader should then briefly discuss the thinking behind the barriers.

The six barriers to creative thinking that Rawlinson identifies are:

  • Self-imposed barriers
  • Patterns or one unique answer
  • Conformity
  • Not challenging the obvious
  • Evaluating too quickly
  • Fear of looking like a fool

Self-imposed Barriers are often the result of being accustomed to analytical thinking as opposed to creative thinking. People can engage self-imposed barriers either consciously or unconsciously. This barrier manifests itself when people tend to identify the most common answer. For example, when people are asked what they make of 1 + 1 = ? they most often respond two. However, you could make much more out of those symbols. Other answers could be: 11 or T. In fact, if you use the + and = symbols, you could draw a box with a cross on top representing a church.

Patterns or one unique answer are another barrier to creative thinking. Analytical people are trained to find an answer and once that answer is identified, they often fail to look for other answers or look for other patterns. Rawlinson uses the following example to demonstrate this barrier:

Barrier to ideasWhere does “F” go in this pattern? Most analytical people will choose below the line where all of the consonants are. But, there is another pattern here; the letters above the line are created with straight lines and the letters below the line are created with curved lines. In this pattern, the F would go above the line.

Conformity or giving the expected answer can occur when junior employees participate in brainstorming, but it also occurs when people who don’t know each other well brainstorm. An example of this is when participants sit back and wait to see what types of answers others give.

Not challenging the obvious is especially prevalent with people who work in cultures where critical thinking is not the norm. In this scenario, people accept the first or obvious answer / solution with out challenging it or thinking critically about it.

Evaluating too quickly results from quickly analyzing and idea and rejecting those that are new or seem a bit out of the ordinary. This reaction is almost instinctive and therefore one of the most difficult to remove; it is when we think of an idea and then immediately judge it as silly or bad or as something we tried before and it didn’t work. In brainstorming, it is critical that such judgment is suspended.

Fear of looking like a fool is the last barrier that Rawlinson identifies. Nobody wants to look like a fool as a result of identifying a wrong answer. In brainstorming, it is important to highlight the fact that there are no wrong answers. It is the facilitator’s role to make sure that the environment is conducive to the introduction of all ideas: “right,” “wrong,” “silly,” and “serious.”


Rawlinson states “success in brainstorming depends on the application and enforcement of four guidelines.” It is important that the guidelines are posted in the room and enforced throughout the session by the leader.

The four guidelines or successful brainstorming are:

  • Suspend judgment
  • Free-wheel
  • Quantity
  • Cross-fertilize

Suspending judgment is critical to the success of a brainstorming session. It is important that the leader, as well as the participants, suspends judgment. Of the four guidelines this is the most important one for the leader to enforce. Put simply, the participants must understand that it is imperative that they set their judgment on the side; that goes for judging their own ideas, as well as those of others. For some, it is human nature to judge / censor their own ideas; this is to be avoided in brainstorming.

Free-wheeling is what takes place when one let’s go of the barriers to creative thinking and allows themselves to dream and take a journey through their mind and thoughts. The participants should know that all ideas are valuable, whether they are silly or sensible, or good or bad. This, of course, ties into the next guideline.

Quantity rules in brainstorming over quality. The participants should be encouraged to come up with as many ideas as possible; quality does not matter at all. Value rests solely in the number of ideas that are generated.

Cross-fertilization is a technique that enables the development of more ideas. Cross-fertilization is practiced when participants pick up an idea from someone else and develop the idea further into new / different ideas. While taking someone else’s idea and changing it might cause friction in another setting, this reaction is generally not encountered in a well run brainstorming session.

What “tricks of the trade” have you used or seen used that resulted in effective brainstorming?

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