• Brainstorming

    Participants "brainstorm" when they come together in a freethinking forum to generate ideas. As now used, brainstorming is no longer an unstructured method of eliciting ideas from a group. Used properly—either alone or in conjunction with other techniques—brainstorming can be a highly effective method of moving participants out of conflict and toward consensus.


  • What is brainstorming?
    As now used, brainstorming is no longer an unstructured method of eliciting ideas from a group. Used properly—either alone or in conjunction with other techniques—brainstorming can be a highly effective method of moving participants out of conflict and toward consensus. For example, the Cape Cod Commission in Massachusetts used brainstorming to develop goals and objectives to guide transportation planning.

    Brainstorming has these basic components:

    • Generating as many solutions to a problem as possible;

    • Listing every idea presented without comment or evaluation;

    • Grouping and evaluating ideas to reach consensus; and

    • Prioritizing ideas.

    Experience suggests that each task can be further subdivided to improve understanding of the overall process and its results. For example, ideas may need clarification for the group to grasp and evaluate, or the role of brainstorming in issue resolution may need to be explained. As a basic means of involving people, it has few peers if carried out successfully.

    Why is it useful?
    Brainstorming brings new ideas to bear on a problem. The freethinking atmosphere encourages fresh approaches. Creativity is enhanced, because individuals are encouraged to bring up all ideas—even those that might appear outrageous. Even imperfectly developed thoughts may jog the thinking of other participants. In Atlanta, Georgia, a brainstorming effort produced future options in the Vision 2020 process.

    Problems are defined better as questions arise. Alternatives appear in a new or different perspective. Novel approaches to an issue can arise during the process. Brainstorming gives participants a sense of progress and accomplishment and helps them move onto more difficult tasks.

    Brainstorming helps reduce conflict. It helps participants see other points of view and possibly change their perspective on problems. It may not be useful in resolving deeply felt conflicts but can help set the stage for a different technique if an impasse has been reached. Civility is required of each participant. (See Negotiation and Mediation)

    Brainstorming is democratic. All participants have equal status and an equal opportunity to participate. No one person’s ideas dominate a brainstorming session. Brainstorming heightens the awareness of community and sensitizes individuals to the behavior of the group and its participants. It helps mold participants into a working group.

    Does brainstorming have special uses?
    Brainstorming demonstrates an agency’s openness to new ideas and its commitment to working with community participants. It leads to further study of unexplored ideas. It helps find common ground for consensus about a solution. Brainstorming has been used by the Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) in exploring multi-modal alternatives in an interstate bridge reconstruction project in New Haven.

    Brainstorming is easily understood and implemented. No special training is required for participants to express their ideas. All sides expect open and frank exposition of points of view. Argumentative behavior is discouraged and creativity appreciated.

    Who participates? And how?
    Anyone can participate in a brainstorming session. It is useful to encourage participants from diverse backgrounds and interests in the issue to be discussed. Providing background information to participants bolsters the ability of each to contribute. Information should be distributed in advance of the session, if possible. Large groups can be divided into smaller subsets to promote full participation. (See Small Groups; Information Materials)

    People participate by bringing their ideas to the table, working in groups of 6 to 10. All ideas are duly noted and recorded to reassure participants that their comments are being adequately considered. Participants can record ideas on newsprint or butcher paper, or the agency can supply staff to record their ideas. People can prioritize their ideas by using strips of colored adhesive dots (found in office supply stores). About seven dots per person works well. Working individually, participants use dots to indicate their preferences. The dots can be divided among several good ideas or concentrated on one idea that is very important. The sheets of paper with dots are an effective display of the prioritization and help identify the group’s top priorities. Participation is furthered when notes of the meeting and subsequent events can be distributed to the participants.

    How do agencies use the output?
    Through brainstorming, agencies become aware of issues, problems, and detailed solutions that might not otherwise come to light. New ideas assist agencies in crafting compromise positions and in setting priorities by using input provided directly by stakeholders. Shelburne, Vermont, and Flathead County, Montana, used brainstorming sessions to clarify and prioritize issues for new area plans.

    Who leads a brainstorming session?
    Brainstorming needs a facilitator or moderator, who may be found within the group itself, agency staff, or an outside firm. Facilitators must be sensitive to group dynamics and be able to draw statements and positions from participants in an affable way. They must assure that all participants are heard and that civility is maintained. An agency staff person may be needed to assist groups that have difficulties with the process. (See Facilitation)

    What are the costs?
    Brainstorming is inexpensive. The group leader can be an individual on an existing staff, but a person experienced in facilitating the technique is preferable. Depending on the issue to be discussed or the degree of anticipated conflict, an outside consultant may be a desirable addition.

    Material needs are minimal. A quiet room is essential. Materials should be on hand to provide necessary data and background information. Although this information need not be overly detailed, questions are certain to arise, and it is preferable to be able to respond appropriately. Potential materials include:

    • Large newsprint or butcher paper, with markers to record ideas;

    • Boards to display applicable data;

    • Large, easily visible maps;

    • Overlays to allow sketching on maps; and

    • Adhesive dots for prioritization.

    How is brainstorming organized?
    Careful management facilitates a brainstorming session best. Agency staff people organize and implement a brainstorming session. Staff needs are minimal but may include a facilitator and probably an assistant for physical management of charts and recording of ideas. Resource people should be present for responses to questions.

    Initial efforts include planning the brainstorming session—defining the precise issue to be addressed, identifying potential participants, deciding on the process and schedule to be followed, and determining anticipated outcomes of the session so that players will know the scope and stakes involved. It is also important to detail, for participants, how the agency expects to use the results.

    Effective brainstorming sessions are small (6 to 10 people). If the group is too small, participants are not stimulated to generate ideas; if it is too large, the more vocal few may dominate the meeting. At large meetings, participants are divided into groups. The Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority (RTA) held five subregional sessions at key milestones. Roundtables of 8 to 10 people at each event used brainstorming to generate regional plans that fit within given financial scenarios for future transit options.

    A brainstorming session usually has a simple agenda:

    • Introductions with brief outlines of participants’ backgrounds;

    • Discussion of the brainstorming process and how it fits into the overall process;

    • Generation of ideas, listed without evaluation or criticism;

    • Clarifying and explaining ideas, as required;

    • Review, grouping, and elimination of redundant ideas;

    • Prioritization;

    • Presentation of each group’s results by the moderator to the larger group.

    How is it used with other techniques?
    Brainstorming is always a stage of a larger process. It is frequently used when an agency is starting a lengthy or complex undertaking with a separate element for public involvement. It can be part of a focus group—to open discussion and introduce participants. It can be part of a charrette—to establish the points of view of participants. It can be used in Civic Advisory Committees —to establish a consensus on a project; and it can be used in public meetings. (See Focus Groups; Charrettes; Civic Advisory Committees; Public Meetings/Hearings) Brainstorming was used in conjunction with public opinion surveys to design a public involvement program for the Albany, New York, area. (See Public Opinion Surveys) In Pennsylvania, community members used brainstorming to select representatives for a Civic Advisory Committee.

    What are the drawbacks?
    Facilitation can pose unique challenges. A single questioner can disrupt proceedings by continuously raising questions and suspicions about the motivations of participants or sponsors. Unassertive participants may be neglected without active solicitation of their participation. Opponents may refuse to consider each other’s ideas.

    Unspoken attitudes may affect results. Individual participants who feel diverted from more apparently purposeful tasks become impatient if they feel the process is a waste of time. It is essential to focus brainstorming on issues that make sense to the participants and to clearly explain how the results will be used. People who feel they are being controlled or patronized often withdraw from full participation. Agency staff members who feel that the process is leading nowhere may not respond appropriately to questions from participants.

    For further information:

    Atlanta Regional Commission (Vision 2020), Atlanta, Georgia
    (404) 463-3100

    Cape Cod Commission (Cape Cod Regional Plan)
    (508) 362-3828

    Capital District Transportation Committee, Albany, New York
    (public involvement program)
    (518) 458-2161

    Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority
    (206) 398-5268

    Connecticut Department of Transportation, Environmental Planning Bureau (Q Bridge Study)
    (860) 594-2939

    Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Bureau of Environmental Quality
    (717) 787-2838



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 Technique Information

Smaller Meetings
Project/Study Scale
Local/Sub-regional, Regional, Corridor, Statewide, Multistate
Public Engagement Goals
Consult, Inform, Involve
< 3 months, 3 - 12 months, > 12 months

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