Defining Terms: Brainstorming

When the word “brainstorming” is spoken, most people will think of people in a room, around a conference table, throwing out crazy ideas while a facilitator guides the discussion and writes comments down. That image of brainstorming has been the focus of much discussion and critique, but I think it misses the point. Let’s take a fresh look at what brainstorming is – at the most basic level.

The Definition

Per Mirriam-Webster, the two main definitions are “a group problem-solving technique that involves the spontaneous contribution of ideas from all members of the group” and/or “the mulling over of ideas by one or more individuals in an attempt to devise or find a solution to a problem.”

To simplify it even further, it is a problem-solving technique that prioritizes spontaneous input. It focuses on what I’ll call passive thinking, the thoughts that come to mind without being forced or coerced. That means it requires that you and/or your group need to be in a relaxed state and have freedom, and ability to share in order to brainstorm. Without those conditions, you are doing something, but you are not brainstorming.


There are likely many other words that describe similar, if not the same, process as brainstorming. (I’ll add posts that touch on these parallel ideas. But if we are trying to understand what it is and how to go about it, this is a good definition to start with.