Easy Brainstorming Activity: Think-Pair-Square-Share

Easy Brainstorming Activity: Think-Pair-Square-Share
Easy Brainstorming
Easy Brainstorming

GUEST BLOGGER:  Stace Williams, Executive Coach & Facilitator

Think-Pair-Square-Share (TPSS) is remarkably simple and is best for groups of 9 or more. Use TPSS when you want to generate ideas or get the group’s responses, and always start with a problem or goal in the form of a question.

When teams are large, it can be difficult to gather and sort through ideas. While the number of individuals presents challenges for hearing everyone’s point of view, having the time to cull the group’s favorite ideas from a large list can also be difficult. If you’re tired of the same old approach to brainstorming and multi-voting, if you want an activity that will be welcomed by all types of thinkers, and if you want everyone to feel included, try Think-Pair-Square-Share (TPSS). Hugh Phillips, president of HP TrainingWorks, Inc., shared this in a session I attended over 15 years ago. Since then, I’ve used it with dozens of groups and found that team members enjoy the process as much as I enjoy facilitating it.


Supplies: You’ll need poster paper and markers for each sub-group, and a sheet of paper and pencil or pen for each individual.

  1. Form sub-groups. The number of sub-groups is less important than the size of them; you’ll want no fewer than 3 people and no more than 6 in each sub-group. (2 minutes)
  2. Post the central issue, in the form of a question, where everyone can see it. The best questions typically start with phrases like, “How can we…?” “What’s the best way to…?” “Which factors are…?” and so forth. (5 minutes)
  3. Now begin the process:
    1. Think. Ask people to work individually by writing all the answers they can think of to the central question on a sheet of paper (2 minutes). If you’re seeking creative answers—for example, when solving a problem—encourage everyone to include at least one wild, crazy, or silly idea.
    2. Pair. Ask each individual to find a partner from another sub-group. If the number of people is uneven, you can have one trio, but they should be from different sub-groups. Instruct each pair to take turns asking for all their partner’s ideas and writing them on their own sheet of paper. Discourage discussion; instead, tell the group that the goal is that each pair will end up with a composite list that includes their own original ideas and their partner’s original list of ideas (5 minutes).
    3. Square. Instruct everyone to return to their sub-group and to choose a scribe. Then instruct the sub-groups to make a composite list of their members’ complete lists, record the list on a poster, and choose their top ideas. The more sub-groups you have, the fewer top ideas each should choose. Generally, when there are 3 - 5 sub-groups, you can ask each to choose their top 5; once the number of sub-groups is larger than 5, it’s best to limit them to their top 3 ideas. (10 minutes)
      • Nominal group technique works well here. That’s the process where each sub-group member contributes one idea, the scribe records it, and the process repeats for each sub-group member in turn for as many rounds as it takes until everyone’s ideas have been listed.
      • If someone’s next idea has already been shared, that person should simply skip it and share the next unique idea on their list.
      • When someone has no more ideas to contribute, they should simply say, “Pass.”
      • The process repeats until the poster contains all the ideas from the sub-group members’ lists.
      • TIP: Remind the groups to concentrate on listing. This is meant to be a quick activity, free from discussion.
    4. Share. Now use nominal group technique to make a list of the top ideas from all sub-groups. Call on a representative from one sub-group to share its first top idea, and record it on a poster visible to everyone. Do the same for the next sub-group, continuing to rotate through all the sub-groups until all of the top ideas are listed. (10 minutes)
      • As before, if a sub-group’s next top idea has already been shared, their representative should simply skip it and share the next unique top idea on their list.
      • When a sub-group has no more top ideas to contribute, their representative should simply say, “Pass.”
      • The process repeats until your poster contains all the top ideas from all the sub-groups’ lists.
      • TIP: Concentrate on listing. This is meant to be a quick activity, free from discussion or commentary.

Notice how inclusive this process is. Introverted participants or those who are purposeful, reflective, or analytical thinkers like having the time at the beginning to ideate in a quiet space. Pairing up eases people into social interaction, and the sub-group sharing bonds the small groups. Creating the composite list of the top ideas bonds the entire team in a very democratic way; at that point, the ideas belong to the group, as individuals come to identify less with their own contributions.

Give Think-Pair-Square-Share a try, and let us hear your experiences!

Stace Williams is the Founder/Principal Consultant at InterActive Dynamics, LLC. Her firm is devoted solely to one purpose: Developing Leader Excellence. Stace is a consultant, executive coach, facilitator, and instructional designer who has 3 decades of practice serving organizations on 5 continents. Motivated by her own experience as a failed leader early in her software-development career, Stace brings her passion for leadership and learning to every engagement. You can find her on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/pub/stace-williams/7/280/885

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