Idea tree: A tool for brainstorming ideas in cross-disciplinary teams

Community member post by Dan Stokols, Maritza Salazar, Gary M. Olson, and Judith S. Olson

Dan Stokols (biography)

How can cross-disciplinary research teams increase their capacity for generating and integrating novel research ideas and conceptual frameworks?

A key challenge faced by research teams is harnessing the intellectual synergy that can occur when individuals from different disciplines join together to create novel ideas and conceptual frameworks. Studies of creativity suggest that atypical (and often serendipitous) combinations of dissimilar perspectives can spur novel insights and advances in knowledge. Yet, many cross-disciplinary teams fail to achieve intellectual synergy because they allot insufficient effort to generating new ideas. Here we describe a brainstorming tool that can be used to generate new ideas in cross-disciplinary teams.

Maritza Salazar (biography)

The idea tree exercise

This exercise is straightforward and requires few resources other than pens or pencils, blank sheets of paper, and a table at which eight to ten team members representing two or more disciplines are seated as shown in the image near the bottom of this post. At the start of the exercise, each participant is given a blank piece of paper and asked to work independently and write their initial ideas at the top of the page. Depending on the specific group task, the ideas can relate to a research question or hypothesis, a new concept or method, or outline for a proposed study. The scope of the brainstorming task can be left relatively open-ended, or focused more narrowly on particular topics relevant to the cross-disciplinary team (eg., neuroscience, climate change, health disparities research). During the three to four minutes allotted for this part of the exercise, individuals are encouraged to avoid being too self-critical of their own entries, even when their ideas seem too preliminary or provocative.

Gary M. Olson (biography)

Once all participants have written down their ideas, they each pass their page to the person sitting next to them. Participants are asked to adopt a supportive and inclusive stance toward the ideas they have now received, taking three to four minutes to write a brief reaction. For example, they can elaborate on the original idea or pose a question about it. Each sheet of ideas is then passed on again, making its way to each participant around the table and gathering additional entries extending the thread of ideas triggered by the initial prompt.

Judith S. Olson (biography)

After the pages have been reviewed and annotated by all participants, they are returned to the individuals who wrote the initial entry. Thus, every member of the team receives a page containing several elaborations of his or her initial idea from the respective vantage points of other participants.

Each completed page, in effect, reflects a branch of the overall idea tree created by the group as a whole. The idea tree tool is designed to harvest several new ideas in a relatively short period of time and facilitate serendipitous combinations of disparate views among members of cross-disciplinary teams.

With eight to ten participants, a complete round of this brainstorming exercise can be done in about 45 minutes to an hour.

General insights gleaned from the idea tree exercise

Besides generating several new research ideas among team members, the exercise elicits more general insights about brainstorming processes in team science. After participants have finished commenting on the ideas offered by other team members, they are invited to discuss the results of their collaborative brainstorming, which commonly reveals the following insights:

  • conceptual synergy is unleashed by connecting disparate (and sometimes competing) viewpoints as a basis for discovering new ideas
  • a relatively large number of ideas can be generated when participants adopt a supportive, inclusive stance toward each other’s entries and agree to take only a few minutes to write down each of their own thoughts and reactions to others’ ideas
  • deadlines and time pressure can assist discovery of new ideas
  • using diagrams and drawings to formulate and convey one’s ideas has generative value.


A crucial goal of cross-disciplinary research teams is the creation of new ideas and conceptual frameworks that advance knowledge within and across fields. The idea tree has proven useful as a brainstorming tool in cross-disciplinary training and research settings. The exercise is especially helpful in prompting novel links between disparate ideas, although the processes of prioritizing, refining and integrating insights derived from the idea tree require longer-term collaborative discussion and metacognition, as described in Machiel Keestra’s recent blog post. Not all of the ideas gathered through the exercise will be deemed sufficiently novel and useful to warrant further development. However, the more time and effort allocated by research teams to knowledge creation and integration activities, the better their prospects for achieving cross-disciplinary insights that trigger scientific and societal advances. The idea tree can be used by research teams at repeated intervals to build their capacity for knowledge discovery and integration. The idea tree is one of the methods used in our research and training initiatives at University of California, Irvine’s Team Science Acceleration Lab described in our previous blog post on strengthening the ecosystem for effective team science.

Have you used alternative brainstorming tools in cross-disciplinary research teams? We welcome your thoughts about other idea generation tools and your reactions to the idea tree exercise if you have occasion to use it in an educational or research context.

Idea tree brainstorming group (photograph by Dan Stokols)

Some additional resources for collaborative brainstorming:
Adams, J. L. (2001). Conceptual blockbusting: A guide to better ideas. 4th edn, Basic Books: Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States of America

Gordon, W. J. J. (1974). Some source material in discovery-by-analogy. Journal of Creative Behaviour, 8: 239-257

McKim, R. H. (1980). Thinking visually: A strategy manual for problem solving. Wadsworth: Belmont, California United States of America

Mills, C. W. (1959). The sociological imagination (Appendix: On intellectual craftsmanship, pp.195-226). Oxford University Press, New York, United States of America

Uzzi, B., Mukherjee, S., Stringer, M., and Jones, B. (2013). Atypical combinations and scientific impact. Science, 342, 6157: 468-472

Wicker, A. W. (1985). Getting out of our conceptual ruts. American Psychologist, 40: 1094-1103

We thank the Office of Research and the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine, USA for their support of this work.

Biography: Dan Stokols is Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Irvine, USA and served as founding Dean of the university’s School of Social Ecology. His research spans the fields of social ecology, environmental and ecological psychology, public health, and transdisciplinary team science. He is author of Social Ecology in the Digital Age and co-author of Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science.

Biography: Maritza Salazar is an assistant professor at the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine, USA. Her research focuses on learning and innovation in teams and organizations, especially enhancing the competitiveness of firms, the effectiveness of teams, and the quality of the work experience for individuals. She serves as President of the International Network for the Science of Team Science (INSciTS).

Biography: Gary M. Olson is Professor Emeritus and formerly Donald Bren Professor of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, USA. The focus of his work has been on how to support small groups of people working on difficult intellectual tasks, particularly when the members of the group are geographically distributed. He co-edited (with Ann Zimmerman and Nathan Bos) Scientific Collaboration on the Internet.

Biography: Judith S. Olson is the Donald Bren Professor of Information and Computer Sciences Emerita in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, USA. For over 20 years, she has researched teams whose members are not collocated. She co-authored (with Gary Olson) Working Together Apart: Collaboration over the Internet.


12 thoughts on “Idea tree: A tool for brainstorming ideas in cross-disciplinary teams

  1. Re-posted from Science of Science Policy (SCISIP) listerv:

    The issue tree structure that I developed many years ago may well be related to these idea trees. The issue tree is the logical form of every complex issue. Building them often suggests important unasked questions.


    My crude text book is here:

    • David,

      Many thanks for sharing your article on “The Issue Tree Structure of Expressed Thought” and your text on Issue Analysis and the nature of complex reasoning. There are clearly some shared assumptions underlying your analysis of issue trees and the idea-generation tool we described in our article posted on

      Our efforts to promote intellectual synergy in cross-disciplinary teams and centers is part of a broader effort at UCI to strengthen institutional supports for collaborative scholarship, teaching, and translational research, summarized here:

      By posting of our article about idea generation in cross-disciplinary teams, and seeing colleagues’ comments on our post, we have come to learn about your work on issue trees, Paul Paulus’ and his co-authors’ research on Brainwriting, Ron Newman’s Web-based Idea Tree Maps of Collective Wisdom, Machiel Keestra’s Triangulation Technique, Charles Line’s Mind Burst strategy, and Tony Buzan’s Mind Mapping Approach (links to some of these other approaches are noted in earlier comments on our post).

      As we continue to discover additional strategies for fostering intellectual synergy in teams, we hope to draw on your collective insights in our efforts to bolster supports for cross-disciplinary collaboration in research and educational contexts.

      Thanks again,


  2. Re-posted from Science of Science Policy (SCISIP) listerv:

    This type of technique can indeed by quite useful. It is basically similar to the brainwriting technique that has been around for some time. I have been involved in a number of studies demonstrating its efficacy (see below a brief excerpt from a chapter that provides details about this research and the brainwriting history and process). Idea Tree is actually a trademark for a really great electronic platform that Ron Newman has developed over a period of years and has employed in various settings. It is likely to be very useful for interdisciplinary efforts.

    The section below is from:

    Paulus, P. B., & Kenworthy, J. (2019). Effective brainstorming. In P. B. Paulus & B. A. Nijstad (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of group creativity and innovation. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Another approach to idea generation that helps minimize the production blocking problem is brainwriting, which involves sharing of ideas on pieces of paper. Some version of this technique has been popular for a number of years (Geschka , 1993; Goodman, 1995; VanGundy, 1981; 1995). The use of a writing modality in sharing ideas enables one to overcome the problems of verbal brainstorming. Participants are able to generate ideas as they occur and then share them. A critical factor in brainwriting is the balancing of generating time versus reading time. Depending on the procedure, it is possible for someone to just generate ideas or just to read ideas, as in the case of process of posting written notes on a wall. However, typically participants are involved in both aspects of the process.

    The Nominal Group Technique also includes a writing component (van de Ven & Delbecq, 1974). This is a highly structured approach of generating ideas, commenting on them and eventually voting. Group members begin a session with writing ideas individually and share them in round-robin fashion with the group. This approach yields more ideas than unstructured group discussion. In a similar study, participants exchanged ideas in the middle of an independent writing session (Madsen & Finger, 1978). This process led to the generation of more ideas for groups of four in comparison to a verbal brainstorming procedure for one problem but not another one. Similarly, VanGundy (1995) found that brainwriting groups generated more ideas than verbal brainstorming groups.

    There are a number of studies that have examined a “round-robin” version of brainwriting. This involves a small group seated at the same table, generating ideas on slips of paper and passing them along to the other members to read. For example, in the Paulus and Yang (2000) study groups of four wrote ideas on slips of paper and passed them on to the person on the right. Participants were instructed to read the ideas as they were shared, add their idea, and then pass them on. When the ideas came back to the originator they were placed in the center of the table. This procedure has a number of advantages. It allows participants to generate ideas at will and look at ideas of others during pauses in that process. It also insures that the ideas that are generated will be read by all of the participants, increasing the potential for cognitive stimulation. The continual process of generating and sharing as a group may also provide some motivation to keep up with the idea generation pace of other group members, consistent with the social influence component of the cognitive-social-motivational model of brainstorming (Paulus & Dzindolet, 1993; 2008). Thus social loafing should not be a problem in this paradigm (Karau & Williams, 1993). The sharing of ideas in written form may also reduce evaluation apprehension. Thus there are many reasons to expect this procedure to be an effective means of generating ideas as a group.

    Paulus and Yang (2000) conducted the first systematic study to evaluate efficacy of brainwriting groups and nominals. They also assessed the extent to which the idea sharing process had a positive “carry-over” effect to a second solitary writing session. The AMM model suggests that associations generated during idea exchange sessions may continue to be a basis for new ideas after such a session. In the first 15-minute session, a group of four brainwriters generated 40 percent more ideas than did the nominal groups. In the second session, in which all participants generated ideas individually, those who had shared ideas as a group in the first session generated 90 percent more ideas than did those in the nominal condition. Thus this study demonstrated the synergistic effect of group brainstorming, likely from the joint impact of a number of the factors mentioned previously. The continued superior performance of the group condition in the second solitary ideation phase suggests a carry-over of cognitive stimulation from the first group session. Similar findings of the superiority of group brainwriting in comparison to nominal brainwriting have been obtained in several studies using dyads (Coskun, 2005; Coskun and Yilmaz, 2009), in a series of studies using managers by Gryskiewicz (1988), and in a study in a high technology company (Paulus, Korde, Dickson, Carmeli, & Cohen-Meitar, 2015).

    • Paul,

      Your comments on our post are extremely valuable, especially the information you’ve shared about your 2019 book and your 2018 Frontiers article on effective brainstorming and organizational innovation. Also, it was very helpful to learn about Ron Newman’s online platform for conceptual brainstorming. We had not been aware of these resources previously so we thank you for calling them to our attention.

      For several years, I’ve used the idea sharing exercise described in our post as part of my Seminar on Strategies of Theory Development at UCI, to encourage graduate students to generate creative ideas as they create cross-disciplinary theoretical analyses of various phenomena. More recently, Maritza, Gary, Judy, and I have adapted the exercise for use in multidisciplinary centers at UCI to encourage connections between members’ different conceptual and methodological perspectives. What we’ve been referring to as the idea tree exercise, not knowing of Ron’s Idea Tree Framework for online sharing and integration of ideas, is a modest face-to-face exercise where individuals share and react to each others initial idea prompts, similar to the brain mapping strategies described in your recent book. Our small group brainstorming tool is perhaps more accurately (and modestly) characterized as “sowing idea seeds” that provide the basis for collective reflection and later conceptual refinement, rather than building out more fully-formed “idea “trees” with well structured branches.

      It is always humbling to learn of one’s conceptual gaps and blind spots—but we’re certainly grateful to you for sharing your theoretical and empirical studies of effective brainstorming strategies along with Ron Newman’s research. Through the process of posting our article on, we have learned about your, Ron’s, and others’ approaches for encouraging intellectual synergy among research team members—for instance, the Triangulation Technique described by Machiel Keestra and the Mind Burst strategy mentioned by Charles Line in their comments on our original post at; as well as Tony Buzan’s Mind Mapping approach.

      Your and others’ analyses of brainstorming strategies will inform and enrich our future work with cross-disciplinary teams.

      Thanks again,


  3. Dan, Maritza, Gary, and Judith, thank you for sharing with us the concept of the tree idea exercise. This seems to be a pretty powerful tool that I will make sure to experiment in the future. I see it as an internet blog or forum that would have been condensed in 45 minutes. I can’t imagine what the result would be if the 263 authors who contributed to the i2i website would write a comment or ask a question about your blog post within an hour of its publication…

    • Christophe, thank you for your comment on our article and for suggesting the possibility of developing an online version of the idea tree exercise. That sounds like a fascinating possibility. I know there are many online crowd-sourcing platforms for creative problem-solving. See for example Michael Nielsen’s discussion of those in his 2012 book, Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science. A nice feature of performing the idea tree exercise in a face-to-face setting is that group members have the opportunity to reflect together on the ideas they’ve generated, once they’ve completed one or more rounds of brainstorming. They also can share their more general insights about the process of creating ideas collectively in real time. But I do think your suggestion of creating an online platform for the idea tree exercise should be explored further. Thanks again!

  4. I have done a similar thing with groups (admittedly in a work and business setting) using the “Mind Burst” technique, which is influenced by Tony Buzan’s Mind Mapping approach. I describe it here:!/2017/06/being-creative-in-times-of-turmoil-and_12.html at “3. Use practical and simple tools and techniques”. The technique does generate lots of ideas very quickly. But, as you say, there needs to be plenty of reflection and review to ensure not only new and innovative but also feasible and attractive ideas emerge.

    • Charles, many thanks for commenting on our idea tree post and for sharing your thoughtful and valuable article on “Being creative in times of turmoil and change”, which nicely describes your Mind Burst technique. I think it would be useful I think to compile a list or tool kit of various idea-generating tools, such as the mind-burst and idea-tree exercises and the Triangulation tool described by Machiel in his comment below that can be used to foster intellectual synergy in research settings. Your comment raises several important considerations, one being that the juxtaposition of divergent ideas doesn’t necessarily lead to constructive integration and conceptual progress. Sometimes team members’ efforts to integrate their disparate perspectives are halted when participants aren’t able to glean value from serendipitous pairings of dissimilar concepts and methods. Using brainstorming tools doesn’t guarantee that fertile, novel concepts and methods will emerge from those exercises, although we have seen instances where the idea tree has generated new approaches that the group decides are sufficiently novel and useful that members decide to further elaborate and refine the initial ideas. As you note, even when these tantalizingly novel linkages of disparate ideas occur, a period of collective reflection about their potential novelty and utility is needed to assess whether the team’s efforts to achieve intellectual innovation will be well-served by devoting additional effort toward the elaboration of those ideas. Also, brainstorming tools are but one strategy for promoting intellectual synergy in research and teaching contexts. They can be combined with other idea-generation strategies like scheduling team retreats devoted to creating and integrating new ideas; team discussions of relevant prior publications; and sharing team members’ entries from their respective research journals or “scholarly diaries”.

  5. Many thanks for this post and this great ‘Idea Tree’ tool, which offers opportunities for divergent as well as convergent thinking in a team. It made me return to a tool I (as many colleagues) often use for generating an idea via convergent team thinking, which is a Triangulation exercise where team members individually write down a small semantic web of topics of their interest, then together check for potential overlaps and in a further step individually generate concepts/ideas related to one or more of those overlaps. In addition to your brainstorming application, I can imagine that this Idea Tree could add to Triangulation’s results, offering after such Triangulation a way to allow some more convergence and specification of individual contributions to a chosen topic. Finally, I appreciate the reference to the metacognition blog I wrote, thinking that the Idea Tree could even play a role in it, e.g. using it for articulations of the ‘team mental map’ (distributed expertise, project contents and goals, etc.).

    • Thank you Machiel for your comments on our idea tree post, and for sharing the information about your Triangulation exercise for fostering convergent thinking in research teams. I think there is great potential for combining the Triangulation and idea tree methods with additional strategies for promoting intellectual synergy in teams, such as the scheduling of team retreats devoted to developing and integrating ideas, regular meetings for collective discussion of relevant scientific papers, and the sharing of team members’ entries from their individual research journals. We would be very interested in learning more about your and your colleagues’ experiences using these methods either singly or in combination with each other to facilitate development of novel conceptual and methodological insights.

  6. Anil, thank you for your kind feedback on our Idea Tree post. We hope you will have occasion to try out the exercise in a cross-disciplinary research or educational setting, and we welcome your reactions to how the exercise works in practice, in whatever contexts you’re able to use it!

  7. Wonderful “tree idea” generation process during brain-storming or think tank sessions among cross-disciplinary members. This crucile of novel innovative idea concept generation development process needs to include “ranking and sorting” at the end of the 45 minutes excercise to identify the most feasible and most effective efficient strategy, tactics that would yield the profound impact in any given situation or problem area with “out of the box” thinking and solutions worth further delineation and follow through by all participating members in this excercise. Brilliant thought provoking “tree idea” concept where everyone can contribute equally and in a mutually respectful manner.

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