How to brainstorm without sticky notes

As a marketing consultant, sticky notes are an essential part of my toolkit. I tend to always have a pack with me (along with my own reliable set of whiteboard markers). I use them for mapping customer journeys and business processes, planning projects, and for all kinds of brainstorming and idea gathering.

The first step in tackling any business problem is often to come up with lots of ideas, as fast as you can. The second step is usually grouping, ordering and evaluating your ideas. Sticky notes are the perfect tool for the job.

  • They’re fast. Just scribble, peel and stick.

  • They’re easy. Everyone knows how to use them.

  • They’re good for teams. Everyone can have their own stack of notes for writing down their ideas.

  • They’re moveable. Easy to rearrange, group and order.

  • They’re flexible. You can organise your ideas any way you choose.

They’re also pretty easy to come by. Even my local Tesco Metro sells them.

But what if you don’t have a wall?

I’ve used windows before, and flat cupboard doors. My current client kindly took down the lovely pictures in their boardroom so we had an uninterrupted run of space.

But sometimes you need another way. Either you can’t find a suitable wall, or you can’t get the whole team in front of the same wall, at the same time.

I’ve listed the sticky note alternatives that I use below. And as a bonus, if you do happen to have a wall, I’ve added my pro tips for sticky note workshops at the end. 

For alternative whiteboards, try other flat surfaces

I’ve often used tables instead of walls. It’s a great fallback when you’re working in a boardroom with a huge table. Get everyone to stand on the same side of the table, so no one is reading upside down. At home, I sometimes use the floor or the kitchen worktop.

You might find index cards are faster for tabletops.

Looking at it another way, you might want to use index cards instead of sticky notes, so you have more space to write. In this case, a table or floor is much easier than sticking cards to a wall with lots of Blu-tack.

Online sticky notes

As more people work from home, lots of companies are meeting the need for online sticky notes and interactive whiteboards. People log in to a virtual ‘wall’ to add and move sticky notes just like in a real workshop. Some services offer voting and commenting as well. You can often export the wall as a picture after the session if you want to use it in other contexts.

There are some advantages to digital sticky notes, apart from the support for a remote team. Typed stickies are always legible! And for the hard of seeing, the ability to zoom in and read what other’s have written is a big help. I use online whiteboards so I don’t have to cover my walls at home with my planning sessions. I can leave up a virtual wall for as long as I like, and I don’t have to look at it after I’ve finished working for the day.

These are tools I’ve used and liked, though there are many others: Sophisticated, realistic representation of sticky notes with commenting and voting. Comes with templates for things like Lean Canvases and User Personas. No free plan, and expensive to use on your own: the cheapest tier is currently $29/month for three users. You need a paid account to contribute to a brainstorm, although guests can view walls you’ve created. I really liked as a tool, but the pricing and lack of guest passes was a deal breaker for me.

RealtimeBoard is similar but has much better plans for freelancers. Check out the Personal plan, which allows you to invite different collaborators to each board.

Google Drawings I used this before I found Stormboard. It’s not bad as an emergency online whiteboard. There’s a sticky note in the shape library, and you can keep resizing the canvas if you run out of ‘wall’. As it’s a Google app, collaborating on a drawing is easy. Unlike specialist sticky note tools, you can add any other shapes to your wall. I rather like adding huge ticks to my completed sticky notes, when I use it for planning.

Brainstorming with mindmaps and outliners

There are other ways to brainstorm, apart from using stickies. Mind maps and outliners are common for solo creativity. There are also tools that let you work as a team.

Mindmeister is a web-based collaborative mind mapping tool. If you are creating a plan, you can turn nodes on the map into ‘to dos’. You can add due dates and assign them to team members, to go straight from brainstorming to action. There’s a free plan, for up to three maps.

Workflowy is an online outliner that is super quick to use. It’s my preferred outliner for all my blogging. You can also use it to brainstorm as a team, by sharing outlines with other people.

How do you brainstorm? I’m always looking out for new ideas, so please share your tips and tools in the comments.