Sort Your Brainstormed List to Take ACTION

Posted by Kristin Arnold on June 7, 2022

sort your brainstormed list

Most brainstorming lists end up in a long-forgotten pile — usually because the list was too long or intimidating to deal with.  By organizing your brainstormed ideas, you can quickly sort your long list into a few manageable categories.




There are typically three ways you will sort your brainstormed ideas:

  1. Prioritize that long list into a much shorter list
  2. Categorize the ideas into “buckets”
  3. Sequence the ideas out in order such as a timeline or process flow

Note:  Depending on which strategy you choose to sort your brainstormed list, you will want to write the ideas differently, so think about this ahead of time!

Prioritize Your Brainstormed List

  1. Write Down Ideas on easel paper or project to a screen or monitor.
  2. Clean Up the List.  When done brainstorming the list, make sure the team members understand what each item means.  Combine like items if necessary.  (When in doubt, keep the items separate).
  3. Bulletize the List.  Give a letter to each distinct item – starting with “A” for the first item, “B” for the second, etc.  Do NOT number the items as this will confuse the resulting point totals!  By giving each item a corresponding letter, it will make the voting/tallying process much easier!
  4. Determine Number of Votes.  The easiest thing to do is to give each team member three “votes” where they can indicate their level of interest and commitment to one, two, or three items.  (yes, you could put all three votes on one item, thereby skewing the results slightly, but that doesn’t happen very often.  So if you are worried about that, add a ground rule where you have to vote for at least two separate ideas!).  For long lists, the correct mathematical equation for the total number of votes is to take the number of ideas, add one and divide by three.  (This is called the nominal group technique)
  5. Think Your Vote.  Ask each team member to identify where they are going to place their votes before you call the vote!  (This is why I like to alphabetize the list, so people can write down the letter of the idea vs. the whole idea!)
  6. Call the Vote. 
    • You can simply go around the room and ask people to tell you their votes and put a “tick mark” next to each item that receives a vote.
    • Go through the list, starting at “A” and asking how many people voted for “A.” Write the total next to the item and take the vote on the next item until you have gone through all the items.
    • Get the team involved by asking them to “sound off” in sequence by adding their numbers together and writing the total next to the item.
    • I like to use removable dots where team members can come up to the easel chart and put their dots on their voted items.  It’s a good idea to demonstrate how they should vote by placing the dots in a line next to the brainstormed item – otherwise, you’ll get dots all over the place!
    • If privacy is an issue, ask the team members to write each of their items and the corresponding vote on small, separate stickie notes with the letter and number of votes. After all the team members have their votes written down, turn the flipcharts out of sight of the team, and ask each individual to come up to the flipcharts and place the stickies next to each item.  Since this takes a bit longer, take a break after all team members have voted.  The recorder simply pulls off the stickie notes from each item and adds them up!  If a stickie note falls off the chart, it’s easy to see where it belongs, since both the letter and the vote are written on the stickie note.
  7. Review the Vote.  After all have voted, you now have a brilliant display – typically the “cream of the crop” rises above all the other items!   Be careful, here.  There may be some vocal members who will want to take the top vote and declare it the “winner.” Unless EVERY person voted for one item (which rarely happens, but could), you have NOT YET built a consensus around the top vote-getter.  Why?  Because you don’t have everyone on board with that one idea.
  8. Reorder the List.  Ask the team for the item with the most number of votes, and the next and the next.  Capture the new list on a flipchart.  You will see the list narrow down dramatically — at least by half.  You now have a significantly smaller list of high-value items to deal with.

When you have narrowed the list down to five or so items, see if there is a possible “consensus” in the mix of ideas.  Is it possible to combine or create, or must the team select just one? 

Categorize Your Brainstormed List

  1. Write Down Ideas.  Ask team members to write their ideas on a 3-inch by 5-inch index card or super-sticky note.  Each idea gets a separate sticky or card.  Encourage them to write large and legibly.  A great side benefit of writing each idea on a separate sticky or card is that team members get to write the idea in their own words and in as much detail as they like.
  2. Prepare the Wall.  Get several sheets of easel paper and post on a large wall – big enough for team members to gather around and read each others’ cards/move them around.  If using index cards, you can either spray the charts with adhesive spray (so they stick!), or write the categories on different colored index cards and work on a large table.
  3. Sort the Ideas.  When finished brainstorming, ask the team to sort their ideas. 
    • Categorize.  If they already have a sense for the general categories, then simply label several easel charts with the name of each category.  Then ask the team members to place their cards in the appropriate category.  Leave one blank sheet of paper up on the wall just in case another category emerges. 
    • Affinitize.  Sometimes, the team doesn’t know what the main categories might be.  In this case, ask the team to affinitize their ideas.  In this process, ask the team members to take each card and place it next to another card with a similar idea, an affinity or something in common.  If the idea is exactly the same, simply put your card on top of the other.  It’s okay if you have a card that has nothing in common with the others!  (Technically, the key to using the affinity diagram is that this process is done without talking – however, depending on the personality of the group, I may or may not share that ground rule!).  Once you put your card up on the wall, it is now the team’s card.  If a team member doesn’t like where a card is, he or she can move it, rather than discuss it!
  4. Create Headers for Each Grouping.  You’ll be amazed at how quickly the brainstormed list shifts from a huge blob into several discrete clusters.  After the flurry of activity, give a ten-second countdown for all cards to settle into their clusters.  Then label each cluster with a “header” that describes all the cards in that cluster.

Whether you categorize or affinitize, you get the same result — several categories or “headers” with several cards underneath each header.  However, with an affinity diagram, you might see some non-traditional, even creative groupings of your ideas.

Now that you have organized that huge brainstorming list, your team may decide to prioritize the categories or “headers” to focus on one or two high-priority categories.  Or your team may decide to divide into sub-teams to look at each category in more detail.

Sequence Your Brainstormed List

  1. Write Down Ideas.  Similar to categorizing your ideas, you’ll want the team to write their ideas on a 3-inch by 5-inch index card or super-sticky note so you can move them around based on the time or flow.
  2. Prepare the Surface.  You can use a table, or sheets of easel paper, however, for this type of sorting, I like to use a roll of heavyweight paper.  Label one end “start” and the other end “finish” or inclusive dates, or the start point and end point to the process.
  3. Sort the Ideas.  Ask the team to place their cards in the proper place.  Once a card is up on the wall, it is now the team’s card.  If a team member doesn’t like where a card is, he or she can move it until you have a solid timeline or process flow.

When sequencing your ideas, the brainstorming typically continues in that people will continue to pick up a sticky and add a key step until it has the level of specificity you are looking for.

And that’s three ways to quickly sort through your brainstormed list – so that you can DO something with it!

Related Articles:

Voting Variations to Narrow a Brainstormed List

IDEO’s Design Thinking: The 7 Rules for Brainstorming

How to Brainstorm a List at a Meeting


KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF|Master has been facilitating meaningful conversations between executives and managers to make better decisions and achieve extraordinary results for 25+ years. She's a leading authority on moderating panel discussions and passionate about finding the perfect olive to complement a vodka martini.

Skip to content