How to get started with the stepladder technique

Written by 
Bryan Kitch
September 6, 2023
A colorful illustration of the stepladder technique
How to get started with the stepladder technique
Written by 
Bryan Kitch
September 6, 2023

It’s not a new problem: You need to make sure everyone's input is heard and valued. The case for this is clear — when everyone’s empowered to contribute, you get better results. So, how do you get it done?

Just capturing ideas is a start, but you’ll need the right tools and structure to make brainstorming effective. The stepladder technique not only combats conformity and prevents groupthink, but also supercharges your team's decision-making powers.

Imagine a scenario where each member of your team has an equal shot at contributing their insights, where the introverts and extroverts share the stage, and where your group's collective wisdom comes to life. That's precisely what the stepladder technique offers — a structured method for group brainstorming that fosters teamwork and improves your decision-making process.

In this article, we'll dive deep into what the stepladder technique is, how it works, and why it's great for teams looking to make better choices and tap into a wealth of diverse perspectives.

What is the stepladder technique?

The stepladder technique is a brainstorming and decision-making method that brings in more team members to provide input as the exercise goes on. Designed to encourage participation from all members of a group, the stepladder technique is a natural hedge against the impacts of conformity and groupthink in working groups. 

Developed by Alex Osborn in the 1940s, the stepladder method is designed to help groups nurture ideas and evolve them into more creative, innovative solutions. It works by gradually adding members from a larger group to a smaller group. 

The smaller group starts with two people discussing solutions to a problem. You add one person at a time until everyone has a chance to share their thoughts. Then, the group decides on a solution.

Why use the stepladder method?

Teams may deploy the stepladder technique to make sure that all members of the group have a voice. But there’s also evidence to suggest the technique can lead to better outcomes when compared to unstructured ideation alone. 

According to research from the Journal of Applied Psychology, stepladder groups made better decisions than groups where all members stayed in the same place and worked on the problem at the same time.

In the study, stepladder groups’ ideas also outperformed the quality of the best individual member’s decisions 56% of the time. According to the authors, this outcome is a direct result of staggering the entry of members in the core group to provide that everyone has a chance to share.

The implication is easy to see. Taking time to gather feedback from all members of a group — not just the most vocal or experienced ones — improves decision quality across the board.

How to run a stepladder exercise with your team

The simple functionality of stepladder brainstorming makes it a viable option for in-person and remote teams alike. Here’s how to run a stepladder brainstorm in five easy steps. 

1. Start with the problem

Problem-solving, by definition, requires a problem to get started. 

That’s why the first step of the stepladder brainstorming method is explaining the core problem or topic to the larger group. This is akin to writing the problem statement in similar types of brainstorming techniques

This is the only step in the process when all members of the team will be together in one room until the end. 

Make sure you give your team enough time to understand the problem and develop their own ideas and opinions before moving on to the next step. This is vital to ensuring independent thinking. 

Related: How to identify the right problems to solve

2. Build the first rung of the ladder

Next, build the first rung of the ladder by asking two members of the group to discuss solutions by themselves. Set aside a few minutes for each discussion.

Pro-tip: Each step of the ladder should take about five or ten minutes to discuss and agree on a decision.

The entire point of the exercise is to protect the integrity of the critical thinking process. So, you’ll want to create a separate space for the first two members of the ladder group to work alone. 

This could mean sending this group to a separate conference space (for in-person teams) or creating a break-out room (for remote teams).

3. Add the next rung

After giving the first two members of the ladder group time to discuss, a third person joins to discuss their views. It’s up to the ladder group to let the next member know when to join the fun. 

It’s important for the new member of the group to express their own views before the first two relay what’s already been discussed. This prevents the views of the third person from being influenced by the ladder group. 

4. Complete the ladder

Continue sending a new member to the ladder group until everyone has entered the new meeting. 

Because each person needs a chance to speak, it’s best to set a reasonable limit of total participants. Somewhere between 4–8 would be the sweet spot. 

5. Make a final decision 

After all members of the group have had a chance to share, it’s time to come to a decision. 

By now, you can rest assured that the views of all members of the group have been heard before reaching a conclusion. 

And… boom! You’ve completed your first stepladder brainstorm.

The benefits of the stepladder technique for brainstorming

When teams have the chance to consider a diversity of viewpoints, the best ideas rise to the top — despite the mix of personalities and other factors that can hamper effective group problem-solving.

Here are some of the benefits of the stepladder process for brainstorming. 

Avoiding groupthink

Groupthink is a type of social pressure that imposes consensus thinking on a group — even when alternative ideas could be superior. It’s what happens when people are afraid to express an unpopular opinion or when the desire for cohesion among a group beats all other considerations. 

Structured brainstorming exercises like the stepladder technique ensure that all members of a group are given the chance to speak their minds.

Encouraging participation from the whole group

Getting each of the members of a group to participate can be a challenge. 

The introverts or less-experienced members of a group can be naturally reticent to speak, worried about saying the wrong thing. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the more dominant or experienced voices in a group tend to overshadow those of their peers. 

The stepladder technique guarantees participation from each member of a group — and presents a work-around to the natural social dynamics at play in all groups and organizations.

Related: 8 tips for improving team participation in meetings

Improving group decision-making

Good ideas are tested. Defendable. And hold up under scrutiny. 

Of course, smart people can come up with innovative ideas on their own. But it’s so much easier to account for all the angles to a problem when multiple inputs are considered.

In a competition of ideas, the best ideas win. Structured brainstorming techniques like the stepladder method put the competition aspect on autopilot so your team can evaluate numerous ideas effectively and drive improved decision-making across the board.

Level up your stepladder technique with visual collaboration

The practical nature of the stepladder technique makes it an ideal exercise for in-person or distributed teams alike. By embracing this structured brainstorming technique, you can prevent groupthink, improve team contributions, and build your team's collaborative prowess. We might be a bit biased, but we think the best way to do this is by using a visual platform like Mural.

What is Mural?

Mural is the visual work platform for all kinds of teams to do better work together — from anywhere. Get team members aligned faster with templates, prompts, and proven methods that guide them to quickly solve any problem. They can gather their ideas and feedback in one spot to see the big picture of any project and act decisively.

That’s what happens when you change not just where, but how you work.

Get started with the free, forever plan with Mural to start collaborating with your team.

About the authors

About the authors

Bryan Kitch

Bryan Kitch

Content Marketing Manager
Bryan is a Content Marketing Manager @ MURAL. When he's not writing or working on content strategy, you can usually find him outdoors.