If you’ve ever led a brainstorming session that left you feeling either like a political debate moderator trying to maintain decorum during the final 3 minutes of air time or conversely, a high school health teacher asking for volunteers to fill out a detailed reproductive anatomy chart, follow these tips for creating better brainstorming sessions in the future.
Create a level playing field
Different coworkers have different styles of thought and expression. Some like to shoot from the hip, while others prefer to mull over ideas before sharing with the group. In order to facilitate the most productive session possible, send key background materials out a few days ahead of the scheduled session with a clear indication of what you hope to get out of the brainstorm. However, brevity is key here. Offer up enough information to get the juices flowing, but avoid the temptation to overload. Your participants don’t need to be subject matter experts to generate great ideas.
The mullers of your group will appreciate the advance time to dig into the task at hand and will likely come to the brainstorm with insightful questions and a couple of initial ideas. (Just remember that your shoot-from-the-hippers may not have read the background info, so you’ll still need to give a high-level overview.)
Warm up the room
Once you’re gathered for the brainstorming session, repeat what you’re hoping to accomplish and review high-level background info. At Primacy, we do mind mapping and competitive landscape overviews at the beginning of brainstorming sessions. This helps focus the group and sets the stage for new ideas.
Consider calling on colleagues to share learnings they may have with other similar projects or to add helpful anecdotes about the project at hand. The more you can bring others into the conversation early, the less likely you are to face a wall of silence once the actual brainstorming begins.
Make the task manageable
Break the brainstorming task into smaller categories. Mind mapping, in particular, can help structure the conversation by creating finite branches off a central idea. Then you can either brainstorm ideas around each of those key themes. Or brainstorm more broadly first, categorizing ideas into the key theme areas later.
Always come with a couple of simple starter ideas of your own to get the ball rolling. Nothing too specific and fleshed out, or you may shut down the room rather than spark new ideas. More general thought-starters give the group the opportunity to add on to the idea or can even inspire new directions, which is exactly what a successful brainstorming session is all about.
Lay down some ground rules
Be thoughtful about how you’re asking your group to participate. Just having them shout out ideas while you write on a whiteboard might seem the simplest, but may mean quieter team members’ ideas get overshadowed by the loudest voice in the room. There are several formats you can use to alleviate this problem. Whichever you choose, be sure to lay out the ground rules so everyone knows what to expect.
You can lead the discussion round-robin style, hearing from each team member one at a time before opening the floor to more ideas.
You can incorporate Post-it notes for a capture and sort, asking participants to write down as many ideas as they can during a set period of time (10-15 minutes max), then sharing them with the team, grouping into categories as you go.
Or, if you have a larger team, consider the Charette method of assigning individual themes to smaller break-out groups for a set period of time (again, 10-15 minutes max), then passing each group’s ideas to the next group to build on, until each theme has been discussed and added onto by every group.
Use visual aids
Whether it’s via whiteboard, under different images taped up around the room or on a shared screen as you take notes in a Word doc, capturing ideas so everyone can see helps the group stay on task, remember what’s already been said, and continue to build on previous ideas.
Maintain a positive vibe
For a brainstorming session to be fruitful, you want to encourage out-of-the-box thinking and avoid shutting anyone down. The goal is to get lots of new ideas. There will be time to cull and further categorize later.
Keep your language positive. “Oh, that’s interesting,” “I like that idea,” “Good one!” and if you get stumped, “Tell me more about how you see that working.” You’ll be amazed at how a little encouragement from you can keep the ideas coming.
Likewise, it’s important to be inclusive of all ideas. Even if some contributions are way out in left field, let the group either add to them or figure out where they might fit in. You can always have a “parking lot” for ideas that don’t have an immediately obvious home. Just remember to circle back to them to see if there’s a fit by the end of your discussion. At that point, you may need to cull out any outliers. But not before.
Keep to time
You don’t want to sound the buzzer just when the great ideas start rolling in, but if you’d like to have willing participants in your next brainstorm, you must be mindful of schedules and stop the session before you reach the point of diminishing returns. An hour to an hour-and-a-half is a good rule of thumb for a productive brainstorming session. If you feel you need more time, consider scheduling follow-up sessions on another day.
Encourage continued thinking
Once the session is over, give your team a clear way to offer any further ideas they may have on the topic, as well as a deadline for follow up. Don’t be afraid to ask individuals to help flesh out some of the ideas they contributed if you need to get more granular. Once you’ve had time to organize the ideas generated, send out a recap of the session and any next steps.
The next time you need to generate some new, collaborative thinking, put your harried political moderator and desperate health teacher experiences behind you, and put these guidelines for better brainstorming into practice.