Brainstorming by yourself is one thing. Brainstorming with a group of people has its own challenges. I personally love facilitating brainstorming sessions. It’s like orchestrating a chaotic storm of ideas. The excitement and the energy generated during a great brainstorming session are almost addictive. If your experience in having a group brainstorming session doesn’t seem to match my experience, then perhaps you should examine whether or not you’re actually running an effective brainstorming session. You may even want to questions whether or you not you’re running effective meetings in general.
Here are 9 tips on how to run productive brainstorming sessions:
1. Pick a Facilitator: The role of the facilitator is to simply keep the positive energy flowing, and move the meeting forward. This person may not necessarily be the most creative person in the room. It might be a good idea to hire someone for this role, like a creativity coach, or a business consultant. Sometimes the person who suggested the meeting should run the meeting. Sometimes it should be the final decision maker. Regardless of who the facilitator ends up being, the facilitator should not have an active role in actually coming up with ideas, or deciding on which ideas to go with during the meeting. It helps in preventing groupthink.
2. Start with the Goals: Unless the purpose of the meeting is to come up with goals, the goal of the brainstorming session should be clearly defined, as well as, how the success of the idea or solution will be measured. Although you want people to be able to think outside the box, defining the goal makes sure that the group stays focused. There is usually a deadline for when this idea needs to be implemented, what the budget will be, who the key stakeholders are, and what resources might be available.
3. Keep it Visual: Brainstorming works best if everyone in the room can see all the ideas all at once. Large sticky notes work best. A large dry erase board or chalkboard will also work.
4. Adhere to Timetables: Brainstorming consists of ideation, filtration, and implementation. How you divide up these times is entirely up to you. You can break it up into three 20 minutes each, or into three hours, or three days, or three weeks. What’s important is that you move from one stage to the next and not go back unless all the ideas you’ve come up with simply aren’t working. This way people won’t be brainstorming during implementation, and they won’t move onto implementation during the ideation stage until all the ideas have been presented.
5. Keep it Positive: A huge idea killer is negativity. During the ideation stage, do not allow people to criticize any ideas that pop up. It is important that people only focus on the ideas they like, and not on the ideas they don’t like.
6. Keep Everyone Engaged: Try to get an idea from everyone in the room. Rather than having the facilitator write ideas, have the participants write ideas. Create break out groups if necessary. Get everyone in the room into the conversation. Better yet, have a standing meeting; meaning there are not chairs or tables. Keep everyone motivated and energized.
7. Prevent Groupthink: The filtration stage exists to prevent groupthink. Have each person in the room defend an idea (or three) on the board. No one should be presenting any ideas they don’t like. Allow the group to ask this person a few questions about the idea. You can limit this by time or by number of questions. Then put all the ideas up for a vote. You can either have them only pick one idea, but I find it more informative if you let them pick their top three.
8. Focus on Actionable Ideas: An idea is good only if it can be acted upon. Unless there is a clear winner, focus on the top three ideas, and discuss how to implement each one. Again, it’s important to limit the time spent on each idea. Have the group vote one more time for the final idea to implement. Then start discussing how to implement the idea with very broad strokes. Once the general actions steps are agreed up, assignment should be given out for follow-up, and next meeting should be set.
9. Hold Everyone Accountable: The brainstorming session doesn’t end at the end of the meeting. Send out meeting notes to everyone immediately after the meeting, along with assigned tasks and follow-up dates. It’s important to follow-up routinely with stakeholders to make sure that the idea or solution that you all came up will actually work. Sometimes an idea may seem feasible on paper, and then holes in the idea will reveal itself once you try to work it out in the real world. Following-up with key players also makes sure that everyone is accountable for the idea or solution that everyone agreed to. Without accountability, ideas don’t stand a chance of surviving.
Many people dread meeting because 99% of the information shared in most meetings should really be sent out via email. The brainstorming meeting is the one meeting where everyone should feel engaged. It’s the one meeting where a deliverable couldn’t have been assigned to them in a simple email because it was created during the meeting itself, and the person who is being assigned the task actually had an active part in creating the task. All meetings should be like brainstorming meeting.