Managing a brainstorming session

I bet you’ve all sat in a brainstorming session that’s driven you crazy! Was it just painful, unstructured, delivered no meaningful or actionable outcomes?

But, when a brainstorm session is done right, it leads to true inspiration, provocative ideas and some of the best creative breakthroughs that simply couldn’t be achieved alone. It goes without saying (I hate that expression), I totally appreciate that finding time, getting the right people involved, and then actually coming out with some kind of outcome, is extremely difficult. But we have to do it!

Our brainstorming skills need to be developed and practiced to make them effective. We need to be able to ask the right questions, nudge people along the road, take a small nugget of an idea and explore it quickly – running with it, or dropping it, and move on. That’s not easy. Especially when you’re working on the principles of ‘No idea is a bad idea’, and everyone wanting to have their say.

Thinking differently is the key to any successful brainstorming session. When we stick to our old and comfortable ways of thinking, fresh and inspiring ideas won’t be on the table. If we can remove these old ways, assumptions, biases and obstacles, and our emotions, beliefs and behaviours, then  brainstorming becomes more efficient, effective and creative.

Here are a few important areas that can help you develop and run more effective brainstorming sessions:

Find the right people

Spread the brainstorming fun. Widen the net to cover as diverse group as possible in terms of work experience, seniority, gender, function, time on an account, and other factors you can think of.

Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash

Also, have snacks and treats available – you need all participants to feel welcomed, part of the team, and confident that they’ll be accepted and listened to when they want to put an idea forward. If you’re working with creative people (and let’s face it, everyone thinks they’re creative), then make sure that they know they’ve been hand picked for their expertise and knowledge. When people feel valued for their creativity and insight, they’re more likely to display those qualities in the brainstorming session.

Get on, by getting on

When new ideas are put on the table, it’s that time when individuals in the group begin to challenge, criticise and oppose. These naysayers are typically the people who have had little or no input in the idea generating, have sat back and let others do the work, sitting quietly in the corner shaking there head in disagreement, just waiting to be asked for their opinion. Don’t ask – seriously – don’t ask. They’ll take control, talk about themselves and how they have the best idea (typically not) and steer the session into their way of thinking. Just let them sit it out. Over time you may slowly become involved and start offering up some of their thoughts – at that point treat them exactly as you do everyone else in the group. No special treatment for any individual is critical to maintaining a healthy flow and balance.

To be honest, any idea generated in a brainstorming session can be lacking in substance, that’s because it’s just an ‘idea’. It’s only later when the idea has been carefully considered, challenged and developed further that it will become a ‘solid idea’.

So why do people hold back until the last minutes of the brainstorming session? There are various possibilities; they’re uncomfortable voicing their thoughts, they have hidden agendas, they don’t like someone in the group, they hold a grudge, or they’re just fed up that they didn’t think of something better. We could be here for a while thinking why some people behave this way. But let’s park that for another time.

So how do we overcome the problem of naysayers? We ask all brainstorming participants right at the beginning to put aside any preconceptions, practicalities, thoughts of impossibility and general negativity. And we introduce the concept of ‘no idea is a bad idea’, positivity, engagement and putting their trust in the process and others in the group. If this falls on deaf ears, then you need to take them to one side and suggest they’ll be removed from the group as their negative stance will impact everyone and the brainstorm’s success. However, in most cases, just even suggesting this will make them engage and participate effectively.

Opinions matter

Once the session is coming to an end, you’ll need to ask participants to vote on all the ideas generated. This in itself sounds straightforward – but it’s not.

It’s inevitable that some people prefer the ‘out there’ ideas, whilst others will ‘play it safe’. Depending on how the room is weighted – bold and brave vs predictable and safe – the consensus will hopefully be mixed. 

The three buckets

Conforming / Evolution / Revolution

Create three categories; conforming / evolution / revolution and ask people to vote each idea into one of these categories. Then ask them to vote which idea, in each category is their preference. By receiving feedback this way, the ideas that need further development won’t be thrown out too early in the process. Or, if you have a group that just wants to ‘conform’, you’ll be losing all the evolutionary/revolutionary ideas. We just need to ensure ideas that are considered less understood, harder to visualise, or appear to be be more risky, stand as good a chance as the others.

Photo by Cyrus Crossan on Unsplash

Time to think

In any business meeting, the most senior people or those with the loudest or most assertive voices typically overpower the introverts of the group. In a creative setting, this can mean that some of the best ideas are never heard.

To get over this problem, share questions in advance, asking everyone to come to the meeting with a list of ideas. When the meeting starts, get everyone to think alone about their list, prior to teaming up. Then break into groups for people to share and walkthrough their ideas with other team members – make sure everyone has a voice and is listened to.

When it comes to voting, it can be a good exercise to do it anonymously, with a secret ballot of some kind. It’s important that no one discusses voting prior to people making their selections, or it could end up being quickly swayed into one idea vs the others – voting is not the time to be debating. People should have already decided for themselves.

Leave with action(s)

The energy, inspiration, and excitement that a good brainstorming session generates can quickly fizzle without a firm commitment to actions. At the end of a brainstorming session, ask participants to specify – out loud and in front of each other – what follow-up step(s) they will take for each of the selected ideas – conforming / evolution / revolution. They might commit to doing something quite simple, such as more research on an idea, talking with other colleagues, or testing an idea with a customer. The follow-up action may only be that the organisers will share the list of ideas generated and action steps by a certain date — but whatever it is, this final step is critical as it channels the positive energy of the brainstorming session into productive action. Without this action in place, participants could end up feeling they’d just wasted their time.

See things differently

Remember, true creativity is a struggle for most people. Our existing ways of thinking and assumptions tend to keep us from looking at problems with fresh eyes. Brainstorming must overcome these preexisting mental models and encourage participants to see things differently.

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