Brainstorming is an approach that teams can use to generate many ideas quickly.
The goal is to inspire more creative thoughts to generate many ideas quickly and often build from there.
While it feels very relaxed and informal, there’s a structure you can apply to increase the productivity of your brainstorming session.
Read on to learn how to have the most successful brainstorming sessions possible.
Benefits of Brainstorming
There are multiple benefits to conducting a brainstorming session when seeking to solve a problem. You can…
- get far more creative ideas from a group proposing out-of-the-box ideas without fear.
- generate ideas quickly.
- build on ideas for even more potential solutions.
- get broad participation and insight from various areas of expertise and experience.
- get buy-in on final solutions when team members participate in helping find a solution.
When to Use Brainstorming
Brainstorming works well in the following situations:
- When you want to generate ideas quickly.
- When you want input from others.
- When you want to engage others in finding solutions.
Do not use brainstorming if…
Don’t run a brainstorming session if you already have a plan in mind and have no intention of using input from the group. This sets false expectations and can frustrate participants.
But despite all the benefits listed above, there are problems if it’s not done properly.
The problem with Brainstorming
People might complain that brainstorming sessions are a waste of time.
And they can be if not they’re run well.
If you don’t plan well up front, you can end up with a session that…
- is unfocused.
- is unorganized.
- has participants who criticize suggestions.
- has participants who dominate the discussion.
- has attendees who don’t give input.
- lacks clarity of purpose or goals.
To avoid these problems, use the following guidelines to run a successful brainstorming session that gets great results.
How to Run a Successful Brainstorming Session
Here’s your guide on how to run a successful brainstorming session. Follow these steps and you’ll come away with a list of ideas to move your problem-solving session forward quickly.
1. Know the problem you want to solve.
If you’re not clear on what the problem is and what your goals are for the session, you can’t successfully guide the session. In addition to identifying your problem, you might even identify objectives for the solution. For example, if you want to provide training to a global workforce, your objectives may not simply to provide training. The training may need to be cost-effective and always accessible.
When brainstorming, be clear on the problem you want to solve. If you have specific criteria or objectives, include those, too. This gives you and the team clear focus.
2. Invite the Right Participants.
To have a productive brainstorming session, it’s important to have the right people participating. Think through the problem you’re trying to solve, and who has knowledge of the situation. Invite people from different areas of expertise to get a range of perspectives. You can also invite people who aren’t as close to the problem – they may be able to generate creative ideas from a fresh perspective without limiting thoughts from previous involvement. Invite people from diverse backgrounds and age groups for even more diversity of ideas.
Also, think about group dynamics and relationships. If there’s a critical participant who tends to dominate the conversation, be ready to manage so that others can give input.
If you have senior managers in the room, it may be difficult to get individual contributors to freely generate ideas. There are ways listed below to encourage more open idea sharing across seniority levels.
Understand the dynamics and organize with this in mind.
Carefully curate the participants for your brainstorming session. The people you include can either positively or negatively impact the experience and results.
3. Identify the number of participants needed for input.
Brainstorming works well in small groups. However, if you work for a large organization, it may be necessary to get input from a large number of people. If so, you’ll need to plan accordingly. This could mean holding multiple smaller sessions or breaking your large group into smaller working groups.
You don’t want your group to be larger than eight to 10 people. Otherwise, you’ll have people who won’t participate, but rather sit back and disengage or just watch.
In the Making Elephants Fly podcast, episode 11, Disney Imagineer C. McNair Wilson shares that he’s held brainstorming sessions with almost 1600 people all over the world.
In their sessions, they would brief the participants, and then “break into groups of 5, 6, or 7 people.” He says to keep it at seven because when you have groups larger than that some people don’t participate. “With only seven you can’t hide.”
Consider the number of participants. Eight to 10 is ideal. But if you need more, plan to break them into smaller groups to facilitate better participation.
4. Prepare Attendees.
Let attendees know in advance what you want from the session: the problem you’re trying to solve and the outcomes you want.
Ask that they spend some time prior to the session thinking of ideas and solutions. This can generate ideas they may not have in a room full of other people sharing ideas.
If you need to share background information for more context before the session, send it to invitees with enough lead time for them to read through it to prepare.
Make sure participants know the constraints they’re working within, also. If you only have a team of 5 people or a timeline of three months to implement a solution it may help to think within those boundaries.
Make sure participants are prepared with any background information needed before the session,
5. Choose the Right Location.
Choose a location where participants can easily collaborate and share as needed.
For example, if you’re breaking into small groups, have tables that you can configure for small groups.
Make sure the room has what you need, such as whiteboards or a projector.
6. Prepare for the Session.
Have the right materials for your session. You’ll likely need large flip-charts, post-it notes, and markers.
Snacks can be helpful, too, especially if your session will be long. And they’re always appreciated.
Configure the seating as needed.
You’ll need materials for your brainstorming session. Make a list, plan ahead, and gather everything in advance. And if it’s a long session, bring snacks if possible.
7. Identify an experienced facilitator.
Make sure your facilitator understands brainstorming and can manage the process productively. She needs great communication skills – including listening – and should keep the session moving forward productively. She should read the room and be aware of those who are both quiet or dominating the discussion and make an effort to get everyone involved.
8. Kick off the session.
Now that your session is underway, follow these steps to ensure you have a productive event.
- Review the agenda. Your agenda helps you timebox the activities and keep the group moving forward.
- Problem context and ground rules
- Idea generation
- Idea assessment
- Next Steps
- Explain the goals for the session and the brainstorming process. Share how you’ll use the information and what will happen after the meeting.
- Plan breaks. If you’ll be having a long session, let everyone know the plans for breaks.
- Organize participants. Split up groups that work together regularly to inspire more creativity by working with different people.
- Lay out the ground rules. These may include banning criticism during idea generation, limiting speaking time, and how you expect for people to share. This should also include rules on multitasking and being present and involved.
- Identify timekeepers and note takers. It’s important to timebox the activities to keep things moving forward. It’s also important to document all those great ideas. Make sure you know who will be doing this. Make sure that person is aware of their tasks.
- Stimulate creativity with an icebreaker. This will loosen up participants and make them more engaged. It also helps level the playing field with all involved. If you have individual contributors participating with manages or Directors, using an icebreaker treats everyone equally and helps them relax. For great icebreaker ideas, read 15 Easy Team Building Icebreakers for Meetings
- State the problem. You’ve come together to solve a problem. Remind everyone why you’re working together in this session.
9. Generate ideas.
- Ask participants for ideas on the topic. Ask everyone to write their ideas on possible solutions. This allows them to start getting ideas down without fear of judgment or focusing on what others are saying.
- Ask participants to share ideas. You can approach this in several different ways:
- If you have a smaller group, people can share one at a time and someone can transcribe the ideas.
- If you have a larger group, divide the group into teams of 5-7 people each. Then they can work as a team to generate and share ideas for a set period of time. At the end of the specified time, someone from each group can share the results.
- Record everything. As all the creative ideas are shared, make sure it’s all captured in writing at least. Take pictures of whiteboards or the working session for additional documentation.
- Keep the group on task. If the group start talking about how to execute ideas that are generated, remind them that the goal is to generate ideas. For example, if the team suggests using video to roll out a new training program and the group starts discussing what platform to use, remind them that this session is focused on idea generation rather than specific exaction design.
- Have a plan if you don’t get many ideas. If the team doesn’t come up with many ideas, ask if they can build on any that have been suggested. If you’ve been working a long time, the group may need a break to step away and let ideas simmer before coming back to it.
- Engage everyone. If you have participants who monopolize the conversation, try a different approach to get everyone talking. Call on participants or ask if someone else has something to share. Make sure everyone is included and sharing.
10. Rank ideas.
Once the group has generated ideas, you need to rank them. Take your list of ideas and have participants vote on them to choose the top options. If you have many options, you may want to have the team vote on the top three or five and discuss those before making final choices.
11. Make the choice.
Have the group discuss and vote on the top choice(s) to pursue.
12. Plan your next steps.
Depending on the choices you’ve made, you may break your group into several small groups to work on execution steps. Your choices may require further investigation or collaboration with other groups to be able to put them in place. If you form working groups, identify a key point-of-contact for each. Identify target milestone dates for moving forward. Make sure each group knows exactly what’s expected, including milestone dates and goals or objectives.
13. Let the group know what to expect afterward.
Whether the plan is to simply share progress with them via email or holding a follow-up session, make sure they know what to expect.
TIP: Try these three approaches for quick idea generation:
Brainwriting – have participants write their ideas down on paper. This will allow them to focus on generating ideas without being distracted while others are talking. They’ll also be able to generate ideas without fear of judgment. You can ask that they submit the ideas to the facilitator autonomously or share out loud, depending on the needs of the group.
Rapid Ideation – tell the group(s) the topic, explain any solution constraints (limited budgets, location needs, etc.) give them a time limit for brainstorming, and have them generate as many ideas as possible during the timeframe. The groups can write their ideas on flip charts, whiteboards, post-it notes, or any other way needed. Then at the end of the timeframe, the groups can share their results. This approach gets teams moving and generating ideas quickly. If a group tends to be resistant or hesitant, this exercise gets them moving quickly.
Figuring Storming– Tell the group to imagine how a familiar or famous person would approach the problem. This helps the groupthink from a different perspective. Ask “what would our Director do?” or “How would the CEO handle the problem?” Propose a role that would resonate with the group, such as famous leader. Ask that they really put themselves in the role to get the most from the exercise.
14. Follow Up.
Carry out the steps you said you’d take. Follow up with the point people for each item. Keep others informed of progress and actions taken.
If you don’t let others know progress and outcomes, you risk losing momentum, decreasing morale and support, and it may be more difficult to get engagement for future work sessions when needed.
On the other hand, if you keep your participants engaged and informed, you’ll increase trust and buy-in for any changes that result from the work sessions. You may find you have change champions as a result.
There you have it. The step-by-step guide to running a successful brainstorming session. Note that your instructions on how to run a successful brainstorming session possible don’t start when the meeting starts.
Plan ahead and make the advance effort to have the most valuable brainstorming session possible.