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9 Rules For A Productive Brainstorming Session

Posted May 31, 2017 By Jillian Richardson

We’ve all been part of ambitious brainstorming sessions that don’t go as planned – one person is late, another dominates the ‘mic,’ and yet another only talks about their cats. So we’ve brainstormed some approaches that will help you get the most from your next meeting of the minds.

1. Come Prepared

Brainstorming shouldn’t be limited to just time together in a conference room. When you schedule the meeting, send a “brainstorm brief” along with the calendar invite, which includes the purpose of the brainstorm as well as any relevant background materials. This way, participants can spend time getting familiar with the topic before the brainstorm begins.

In addition, you should also provide warmup exercises at the start of the meeting. Chauncey Wilson, an instructor in the Human Factors and Information Design program at Bentley College, recommends exposing teammates to a stimulus that relates to your brainstorming topic. Having an actual object to look at can produce ideas that otherwise might not surface. For example, if you’re thinking about improving your company’s products, bring in your competitors’ models for the group to see, touch, smell, and relate to.

2. Don’t Follow the Herd

In the movie Twelve Angry Men, a jury must reach a verdict in a murder trial. As more jurors felt an increased pressure to change their minds, they began questioning their own thoughts, ethics, and prejudices. This phenomenon is called groupthink.

Groupthink often occurs with much less strain than a murder trial—and can be detrimental for productivity. Vijay Govindarajan and Jay Terwilliger of the Harvard Business Review suggest giving everyone in your conversation clear roles. For example, the facilitator should be in charge of keeping the dialogue flowing, while the client should get final say in the creative decisions. Make sure these roles are known well in advance to set clear expectations.

The authors also recommend empowering “passionate champions” within your group to run with one of their ideas, for the simple reason that those are are most invested in an idea tend to put in the highest-caliber work on it. In fact, 50 percent of ideas from passionate champions tend to make it through internal and external vetting, and 20-30 percent make it to final concept. The authors found these ideas “are often the most breakthrough in terms of truly new, game-changing concepts.”

3. Get the Bad Ideas Out First

Your brainstorming session will be more fun—and produce more ideas—if people feel comfortable sharing what’s on their mind. That’s why it’s important to establish that all ideas, no matter how silly or off-kilter, are accepted. One great way to set this type of tone is to get all the “bad” ideas first.

When you start your meeting, challenge people to come up with the worst possible solution to the problem at hand. If this is an internal brainstorm, you can also encourage everyone to share their over-the-top, “get you fired” ideas to encourage even more out-of-the-box thinking.

Not only does this activity create a playful and creative environment, but it also puts the participants on a level playing field. After all, some employees might feel uncomfortable sharing wild ideas with their boss in the room. If senior-level people in the room share equally ridiculous ides, it gives everyone else permission to be unconventional.

Bonus: it’s been scientifically demonstrated that once the power dynamic has been disrupted, brainstorm productivity goes up.

4. Have a “Word Storm”

A word exercise can help get brainstorm participants out of their comfort zones and into a new, more creative mindset that will set the stage for a brainstorm.

A favorite (and easy!) word game is a “word storm.” To create one, write down one word that relates to the brainstorm topic. Then, go proud the room and ask each participant to say other words that come to mind from that first word.

Encourage everyone to think about the word’s function, how it’s used, and metaphors that can be associated with it. Make sure the facilitator writes down each word that is said for the room to see, so they can continue to be inspired with new words or phrases.

Let the ideas flow naturally and try not to over think it, as this is meant to be a creative exercise.

5. Say “Yes, and!”

Improv comedians use the phrase “Yes, and” to build a scene from a partner’s suggestion. It’s a technique that works well in other group settings, too. In fact, there are TED Talks, speeches on YouTube and acting exercises based off this concept.

Here’s an example of how you can use “Yes, and” to build upon an idea by another team member in a brainstorm:

Person 1: “Our customer persona is named Karl. He lives in Chicago and loves jazz.”

Person 2: “Yes! And he lives in a tiny apartment with a roommate who he hates.”

Person 1: “Yes! And he wants to find his own place, so he can live solo and play his sax whenever he wants.”

Pro-tip: The best ideas are often born from building on other ideas that are outside of your typical comfort zone.

6. Utilize a Trained Facilitator

An outside facilitator can help your creative brainstorming session run smoothly. An expert will know when to push for more ideas and how to focus the discussion when people are veering offtrack.

Additionally, facilitators are a third party and won’t have the intimidating effect that an internal executive might have. They can easily shut down ideas if they aren’t relevant or productive, without it being uncomfortable the next day in the office.

7. Focus on Quantity Over Quality

Sounds counterintuitive, right? The fact is, the more ideas you generate, the more likely you are to stumble upon a “golden nugget” of an idea. So you want to brainstorm as many as possible.

As composer Leonard Bernstein famously said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.”

We recommend setting a timer for 5-10 minutes and encouraging the participants to come up with the most ideas during this time. Not only does this tactic bring a level of fun competition to your meeting, but it also forces people to think on their feet.

8. Try “Brainswarming”

If your brainstorming efforts aren’t getting the job done, don’t fret. There’s a last resort which often takes 40 minutes or less called brainswarming.

Instead of your group continuing to “spit” out more ideas, have them write these down in silence instead. Participants should build off of each other’s ideas by adding sticky notes on a white board until these ideas start making more sense and coagulate to become a viable outcome . The advantage to this approach is that all of these ideas are 1) documented and 2) there’s no verbal critiquing of ideas, which may have originally stifled the shy ones from performing at their best initially.

9. Switch Settings

If your brainstorming session arrives at an awkward pause, another option is to relocate to a new setting. Moving to a different spot, mandating a recharge break, or changing up the activity to something more social (such as eating snacks) can jumpstart the way your participants develop new neural connections and problem solving capabilities.

Pro-tip: Check out our recommended list of inspiring meeting spaces for your next brainstorm.


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