One of my most favorite things to do in my job is to brainstorm. There is something so exciting about a good ideation session! In my experience, they are energetic and fun and really connect me to my team. That being said, I know that a lot of people don’t feel this way. Instead, brainstorming is seen as a waste of time or a process to dread. In researching for this piece, I can’t tell you how many articles I came across with titles like, “Why Brainstorming Sucks” or “Brainstorming Doesn’t Work”. I think that is so unfortunate, because when we can brainstorm well, we open up a world of opportunity and possibility for ourselves, our groups, and our organizations.
“Why Brainstorming ROCKS”
I think people hate brainstorming sessions a couple of reasons:
- They don’t think they are creative or innovative
- They haven’t been set up for success by their leaders
- The sessions feel forced or contrived
We can eliminate all of these factors for our groups if we can change the way that we lead or facilitate brainstorming sessions. Then our groups can see why brainstorming rocks:
- Gives us access to all the knowledge, experiences, and ideas in a room for the best solution
- Grants us agency and influence to make positive and progressive change
- Improves our group dynamic through communication, collaboration, and change management
“Brainstorming DOES Work”
Set the Stage – Jumping right into brainstorming without any sort of preparation doesn’t set your group up for success. There are steps we should take to as leaders to get our groups ready to participate so that they are more likely to engage and enjoy the experience.
- Create a Safe Space: Brainstorming is intimidating for a lot of people. Before we begin we need to establish groundrules that help people feel like they can participate freely and without judgment. I’ve included some of my favorites here, but make sure to ask your group what’s important to them:
- No idea is a bad idea – which means ALL ideas get written down
- Build on others ideas – I’m terrible at idea generation on my own but hearing others ideas helps fuel my creativity
- Encourage wild ideas – free yourself of restrictions or “phantom” rules so that you can be open to all possibilities
- Share the floor – brainstorming works best when we can hear from everyone
- Warm Up: It’s difficult to “turn on” our creative energy on command. Get your group warmed up with low risk energizers and activities that encourage problem solving or creative thinking. See our Leadership Lesson below for some of our favorites!
- Give Resources: Provide resources or materials that will help your group to generate ideas. I’m a big fan of old fashioned pen and paper. Sticky notes are a great way to keep track of individual ideas and give you the dexterity to map or sort ideas. Index cards are a great way to share or trade ideas. I also love taking over a whiteboard space for things like mind mapping or design.
Facilitate the Process – One of the biggest mistakes we make when going into an ideation session is assuming that everyone knows how to brainstorm. We present the problem and then turn groups loose to come up with a solution. Where groups get stuck is determining what to do with that time and freedom.
- Provide Structure: When I think of a typical brainstorming session, a clear structure is not the first thing that comes to mind. But it’s vitally important to our ability to achieve good results! The right structure gives our groups a framework to work within and useful experiences to spark or encourage idea generation. See our Leadership Lesson below for some of our favorite activities that make brainstorming really fun and interactive.
- Guide Discussions: More often than not we think the question, “Does anyone have any ideas?” is sufficient to get a brainstorming session started. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Brainstorming is meant to be an interactive discussion, and when we can ask really good questions than we are more likely to get really good answers. Here are some suggestions to get you started:
- What does your ideal team/organization/event/service/product look like?
- What is one problem you want to solve that you think would make us more effective/impactful?
- What is one thing that “we’ve always done” that you think we should change or eliminate? Why?
- What are all of the questions that we need answered in order to determine a solution?
Use Helpful Tools – There are many specific facilitator tools that can help make the process of brainstorming easier if we agree to use them as a group and exercise them in our ideation sessions:
- Discussion Tactics: Not all brainstorming has to be done as a large group. Use small group discussion, pair sharing and individual reflection to encourage participation from more people and to generate more ideas faster.
- Recording: Elect someone to act as “Recorder”. This person works with the facilitator to write down ideas as they are shared. The facilitator should communicate with this person exactly what to write down so that ideas and concepts are short and clear. Recording should be done using bullet points, alternating colors to separate ideas, and earth tone colors for easy reading.
- Parking Lot: The parking lot helps us to keep track of ideas or questions that might arise that don’t directly relate to the topic being discussed. Record those things on a poster or document so that those things can be addressed at a later time. They are still important, just maybe not relevant at that moment!
- Star That: If at any point in time someone has a question about something that has been shared, a participant may ask to “Star That”. The Recorder should use a highlighter color (yellow, pink) to place a star next to that particular idea. The “star” lets us continue the flow of brainstorming without interruption, we will reserve time to answer those questions at the end but it’s important to keep momentum around the ideation itself.
- Refine and Combine: After we have a list or collection of ideas we can begin to refine and combine. This should be done after addressing any questions that were “Starred”. Refining is the process of making ideas more clear and specific. Combining is the process of putting similar or related ideas together. Taking the time to do both before moving on will minimize distractions for your group when it comes time to make decisions based on these ideas.
- Voting: To narrow down our ideas after brainstorming we vote. We can create a natural break using the rule N/3. N represents the total number of ideas. When we divide that number by three, we get the number of votes each person gets to use. They may use those votes however they wish, including putting them all on one idea. This rule allows the “best” ideas to clearly rise to the top.
What happens next is just as important as the brainstorming session itself. The very best part of brainstorming is when we’ve come to sort sort of realization or solution and now we have the ability to actually make those things happen. If we don’t take steps to enact our solutions or ideas then we essentially tell our teams that brainstorming is in fact a waste of their time and that we don’t value their input. Invite your group to commit to their ideas and involve them in the implementation process as much as you can. One of the most rewarding parts of this experience is seeing your ideas come to life! When groups can have positive experiences with brainstorming and can see the results of their hard work – they will be energized and excited to continue to create and innovate together!
Here are some of my favorite activities that help promote or guide brainstorming in a group:
*Meet the Author*
Caelan Cooney is another Millennial who wants ‘to make an impact’, a self-proclaimed movie critic, avid explorer, lifelong learner, and Chapman University graduate.