Brainstorming can be a great way to generate a lot of ideas in a short time.
Along the way, if it’s done right, brainstorming can also help to build helpful connections among your team members. People who are included in a brainstorming session may also feel that their ideas really count—which can lead to greater buy-in and more energetic engagement.
All these advantages, however, mean nothing if brainstorming is mismanaged. In fact, a rotten brainstorming session can lead to frustration and disengagement. In other words, a bad brainstorming session is worse than no brainstorming session at all.
Brainstorming isn't rocket science, but successful brainstorming does follow several sets of important rules. Follow the rules and you'll help to build a stronger team and a better product or service. Ignore the rules and…the negative outcomes are on your head!
The first, most important set of rules for brainstorming start well before your brainstorming meeting is even scheduled, so you make sure you're setting up your session for success. There are also indispensable guidelines to follow to keep your team on track and good ideas flowing.
By following these 18 brainstorming rules, you'll wind up with more creative, actionable ideas and a motivated, cohesive team working together. Also, you’ll begin with the right methods to be successful.
Get Prepared (Before Scheduling Your Brainstorming Session)
Here are some early-stage brainstorming rules to follow. Before you start a brainstorming session, make sure you have a clear goal and problem to solve—one that will benefit from brainstorming ideas. You also need a great facilitator, the right team, and an ideal setting to get the most out of your session.
1. Have a Clear, Actionable Question or Goal
Bottom line, if you don’t know exactly why you’re planning a brainstorming meeting, you shouldn’t be planning a brainstorming meeting. This is an important brainstorming rule to follow. Your goal should be simple enough to state in a single sentence and clear enough to be understood by everyone involved.
It should also be actionable. When you have completed your brainstorming session, you should have a set of fresh ideas for improving or changing something. Of course, it goes without saying that a yes/no question (“should we get rid of the corporate dress code?”) is not an appropriate brainstorming candidate!
Poor brainstorming goal:
Discuss the problems we’ve encountered as we try to provide high quality customer service to people who buy our products. Understand issues that come up for customers, and develop ideas for improving the products and services we provide.
Imagine taking on a goal of this magnitude with no clear idea for where you’re headed and no final, actionable goal! Brainstorming would lead to a huge list of issues related to multiple products, services, and customer service snafus—with no clear idea about what to do about the mess.
Good brainstorming goal:
What changes can we make to our customer service procedures that will shorten customer wait time and improve customer satisfaction?
This is a goal that brainstormers can engage with effectively. It has a clear aim. At the end of a brainstorming session, the group that tackles this issue will have generated a list of real, actionable ideas for positive change.
2. Be Sure Your Question or Goal Is Appropriate for Brainstorming
Brainstorming isn’t the right answer to every question. Yes, it can encourage creativity and buy-in, but only if participants’ ideas are truly needed and will actually be implemented.
If you or your team have already made a decision or moved forward with a creative direction, brainstorming can become an exercise in futility. Worse, it can cause team members to feel that they’re being manipulated rather than included.
Double-check that your problem or question will benefit from a brainstorming session before proceeding.
3. Hire (Or Be) a Terrific Facilitator
Unless you have training in how to facilitate a brainstorming meeting, don’t go there. Brainstorming calls for someone who can manage personalities, crystalize ideas into sound bites, inspire teamwork, keep the conversation moving, and draw conclusions that can be turned into task lists.
Without the right facilitator, brainstorming sessions can end up alienating your team and become an unproductive waste of time. Make sure you have a great facilitator to run your brainstorming session before you begin.
4. Choose the Right Participants
Brainstorming only works when the people involved understand the issues and can speak intelligently about potential solutions to problems or answers to questions. If the question or problem can’t be effectively addressed by the brainstorming group, you may wind up with a very frustrated team.
For example, if problems with product delivery are related to union issues that are completely outside your control, there’s no point in gathering a group to ask “how can we improve product delivery.”
5. Choose the Best Time and Venue
You know your team and your organizational priorities, so you know whether now is the right time to set up an “extra” event that will take time and energy away from important deadlines.
You also know what it takes to set up, pay for, and travel to an outside venue. Use your knowledge to select a time when your team is relatively relaxed. Also, select a location that is easy to get to and conducive to positive, relaxed interactions.
Set Up Your Brainstorming Session for Success
You’ve decided that brainstorming is an appropriate choice. You’ve come up with a great question or goal for your brainstorming session. You found a terrific facilitator, an awesome venue, and an ideal set of participants. Great job! Now it’s time to set the stage for success.
By clearly defining a process, ground rules, schedules, and anticipated outcomes, you’ll prepare your participants for a positive experience. Give your session the right tone and direction needed by following these brainstorming rules.
6. Provide Information About Your Venue, Your Plans, and Your Schedule
It may sound silly, but most people are happiest when they know where the bathroom is, what time to expect a coffee break, what’s available for lunch, and when they’ll be able to head home.
If you don’t provide this basic information, your participants will spend much of their brainstorming time asking their neighbors “when’s lunch?” or “can I leave at 4:00?” Your participants also need to know how much time is set aside for ice breakers, brainstorming, sharing, and planning for future action.
7. Lay Down Important Ground Rules
You or your facilitator should be very clear about setting ground rules, especially in groups that include people at different levels of management (or a wide variety of personalities).
- Include Everyone - Brainstorming should always include every member of the group—which means that everyone should expect and plan to participate.
- Suspend Judgement - Brainstormed suggestions should be as wide-ranging as possible, and no suggestion should be questioned or judged until after the creative process is complete. Be clear that even “reality checks” (“we don’t have the budget for that!”) should be avoided until after all ideas are on the table. Eye rolling and exchanging of negative facial expressions counts as judgment.
- Remove Distractions - You may also want to add additional specific rules relating to the use of laptops and cell phones, as they can be distracting and, in some situations, can be used to communicate silently.
8. Clarify Your Brainstorming Goals and Procedures
Brainstorming can be handled in many different ways. Your facilitator may wish to open the floor to ideas, or call on individuals one by one. She may suggest that participants write down ideas or expand upon others’ thoughts and suggestions. Be sure everyone understands what will happen, what the goals are, and how long each segment will last.
9. Break the Ice in a Fun and Positive Way
Brainstorming shouldn’t be a grim or depressing process. Let your participants know that they can and should have fun, and get the process started with an ice breaker activity that encourages creativity and teamwork. Icebreakers can also be a great tool for establishing the reality that, during brainstorming, everyone’s ideas are of equal value.
Encourage Creativity in Your Brainstorming Session
If the content of your question and the nature of your participants happen to be very creative, you may have no problem eliciting lots of innovative ideas. If that’s not the case, however, your group may seem to “dry up” quickly. You (or your facilitator) should have the tools at hand to re-charge the creative process.
10. Use Writing as a Tool for Inspiring Participation and Engagement
No matter how well you set the ground rules, some people will be intimidated by others, or feel that they should just go along to get along. Brainwriting is a terrific tool for engaging participants in anonymous idea generation. It’s also a good way to support the process of building on ideas. Keep paper and pencils handy, as you’ll probably need them. Learn how to get started with brainwriting:
11. Be Ready With Creativity-Sparking Activities
It’s one thing to say “don’t judge an idea;” it’s another to actually avoid thinking “that idea will never work,” or sharing realities such as “IT says that can’t be done.” To keep your group focused on positivity and creative thinking, have these possibilities up your sleeve:
Ask your group “how would you achieve the opposite outcomes from those we’re shooting for?” For example, you might ask, “what are some ways to ensure that every customer complains about our customer service and refuses to buy our product again?”
Most participants will enjoy coming up with negative ideas that can be turned on their heads to provide positive suggestions. For example, “route all calls to a never-ending menu of options” could become “route all calls to a real person.”
Use role play to spark new insights and ideas. Have participants play real-world roles (customer and customer service rep, for example), or ask what would Wonder Woman or Superman do to fix that problem?
Review Ideas That Have Real Potential
Use these brainstorming rules as guidelines on how to capture, process, and take actions on your team's ideas.
Make sure you record the new ideas that your team generates, and that you're getting ideas from all participants, especially those in the "trenches" working closest to the issue you're trying to solve.
After pulling in fresh ideas, then review them for taking action on. Select a reasonable number of ideas to develop further—those with the greatest and most relevant potential. Then assign them to task groups, so they get implemented.
12. Make High-Quality Note Taking a Priority
Your facilitator or someone else on your team should be writing down every idea as it’s pitched. This requires some expertise, as some ideas are presented in roundabout language, and can be hard to summarize.
13. Give Participants Time to Review Ideas
Participants should have at least fifteen minutes to review the ideas that have been recorded, so that they can properly respond when you ask them to select the best ideas on the list. Without an opportunity to review what has been said, participants are likely to either support the last idea mentioned or the idea they themselves pitched.
14. Ask for Opinions From Participants Who Work “In the Trenches"
There are plenty of ideas that sound great in theory—and may make perfect sense to managers. Yet some of those ideas may be unworkable for good reasons known only to people in the “trenches,” who must actually put ideas into action. There may be excellent reasons why things are done (or not done) in certain ways; be sure to provide an opportunity for everyone to share their insights.
15. Identify Both Opportunities and Challenges
While positivity is essential to brainstorming, realism is essential to implementation. If everyone agrees that change is a good idea, it’s also important to identify barriers to change. Barriers may be political, technological, financial, or logistical. Sometimes barriers can be overcome or worked around; sometimes they can’t.
16. Select a Reasonable Number of Ideas for Further Development
After brainstorming, you may have a dozen feasible ideas on the board—but no one has time to take on that many ideas and develop them. Choose just three of the best ideas for next steps.
17. Assign Tasks to Appropriate Groups
Once you’ve selected the ideas to follow up on, you can create working groups for each idea. In some cases, you can simply ask for volunteers—but often you’ll need to select group members so that each group includes knowledgeable individuals at a range of management levels.
18. Set Clear Goals and Deadlines
Brainstorm-related tasks will inevitably fall to the bottom of the list if they are not given priority status. Before leaving the brainstorming session, be sure that each work group has set up mutually acceptable meeting dates, has a specific goal or product to work toward, and has a deadline for achieving their goal placed on the team roadmap.
More Brainstorming Resources
Here are additional brainstorming resources, from our multi-part Ultimate Guide to Better Brainstorming Techniques series:
- BrainstormingHow to Run an Effective Brainstorming SessionLisa Jo Rudy
- Brainstorming19 Top Brainstorming Techniques to Generate Ideas for Every SituationLisa Jo Rudy
- BrainstormingBrain-Netting: How to Brainstorm Online Better in a Distributed TeamLisa Jo Rudy
By following the brainstorming rules and techniques in this article, you're setting up your session for success.
Brainstorming, done right, can lead to some impressive outcomes: great insights, team building, and buy-in from all levels. Brainstorming done poorly, however, can be a time sink at best. At worst, it can lead to serious morale and trust issues.
What makes a brainstorming session great? It really comes down to respect. Respect for employees’ time, ideas, creativity, and knowledge. When employees feel that they are a respected part of a working team, great things can happen.