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How to Run an Effective Brainstorming Session

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This post is part of a series called The Ultimate Guide to Better Brainstorming Techniques.
What Is the Definition of Brainstorming? (For Groups & Individuals)
18 Brainstorming Rules to Help Inspire More Creative Ideas

Brainstorming is a tried-and-true approach to generating useful new ideas—most of the time. But there are many factors that can get in the way of a successful brainstorming session. For example: 

  • Lack of focus (what, exactly, is the purpose of this session?).
  • Lack of organization (where are we headed, and why?).
  • Collecting the wrong people (who are either too high, too low, or only peripherally involved).
  • Participants who feel disempowered (or too empowered).
  • Too much criticism too soon (brainstorming is intended to encourage out-of-the-box thinking). Failing to prepare participants for what’s being asked of them (people may arrive unprepared).
  • Poor facilitation (facilitation is an art—and sometimes requires a professional).
  • Getting off topic (it’s easy to get bogged down in issues surrounding the topic).
  • Failing to follow up (your session produced great ideas that were never explored).

To plan for a successful brainstorming session with optimal outcomes, it’s important to look ahead, choose the right people to participate and facilitate, and know exactly what you want your outcome to be. 

How to Run a Brainstorm Session Right
Brainstorming session. (graphic)

In this tutorial, you'll learn how to brainstorm effectively as a team: from addressing initial concerns, to how to run a session well, rank the best ideas your group generates, and ultimately decide which new ideas to take action on.

Before Scheduling Your Brainstorming Session

Here is a list of six important criteria to consider initially so you set up your brainstorming session with the maximum chance for success:

1. Be Sure You Really Want to Brainstorm 

Brainstorming can be a great way to help your team to feel engaged in the process. When you invite brainstorming, you’re letting people know you’re open to their ideas. But before you jump in, be sure brainstorming is really appropriate at this point in the project. 

Are you truly open to new ideas, or actually trying to get buy-in for a fait accompli? If you actually have all the project details in hand, brainstorming can be counter-productive. That's because it sets up an unrealistic expectation that employees will have a say in the project’s direction.

2. Write Down Your Brainstorming Goal(s) 

Remember, you need goals both for the session itself and for follow-up. Everything you do before, during, and after your brainstorming session should refer back to your goals. After all, if you don’t know why you’re brainstorming then why bother?

3. Have Clarity on the Input You're Wanting

Be sure you know what kind of brainstorming input you’re aiming for and what the interpersonal dynamics are likely to be. When you know that, you can select the best brainstorming method for your particular needs. 

For example, if you’re planning to include your entire team—managers, implementers, and support staff—you might choose to use a “brainwriting” approach. This method allows individuals to write down their thoughts rather than speak aloud. In some cases, this can reduce tension and lower concerns about being seen as “foolish” in front of peers or managers. Learn more about how to use brainwriting:

4. Invite the Appropriate Participants

Based on your understanding of the goals, purpose, and process, make up a list of invitees. Do your best to be sure that the list includes individuals who are directly involved with managing and implementing the project you have in mind. 

As you make your selections, think about the dynamics of the brainstorming process. Is a particular individual likely to slow things down or create friction? If so, is he or she really critical to the brainstorming process?

5. Choose a Venue that Fits Your Group Best

Based on all you’ve done so far, select a venue that will be comfortable and inspirational, but not so comfortable or inspirational that participants fall asleep, start checking their email, or go off on tangents. 

In other words, a comfortable meeting room is a great choice, but too much terrific scenery can be a distraction. Coffee and snacks are great, but a buffet can lead to chatting, plate refilling, and other activities that distract from the process.

6. Work With an Experienced Facilitator 

Select a facilitator with real, meaningful brainstorming experience and training. Give that person all the information he/she needs to manage the group and lead the process toward the goals and plans you have in mind. If you plan to facilitate, learn all you can about the process so that you’re able to encourage creativity for a positive, useful brainstorming session.

How to Run Your Brainstorming Session Right

Now let's dig into how to run your brainstorming session effectively, from setting the scene, to coming up with ideas, ranking them, and troubleshooting issues as needed. 

1. Set the Scene

Before you start brainstorming, give your group the information they need to be successful. Some of that information relates to the brainstorming process—and some to personal comfort! Be sure to cover these bases:

  • Set the scene by presenting your goals, describing the brainstorming process and expectations for activities following the meeting, and clearly outlining the schedule by which they will be achieved.
  • Share critical information that your team will need: location of bathrooms, plans for food breaks, anticipated completion time, assumptions regarding use of cell phones, availability of coffee, etc. If you fail to provide this information, there’s a good chance your participants will spend much of their time trying to get the answers from one another!
  • Tell participants—literally—where to sit. Bear in mind that it’s often a good idea to split up social and/or work groups, both to increase creativity and also to reduce kibitzing in the corners.
  • Introduce the facilitator and describe his/her role. If that person is you, explain your own role. Make it clear that the facilitator’s word is law: if he/she says “time’s up,” then the time is up!
  • Write, post, and answer questions about rules and procedures. This may include a repetition of the “hold your critique” rule, limits on speaking time, limits on critical comments, procedures for asking for the floor, etc. Tell people whether you intend to ask each person to speak, or whether you’re open to raised hands.
  • Nominate a time-keeper and/or put a clock front and center.
  • Nominate a note-taker and provide him/her with whiteboard, flipchart, or other tools needed.

2. Move Your Session Forward

Now with the scene set, goals and ground rules in place, it's time to begin. Here are a few actions to get started and move the brainstorming session forward: 

Action 1. Start With an Icebreaker

In brainstorming, everyone is equal. Icebreaking sessions are a good way to establish this idea by playing games in which everyone has an equal role. It’s also a great way to start creative juices flowing. 

Icebreakers can include games such as “if you could choose a superpower, which would it be, and why?” or “what animal best represents you, and why?” The key to success with such icebreakers is to include everyone: no one gets to “pass” because they think the idea is silly!

Action 2. Limber Up 

Start the brainstorming process with a low-risk, project-related question that allows everyone to toss in an idea without serious concerns about “looking silly.” Be sure everyone speaks up at least once. For example, ask “if you could ask a genie to solve our problem or complete our project, etc., then what would you ask the genie to do?” You may discover that people have very different ideas about what to wish for—and it’s those different ideas you’re searching for through the brainstorming process.

Action 3. Get Started

Allow the facilitator to take over completely (unless you are the facilitator, of course). Be sure the facilitator remembers to reiterate the “all ideas are good ideas” rule, and encourages everyone to speak. Follow the rules and schedule you’ve set up.

Action 4. Record Everything! 

In addition to having your note taker take notes, do record the session using either audio or video (depending upon your preference, needs, and setup).

3. Troubleshoot Brainstorming Problems

As you get into the brainstorming process, you may run into one or more common challenges. Here’s how to recognize and resolve them:

Problem 1. Drying Up or Becoming Repetitive

At some point, your group will have a hard time coming up with additional ideas. Sometimes that’s because they’ve really expressed all their thoughts. Often, though, they may need a coffee break or a little time to think. If a break doesn’t result in additional creativity, try going back to a few of the ideas that have already been expressed. Does anyone have an idea that relates to or builds on one of these?

Problem 2. Not Enough or Too Much Creativity

Too little creative thinking or too much off-the-charts imagination can be problematic to effective brainstorming. While it’s great to think creatively, ridiculous suggestions intended to get a laugh (Let’s deal with the Martians instead of our clients!) can steer things off topic. By the same token, extremely conservative ideas (Let’s do what we did last time, but give it a red trim instead of a blue trim.) can stifle creative thinking. 

Use your facilitation skills to steer people back on course. Maybe the Martians aren’t an option, but should we be thinking about reaching out to a completely different group of clients?  Maybe trim isn’t the issue, but design may be. How can we expand our graphical approach?

Problem 3. Getting Off Topic or Lost in the Weeds

It’s very easy for discussion to steer itself away from vision and ideation and into practical issues. For example, “It’s great to say you want new sales material, but we’d need more staff to create that material and...” or “We tried that idea five years ago, and it didn’t work because...”  

These discussions will be important as you move from brainstorming into working groups, so let your team know this. Ask them to make notes and volunteer to be part of the working group that addresses practical issues such as staffing, logistics, etc.

Problem 4. Participation Issues

Having one person monopolize the discussion or several people “opting out” of the discussion are both problematic. Every group has its outspoken and shy members, but brainstorming requires universal participation. 

If you anticipate or see a problem with certain people dominating or avoiding involvement, change your approach. Try using a round-robin technique in which each individual is asked to present their ideas, one after the other. To avoid the problem of people spending all their time waiting to speak, call on people in an unpredictable sequence.

Problem 5. Boredom

When people get bored, off-topic chatting, cell phone use, and doodling become more interesting than the brainstorming itself. You have a few options for avoiding boredom. First, of course, keep your brainstorming sessions to a reasonable length. Two days of brainstorming can leave anyone bored to tears. Second, vary your procedures. Rather than simply asking for ideas for several hours straight, try using multiple brainstorming techniques such as brainwriting, starbursting, etc. If you still see restlessness in the ranks, consider the possibility that it’s time for a break.

4. Ranking Ideas

When the brainstorming ends, the planning process gets started. Your next move will be to select the best ideas for action. To do that, you’ll need to facilitate a discussion that includes shifting topics into good/better/best categories. Depending upon the size of the group and your particular needs, you may:

  • Break the group into smaller teams, ask each team to rank ideas, and then ask each team to report.
  • Point to each idea on the board and ask the entire group to vote on which they like best.
  • Take a break during which you personally rank ideas, and then ask the group to comment on your choices.
  • Ask each group member to put a mark next to their top three ideas, and then calculate the results.
  • Put the list of ideas into an accessible location and ask individuals to post their comments about each idea over the course of several days (this can be done with post it notes and poster paper).

Planning Your Next Steps

The whole point of brainstorming is to develop ideas for action. Once the best ideas are selected, you’ll need to develop task force groups to take the ideas to the next level. To do this, most managers:

  1. Set up working groups to think through problems and logistics. Each group should include individuals with solid experience in the area they’re addressing as well as people who will actually be doing the work. Ask group members to refer back to notes they took during brainstorming.
  2. Create a timeline with clear objectives, goals, and milestones.
  3. Plan meeting times and discuss assigned tasks for each meeting.

What should working groups do? Your choice will depend upon the granularity of the ideas, whether the ideas will need funding, whether they will require changes to employee structure or new hires, etc. 

The key to success is not to follow a rigid system, but rather to be sure that each group has clear, actionable objectives and goals, knows what’s expected at each milestone, and is given the authority to make at least preliminary decisions.

Conclusion

You now know how to brainstorm and run a group session. Brainstorming isn’t difficult, but it does require some solid skills—as well as flexibility and openness to new and potentially risky ideas. To be successful, you’ll need to set clear goals, prepare carefully, communicate clearly, troubleshoot as needed, and follow up on your brainstorming success.

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