Just mention that your next meeting is a brainstorming session and you can feel the eye rolls and groans. Myriad studies seem to backup this feeling, for example the 2003 University of Berkeley study finding that, “individuals produce more and better ideas alone rather than in a group.” Brainstorming sessions have become synonymous with outdated, idea-killing, wastes of time that don’t result in any action.

All of this can be true, if you don’t take a few key steps. Empowering a facilitator, planning and communicating before the session, setting the parameters, and follow-up. A couple simple changes to your brainstorming approach, can create an effective session that generates SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely) solutions.

An Empowered Facilitator

The most effective brainstorming sessions are a balance of ‘free-flowing ideas’ and guidance by an empowered facilitator. A facilitator acts as a short-term project manager; communicating early and often, setting and helping to keep the agenda, and taking notes and managing dialogue. But it is important that the facilitator is not a stakeholder and is empowered to lead the session.

Work Ahead

The work of a brainstorming session should not be limited to the group meeting. There are pre- and post-meeting efforts that should be taken on to promote the best group meeting environment.

"I’m on the list"

When considering who to invite to a brainstorming session, consider stakeholders AND non-stakeholders. A group with mixed levels of investment will create an environment ripe to develop a diverse set of ideas and solutions. Non-stakeholders are more likely to offer unconventional ideas, stretching the group’s thinking even if they aren’t put in to play. Additionally, today’s problems are complicated and need ideas sourced from people with a variety of skillsets/expertise, in order to address all facets of the problem.

It is important that the invitees be diverse only in skillset and investment, not at the org chart level. Mixing leadership and frontline team members puts undue pressure on all invitees – frontline team members may feel pressure to agree with the ideas of leadership or to keep their mouth shut so they don’t accidentally stick their foot in there. Leaders may unconsciously fall in to their standard role of leading the meeting, when they are a participant.

Set the mood

After you have your list of invitees, send them an email explaining the purpose of the meeting; set expectations, agenda, and goals; explain the problem that needs to be solved and ask each team member to develop a few ideas to bring to the meeting; and explain the process that will be employed in the meeting. Being forthright early on sets the stage for the invitees, gives the facilitator a roadmap and keeps everyone accountable. And asking invitees to bring ideas to the session gives people time to come up with ideas, let’s even the most introverted participate and helps to eliminate the dreaded dead air moments (when just about any idea sounds like a great idea)

Agendas Aren’t Sexy,
But They Work

No, agendas are not sexy, they aren’t exciting, and they may even feel stifling. Really, though, the opposite is true. A clearly outlined agenda gives space for participation while removing the specter of those unending monologues or worse conversational voids. Also, let’s be honest here, attending a meeting with a clear agenda is better than attending an up-in-the-air, not-sure-why-I’m-here session. Invitees know what is expected of them, they know what to expect of everyone else and there is a bit of shared control.

The idea tornado

Much like those old school game show money tornado booths, the ideas in a brainstorming session should be fast and furious; within a timeframe. The facilitator should set a timeframe for the idea tornado and just take notes – for example, let the group have 15 minutes to share their ideas including those developed before the session. The ideas should be shared stand-alone; without evaluation, justification or explanation. Write down EVERYTHING (ideally in a prominently displayed place, like a whiteboard).

Get big & consolidated

Now that the tornado has passed, go back to each idea, talk through and allow elaboration on each. Simultaneously, ask the group, ‘are any of the ideas similar, can we consolidate any of the ideas.’ Consolidate ideas as makes sense. Additionally, move unrelated ideas to a parking lot, this simple act will refocus the group energy on the task at hand, while also ensuring you don’t lose valuable eureka moments.

Evaluation, not judgement

The overall goal of any brainstorming session should be to leave with at least a few actionable ideas, which means the list of consolidated ideas needs to be evaluated. Believe or not, this can be done, civilly. The facilitator should outline the set of evaluation questions before any ideas are reviewed. For example, what would be involved to implement this (tools, team members, timeframe, etc.), what is the cost, what existing processes would be impacted, and etc. Using these set evaluation parameters, review each idea, one at a time, not in comparison to any of the other ideas.

After each idea has been evaluated, choose the top two or three for further research and development.

Don’t Leave Them Hanging

One of the worst feelings is to leave an energetic meeting with no consensus of what happened and no marching orders. To actually reach the effectiveness goal of a brainstorming session, the last items on the agenda should be a summary and assignments. The last 10 minutes of the session should be spent summarizing the work of the session; the initial problem / goal of the session, the ideas presented, the evaluation of those ideas and any parking lot items generated. Based on the group-determined top two to three ideas, tasks should be assigned for further research and development of these ideas. And finally, a follow-up meeting (and inherent timeframe for those assignments) should be scheduled.

Brainstorming Can Work

Though brainstorming was developed over 70 years ago (by Alex Osborne), it can still be valuable if the groundwork is laid at the start.

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