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Brainstorming - what's the big idea?

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What’s the big idea?

Richard Beaumont explains how effective brainstorming can generate the best ideas from your team.

How to hold an effective brainstorming session 

A good idea can come from anyone, at any time, in any situation. 

So, it’s always worthwhile looking at a problem from more than one perspective. And, if you're anything like us, you’ll be constantly looking at various ways to solve a particular problem that’s bothering you.

On top of that, you might find that you get better results if five people work on a problem for one day, than just one person for five days.

Employ some structure to help frame your thinking

In order to get the best out of a team, it’s a good idea to structure your brainstorming session, making sure you cover these basic principles (borrowed from the folks over at Ideo):

  • Defer judgement
  • Encourage wild ideas
  • Build on the ideas of others
  • Have one conversation at a time
  • Be visual 
  • Go for quantity – the more ideas the better

If you manage to hit all of the above, you should have a pretty decent stack of ideas at the end. But if you want to dive a little deeper and give yourself a better chance of succeeding, consider these points.

1. Location

Find a quiet and comfortable space. Ideally this will be somewhere that isn’t regularly used by your team. Gathering people in the same room they sit in every day for meetings is unlikely to stimulate them and so it can stifle new ideas. 

Do whatever you can to make people feel energised, at ease and in the mood to be creative and open.

Make sure you book the space for a decent chunk of time (an hour at the very least), and enure there’s plenty of stuff for writing and doodling on (notepads, post-its, whiteboards, etc.)

Supply food and drink: coffee, tea, water and snacks will go a long way (try to avoid stodgy, sugary stuff). 

2. Purpose

Whoever is running the session should have a clear idea of what they want to achieve. 

Start with a problem statement (a concise summary of the issue you want to tackle) and make it absolutely clear to the group what the goal is. Make sure you provide as much supporting information and if the subject is complex, think about giving the group some homework beforehand so they can think and prepare. 

If half your session is spent giving background information, you’re wasting valuable collaboration time.

3. Facilitation

Someone has to run the meeting in order to strike a balance between keeping the conversation on track while allowing for creative detours.

Don’t just assume that the facilitator should be the most senior person in the room. Some managers don’t have the right personality for it. Good facilitators need listening skills, razor-sharp group awareness, and be able to help people get their ideas across. 

The facilitator should look after the whiteboard, and write down ideas as they bubble up. They need to keep control of vocal members and give slightly more reserved people the opportunity to contribute, too.

Facilitators generally keep their own thoughts to a minimum and focus on helping the group – in fact the best facilitators are often the ones who are invisible. 

Figure out who your best facilitator is and bring them in to help make the most of your group sessions. Think about teaming up a facilitator with a scribe who can capture ideas as they happen. 

4. Focus

Make the whiteboard the focal point of the meeting. Everyone should be aware that your goal is to get as many ideas as possible onto the whiteboard.

At this point, don’t edit - keep everything. More is more. You can filter out the useful stuff later.

5. Comfort and trust

I'm talking about mental rather than physical comfort here. 

Unexpectedly great insights can crop up among silly or outrageous suggestions

People should feel happy to throw around any ideas at all. Unexpectedly great insights can crop up among silly or outrageous suggestions, but if people don’t feel free to offer up their ideas because they’re worried about criticism or ridicule, those good ideas will remain hidden.

Trust in the forum, and in the people in the room, is essential. Most of that trust will come from the leaders and facilitators themselves, but if group members are still finding it difficult, try breaking up into smaller teams.

6. Criticism 

I’ve covered this off under ‘defer judgement’ in the rules at the top, but it’s important enough to warrant its own section. 

Early or intense criticism will immediately kill creativity.  And bear in mind that focusing on new concepts straight away can destroy an idea before it has the chance to gestate. If something with potential comes up, note it down and move on. Keep things moving until you sit down later to evaluate everything together.

The one exception is asking questions to help people understand and improve on an initial idea, or to take it in a different direction. It’s the facilitator’s job to make sure that happens

7. Outcomes

If your session is successful, you’ll have lots to read and think about afterwards.

It’s no good sat in a drawer, so plan how and when you’re going to review it. I’ve found that it’s helpful to take an hour out afterwards and sit with a cup of tea while pulling out the most interesting ideas. 

Once you’ve got those ideas, figure out what you’re going to do with them. 

Consider sending them to the people who attended the session, or create actions based on them. Whatever you do, make it clear what you’re going to do next and what you want in return (if anything). 

Be aware that taking up a couple of hours of people’s time and creativity, only to then go quiet, isn’t the best way to create momentum and motivation. If the team can see that their thoughts are being acted on, you’ll get more creative ideas and more energy in the future.

After the storm: refine your ideas

Where brainstorming was all about quantity, refining is about quality. Your challenge is to whittle down the (hopefully) mountain of ideas to a select few that have the most potential. 

It might seem obvious which ideas are best, but it’s worth considering the pros and cons of each before throwing it on the scrap heap.

Decide as a group or vote individually to pick which ideas to take to the next stage - just give everyone some post-its or stickers to stick on their favourite ideas.

This isn't a complete guide, but this framework has worked for us. Have a go when you're planning your next brainstorming session, and see what works for you. Afterwards, keep the bits that make sense to your job and throw away the bits that don't.

Like anything digital, it's all about iteration.

Note: Richard really doesn’t like the word brainstorm but struggled to find an alternative that didn’t sound too pretentious.

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