Get The Most Out Of Your Brainstorming Sessions

Brainstorming often goes one of two ways — either ideas fly around the room in an overwhelming chaos, never to be remembered, or creativity is stifled, leaving only a few unenthusiastic suggestions at the end of the meeting. However, when properly facilitated, brainstorming is one of the most effective ways to generate creative solutions and catapult innovative thinking into action.

Brainstorming can help your team come together and find the best ideas for your business, but how do you get the most out of the creative minds around you to achieve a truly effective brainstorming session? Brainstorming expert and author Scott Berkun shares a few simple tools and collaborative techniques that can augment the brainstorming process.

Find the right facilitator and the right group

When you extend the invite to a brainstorming session, consider the people you want in the room. “One of the big hurdles to an effective brainstorming session is having the right number of people with the right attitude in the room,” Scott says. Once you determine these people, be willing to modify the method of brainstorming, length of meeting, and facilitator to match the people in the session.

A facilitator leads the discussion and keeps everyone on track, so Scott also recommends choosing a facilitator who can make the session both fun and effective. Good facilitators have superb listening skills, sharp group awareness, and a knack for helping people express their ideas. Find a person on your team with these skills and hand them a set of whiteboard markers.

Define a clear purpose and share it

Your brainstorming purpose can be any specific problem or situation you want to produce ideas for, from business strategy, to team communication, to new product features. Share this brainstorming topic with your team a day or two in advance so ideas are flowing by the time the meeting starts. “Then, write your purpose on the whiteboard in big letters,” Scott says. Make your goal clear to your group so they can envision where the project is headed. If they wander too far from the purpose, gently remind your team of the group goal — although, occasionally allowing outrageous ideas will spur further creativity.

Keep a meticulous list

Scott recommends using a whiteboard or flip chart easel to keep a running list. At this stage of creative development, quantity trumps quality. Defer judgment entirely, and don’t be afraid to encourage silly ideas. Write down every idea on the whiteboard so that you can remember your discussions, and your team can see that their ideas are being valued and recorded for future use. Be sure to capture and save the notes from the session before cleaning off the whiteboard. Without a well-recorded list, your brainstorm will never progress to the next stage of creative think — evaluating the ideas and narrowing in on one.

Establish ground rules

As ideas start flowing more freely, brainstorming sessions can be easily derailed. Prevent this by ensuring the most senior people in the room respect and yield to the facilitator. “Clearly defining the rules (and even writing them on the whiteboard) helps too,” Scott says. Is it a free-for-all? Do you want raised hands? Do you allow expansion upon ideas before others offer new ones? Is interrupting okay? Ultimately, brainstorming is about communicating as a team. Specific and clearly-stated rules allow for true team play — which is important for generating the best ideas.

Make sure everyone is heard

There are always a few introverts on a team. Often, they have equally (if not exceptionally) innovative and creative ideas to offer. As a facilitator or team manager, it’s your job to ensure the most introverted of team members feels comfortable offering their ideas. “Consider mixing brainstorming, where people say ideas out loud (which can lead to domination by your loudest people), with a different method that uses different forms of expression,” Scott says.

Specifically, he recommends brain-writing, where people write ideas down on paper silently and pass to the next person every few minutes. In this method, Scott says, “People can think differently and introspectively, while still responding to thoughts and ideas from other people.”

Encourage creativity

Creative problem solving is clearly the most effective way to tackle issues, but creatives are sometimes protective of their ideas. So how do you invite members to share and be open to modification? When you call a brainstorming session, save the evaluation of ideas for another day. Critiques are not a part of true brainstorming, which is simply raw idea generation. Generally, the best model for brainstorming is the “Yes, and…” method, wherein you only accept and build upon other ideas.

“It’s up to the leaders to create a culture where ideas are explored and critiqued in a fair and mature way, building trust even during disagreement about the merits of ideas,” Scott says. Prove that non-obvious and non-traditional ideas are safe by rewarding people who take risks. Ultimately, team members will follow the leader’s example — if you respond to all ideas with an open mind, you’ll create an environment ripe for creative innovation.