How many times have you come out of a brainstorming session feeling unsatisfied with the results? The team never felt like it got into a rhythm. The idea flow felt like a drizzle versus a storm. None of the ideas that the team spent much time on seemed especially good (BTW, you should never spend a lot of time on any one idea in a brainstorming session). There was one or two people that insisted on dominating the conversation and ended up speaking way too much. This to the frustration of the rest of the group. The good news is that there are just a handful of things you need to do to run a productive and fun brainstorming session.
The overall goal of any brainstorming is to generate a high quantity of ideas. This is really important … it’s all about quantity, NOT quality. You will have plenty of opportunity after brainstorming to evaluate the quality of the ideas generated and select a winner.
So if our goal is quantity, what strategies can we employ to accomplish this? Well, we want to eliminate as many barriers to idea flow as we can. The two main barriers to idea flow are stress/tension and the left-brain’s need to constantly evaluate things. Like I mentioned in my Mind Mapping post … when you are stressed, it is very difficult to think about anything else other than that feeling of stress and maybe what is causing it. Therefore, our strategy is to be relaxed and to conduct the brainstorming at such a fast pace, that the left-brain doesn’t have time to interrupt our flow.
When brainstorming, the process is broken up into three parts:
- Setting the Stage
- Idea Generation
- Evaluating the Ideas (only if there is time)
SETTING THE STAGE
This is when you communicate the objectives, set the tone for the brainstorming, and instruct everyone on how it will be run.
Make the objective Clear
Ensure that everyone in the room clearly understands what the purpose of the brainstorming is. What is the issue that you are all generating ideas for? Write it down as a title at the top of the whiteboard or computer screen.
Setting the Tone
Like I mentioned before, you want the meeting to be relaxed and light-hearted, but at the same time its purpose should be very clear.
It’s your facial expressions, body language, and tone that will have the biggest effect over how relaxed the team will be going into the brainstorming session.
Prior to the meeting, do those things that relax you and put you into a great mood. It could be avoiding that extra cup of coffee, waiting until later to read that upset email from a customer, or reading Dilbert. Figure out what works for you and do it. You should also anticipate that the session will be fun and productive. This”positive visualization” technique used by athletes is very applicable here.
Smile. If you are already relaxed this won’t be hard, and you certainly don’t want to force one. If you smile when explaining how this session will be run, everyone will be more relaxed about it.
This may or may not work for you, but I used to keep a box of toys which I would bring with me to every brainstorming session. It would contain colorful and simple physical puzzles. The idea was that toys automatically set a more light-hearted tone in the room. They also gave people something to fiddle with and didn’t require any of their real mental capacity, which I wanted them to save for idea generation.
No matter if this is the first, second, tenth, or hundredth session you have had with this group, always start by reviewing the ground rules for the session. It helps to establish the pace you are after, and it minimizes the chances of anyone being offended by any actions during the session.
These are the instructions you should provide the team before brainstorming begins.
- Our goal is to fill this [screen | whiteboard | paper] with as many ideas as possible.
- The faster we can generate ideas, the better. Let them flow!
- Any and every idea is welcome, including the crazy ones
- Don’t provide any negative or positive critique of any idea.
- Mis-spelled words are ok. Don’t break our rhythm to provide spelling corrections.
- The wrong organization of ideas is ok. When the ideas are captured in an outline or mind map, it is ok if ideas go in the wrong place. That can be fixed later.
- No one idea will be discussed longer than 10 seconds. Anything that requires more will be listed on the “Discussion List”. The team will return to items on this list when idea generation is done. We do this because we want to maintain momentum.
- Interruptions are ok, and even encouraged, so speak up.
- And HAVE FUN!
RUNNING THE ACTUAL BRAINSTORMING SESSION
Plan to capture the ideas in a way that is comfortable and fast for you, and visible to the entire team. You could use the whiteboard, a large pad of paper on an easel, in Word or Excel (Pages or Numbers for us Mac folks), or my favorite … mind maps. Whichever you use is fine, just make sure you are totally fast and comfortable. The last thing you want to do is slow down the team because you are struggling with the tool.
As facilitator, you can start by expressing the first few ideas. Say them and capture them quickly. Prior to the meeting, try to have some ideas in your hip pocket. You will use them to prime the pump.
If no one else offers up any ideas right away, turn to the team with the best look of anticipation you can muster. If still nothing, quickly adding some additional ideas of your own. Do this a couple of times and the ideas should start coming.
You should be quickly writing or typing the ideas. This will convey the fast pace you wish to achieve in the brainstorming.
If anyone breaks a rule such as criticizing ideas or correcting spelling, just provide a quick and gentle reminder that it isn’t necessary and move on.
If anyone begins to settle into a long description of an idea, just say “that’s good stuff, but we need to keep our momentum going. Let’s come back to that“. Then make note of it on the “Discussion List”, and then encourage the team to start generating ideas again.
As the momentum of the brainstorming begins to slow just a little bit (don’t wait for the momentum to stop completely), add a mind map branch for “absurd“, “crazy“, or “magic wand“. You are inviting the team to explore broader possibilities, beyond those that are practical or realistic. This is a great tool that must be included in every brainstorming session.
If you find yourself struggling to capture all the ideas because they are coming so fast … Congratulations, you are running a fantastic brainstorming session! Let yourself smile in a big way and let the team see that. It’s great positive reinforcement for everyone in the room.
WRAPPING UP THE SESSION
A really productive brainstorming session usually runs no more than 30 minutes. I wouldn’t put a time constraint on it though. Just let it run out on its own. Once the team has decided that idea generation is done, return to those items that were put on the Discussion List. Let people finish expressing the thoughts that they had earlier. This could lead to a few more ideas being captured. Depending on the amount of time remaining, the team may want to identify which of the ideas are the best. You can do it together as a group or individually after the meeting is done.
But remember, that long list of ideas was the deliverable you were going after. Having it means that your brainstorming session was a success.
The best way to run a productive brainstorming session is to make it fast and fun. You make it fun by getting yourself and the team into a relaxed state. And you make it fast so that your left-brain doesn’t have time to stifle your right-brain’s creativity.
And remember, to come up with a few high-quality ideas, you must first produce a high-quantity of ideas. So play the numbers game and generate lots of ideas during your brainstorming sessions.
Good luck, and have fun.
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN
- Do you agree that brainstorming is all about quantity vs. quality?
- Do you have your own tools for running a productive brainstorming session?
- Can you recall a great brainstorming session that you participated in, and what made it so great?
- Conversely, do you remember a bad brainstorming session that you participated in, and what made it so bad?
- I’m looking forward to hearing your feedback.
Rick Chin is the Director of Product Innovation at SolidWorks and a veteran in the high-tech software industry. As a software engineer, product manager, application engineer, inventor, and company founder, his accomplishments include: founding Xpress3D and the patented technologies: eDrawings, FeatureXpert, and Model Management Technology.