Tips on how to schedule and run an effective brainstorming session
All of us, officially or unofficially, have participated in a brainstorming session at some point. When you discuss weekend activities with some friends and everybody shares ideas, you are brainstorming to ensure that your weekend is well-planned. Brainstorming is a mechanism that allows everyone to share ideas in a common forum that allows everyone to reach a consensus. As Vincent Van Gogh once mentioned:
Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.
This exemplifies what brainstorming brings to the table. It helps to figure out a new direction or confirms the current direction or pathway that’s already panning out. Whenever you don’t know many aspects of a problem but you need to make a prompt decision, brainstorming can help to make up your mind by collecting and trimming ideas from other people with diverse backgrounds. For, instance, if you plan to implement new mechanisms in your service for better user engagement, you might decide to brainstorm with your colleagues. In this article, I try to bring some guidelines to better organize the brainstorming sessions in your company.
Before planning for any session, think about how the various ways brainstorming can help. Some of the major benefits of brainstorming include:
Boosts group morale: When brainstorming, every individual’s ideas are brought to the table in a setting that makes everyone feel welcome to share. This leads to people in the group feeling that they’re valuable and that their insights are going to be useful.
Creative thinking: Brainstorming inspires and nurtures creative thinking. In a great brainstorming session, you can ask questions and immediately receive random ideas. The momentum and ease at which ideas flow can spark many different perspectives to deal with the topic at hand. It’s important to take note of all the ideas generated in a session.
Lots of diverse ideas: This can sometimes be difficult because what we want to focus on is not just the quality of the idea, but the number of ideas that arise. This could be hard, especially when you or others want to be ‘right’. Brainstorming is not about who is right, it’s not about who has the best or worst ideas, it’s about getting all of the ideas out there. When the brainstorming session is completed, then the team can review the ideas and start harvesting the most suitable proposals to be able to come to a consensus as a group.
Allow people to prepare
People are more creative, and generate better ideas, when they have a head start working on their own. This preparation can be accomplished in a couple of different ways.
- Send out emails with documents to review: Before the session, send out relevant documents to view via email so participants can read them, ahead of time.
- Email the agenda early: You want to make sure people know what to expect from the time that they are dedicating to this process. Therefore, emailing the meeting agenda or giving a breakdown of the meeting goals can be helpful.
These two simple tasks can be good practice whether the grain production is being done in person or virtually.
Set a clear goal
Sometimes, the goals get confusing and people are not sure what they are supposed to achieve at the end of the session. Something like “we need to create the next generation of our current product” is too vague for a brainstorm. People won’t know how to prepare, the discussion will go all over the place, and it is unlikely anything actionable will result. A better approach to a big problem is to start with an organized framework or have a set list of sub-problems to discuss.
Invite the right people
When inviting people to a brainstorming session it’s vital to make sure that they are people who are invested in the success of the session. In other words, don’t invite guests just because they’ve got a big reputation. Invite participants who have a deep interest in the topic or have working experience with matters related to your quest.
Essentially, you want to identify with the people you are inviting and that they are people who can impact the outcome of these individuals can be stakeholders, subject matter experts, engineers, or designers to name a few.
You should also aim to keep spaces limited. The reason for this is because when you get too many voices and opinions involved it can create excessive noise. This can cause the team to lose sight of the goals you are trying to accomplish and be counterproductive.
Choose a reliable facilitator
In a brainstorming session, you will need some form of mediation. This job is usually tasked to a facilitator. The person chosen for this role should have experience in brainstorming, be organized, and most importantly, be unbiased. A good facilitator will ensure that the session runs smoothly, take account of participation and meter the exchanges so that everyone gets a fair chance to shares their ideas.
Before getting into any discussions, you should conduct introductions. It is not only just for courtesy but an important part of any brainstorming session, especially in a virtual environment. Everyone should know who they are talking to. If it’s a new group, you may not know each other at all. Just saying “My name is Steve and I’m a product manager,” is not very meaningful and doesn’t give a clear insight into what someone’s purpose is. Everyone needs to know what is the actual contribution of each person to the topic of the session.
One popular method to get the ball rolling is to have icebreakers. If the group members are meeting for the first time or are unfamiliar with each other, icebreakers are great to allow them to get to know each other better. Brainstorming has a degree of vulnerability attached. You are trying to open yourself up to suggest ideas that may be kind of stupid and that’s fine Silly ideas can sometimes lead to incredible breakthroughs, but you have to be willing to be vulnerable with that group of people.
Think about smaller groups
Divide people into smaller groups when it comes to brainstorming highly technical areas. Or when you have to brainstorm areas where there’s an overload of information that makes it difficult to filter through what you need to achieve. Small groups allow members to take a big or complicated idea and break it down into something more concrete and specific. The key is then to bring those groups back together again later on and review what was learned to fine-tune the findings.
Choose a proper technique
Even after introductions are completed, if people are new to each other, it’s better to start with an open conversation, typically with a time limit. This allows everyone to set the pace for the meat of the discussion and feel each other out. At the end of the conversation, the facilitator might find one of the below approaches (or a combination of some) better than another depending on the group:
Brainwriting: Allow some time to write your ideas on pieces of paper with a time limit (typically 5 mins) to warrant that your opinions are not influenced by others. Facilitators can then collect the pieces of paper.
Starbursting: As an alternative to writing the suggestions, ask questions instead. Why should we charge for this? Why can’t it be free? Is there a better tool? Is there someone else that can help us? The advantage is to evaluate the topic from different aspects. For example, we might ask why we are doing it in this way. The answer might be because it’s always like this for years.
Round robin: Give one idea at a time as a method to collect ideas one by one. This creates a more inclusive and supportive environment where everyone gets a chance to be heard.
There is a wide range of other techniques that might be helpful depending on the subject and the involved people.
Write everything down
Use a whiteboard or digital board to capture and display the ideas that are given. List everything as it comes and proceed to trim down the ideas later. If you don’t have access to a large whiteboard, take a photo, before erasing it to add the new ideas.
Never criticize or purposefully remove any ideas!
Everything should be written down. This method allows the output of the session to consist of the most favored ideas or particular themes that came up and need to be highlighted. Additionally, the output should address any highly creative and innovative ideas that stand out, even if they were not voted on to any great extent.
Wrap up the session
After the meeting is complete, there is still a lot to be done. Brainstorming helps you get ideas, but you are then faced with choosing the best approach as well as implementing the most suitable suggestions. To keep things simple, consider the following:
- Assign tasks appropriately — Does the task require a second opinion or require more data?
- Set due dates for follow-up meetings.
- Assign a point of contact if a person is blocked for gathering data, for instance.
- Send an email about the dates, copies of data, or relevant information that is necessary for moving forward.
Schedule a follow-up conversation (if needed)
Some ideas may take more time to understand or be discussed thoroughly. Therefore, it may be necessary to schedule a follow-up “immediately” to make sure that they are managed. If a solution is not finalized and needs further discussion it is important to get it underway as soon as possible to avoid delays and prevent problems that can affect deadlines or delivery dates.
Email the result
After the session has concluded, send an email containing recognition and acknowledgment of the meeting and the result. Make sure that it gets the visibility of upper management to get their ongoing support. All participants should receive copies of the meeting agenda, minutes or notes, the list of ideas documented, and any requests for follow-up or clarification.
You should also thank your group members for their time, expertise, and contribution to the brainstorming. Showing appreciation leads to building better relationships and networks that can be a great asset for future brainstorming sessions!