When it comes to brainstorming sessions, the more brains you have, the better off you’ll be. But just because you have enough brainpower in the room doesn’t mean the ensuing storm will produce a flood of good ideas. After all, there are good brainstorming sessions and there are bad ones, so what can you do to ensure that your next one is a hit?
Here are five tips for more productive brainstorming sessions.
Prepare for success
Adequate preparation is the first essential ingredient to whipping up a powerful storm of ideas. To start, make sure your brainstorming session has a clearly defined objective. Are you looking for ad campaign slogans? Content marketing ideas? Operations streamlining? Make it clear from the outset what it is you hope to achieve with the meeting, and let your team know – in advance. This gives all participants an opportunity to do their own private brainstorming about the topic at hand. Don’t, however, leave the dirty work for your team. Do your homework and familiarize yourself with relevant news, developments, and trends. For certain projects, it may also be worthwhile to undertake a competitive analysis to see what others in your sector are up to. Doing this kind of prep work will help you lead the conversation and identify unique and exciting ideas.
Defining what the objectives are will also help you figure out who should be in attendance. It might not be beneficial, for example, to invite someone from the graphic design team to a brainstorming session on budgeting. Keep your ultimate goal top of mind and seek out stakeholders with the right experience and expertise.
Consider the setting
Do you need access to the internet? Does your team need to see a PowerPoint presentation you prepared? Book a room in advance that has all the necessary equipment, but don’t forget about the creative aspect too.
“If you’re in a cramped space, such as say your office is a little cubicle, your visual attention can’t spread out. It’s focused in this narrow space. Just as your visual attention is constricted, your conceptual attention becomes narrow and focused, and your thinking is more likely to be analytical,” Neuroscientist John Kounios told the Star. “But if you’re in a large space — a big office, with high ceilings, or outside — your visual attention expands to fill the space, and your conceptual attention expands.”
As we’ve recently written about, colours can also have a major impact in the workplace, so keep that in mind when choosing a room for your brainstorming session.
Challenge your team
To get people’s creative brains chugging along, you need to challenge them. Present a situation and prompt them to come up with novel solutions, and introduce conditions that make the problem more difficult to solve. For example, you could ask them to come up with ways to redesign the company website for under $100.
Another thing you can try is to introduce a roadblock to the problem. You could say the website has to be written in Japanese, or that the product has to be designed for people who are red-green colourblind. Imposing roadblocks and restrictions on the problem will challenge them to think outside the box and come up with novel solutions. You may think this is silly, but as author and O.C. Tanner executive vice president David Sturt has written, we actually need constraints to get creative.
“We need the boundaries to inspire award-winning thinking—thinking that changes possibility,” he said.
Idle bodies beget idle minds. Get your brainstormers up and moving and it should get their blood pumping and stimulate thought. Instead of having everyone sit down the entire time, ask everyone to stand up and get them to think on their feet, so to speak. Or, you can randomly ask everyone to get up and switch seats as though you were playing a round of musical chairs. Sometimes all it takes is a new vantage point to make you see things in a new light and come up with fresh ideas.
As Wray Herbert wrote for the Huffington Post, Steven Spielberg once impulsively did a hand-stand on the roof of his car while parked up on Hollywood Hill, changing his perspective on the cityscape below. The result? He suddenly realized what the aliens’ spacecraft should look like in Close Encounters of the third Kind.
Watch out for groupthink
Groupthink is the brainstorm killer, and it’s a real concern for anyone facilitating a brainstorming session. If you’re not familiar with the term, it was first brought forth by psychologist Irving Janis, and it refers to instances when groups begin to arrive at the same conclusions without much critical thought. Groupthink shuts out external viewpoints and prevents the group from seeing things from different perspectives.
Smash groupthink in its infancy by switching gears entirely and throwing out a question or statement from left field. For example, you could say something like, “I think the Grey Jay was an excellent choice for our national animal. What do you guys think?” Then jump back onto the topic once you’ve seen divergent viewpoints beginning to emerge.
You can also take a step back from the group to challenge decisions when viewpoints start to align too easily. The most famous instance of this approach was adopted by president John F. Kennedy’s administration following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. To make more reasoned, nuanced decisions, he sought out as much information as possible, and he asked Robert Kennedy, then attorney general, to play the role of Devil’s Advocate. Robert vigorously debated and vetted all strategic ideas and decisions, and later wrote, “the fact that we were able to talk, debate, argue, disagree, and then debate some more was essential in choosing our ultimate course.”
Create action items
Sometimes after a brainstorming session, the people involved never hear anything about what became of their ideas and nothing concrete results from the meeting. No one wants their time going to waste, so at the end of the meeting you need to recap everything that the group came up with (you, or someone in the sessions, should be writing everything down throughout the session), and create action items to move forward with.
Assign those action items to appropriate members of the group and check in with them at an agreed upon time. This not only creates a plan of attack, it also provides clear deadlines and timetables, making it easier for your team to prioritize.