When it feels like your team could use an infusion of ideas and some outside-the-box thinking, there’s nothing like a brainstorming meeting to get the get the creative juices flowing.
But not all brainstorming is equally effective. And an aimless brainstorming meeting could just waste time and create confusion.
“I’m a big fan of brainstorming and giving people an outlet to contribute their ideas and get their ideas out,” said Cissy Pau, principal consultant at Clear HR Consulting. “But it has to be facilitated really well, or it’s not that useful.”
Follow these tips to ensure your next roundtable session runs like a dream.
Give them time to prepare
Sometimes, the best ideas are spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment bursts of inspiration that seem to arrive out of nowhere. But those eureka moments aside, most of us do better with a little time for contemplation.
It’s best not only to give your team advanced notice of a brainstorming meeting, but also to explain its topic, purpose, and why you’re seeking new ideas.
“Ideally, you can get people to submit ideas before the meeting,” said Lisa Kay, president and lead consultant at Peak Performance Human Resources Corp.
“This way, you can present those ideas anonymously and just have an agenda of ideas that you’re prepared to talk about when you get in there, rather than asking people to think on the spot.”
Clarify the process
Just because it’s a brainstorming session doesn’t mean you can abandon structure altogether.
“Establishing the ground rules is important,” Pau said. “How will you determine who speaks? Who’s going to write it down? How do you expect people to share ideas?
“All of those things are important to really establish a creative environment.”
In a brainstorming meeting especially – where ideas, hopefully, are flying furiously – a good facilitator is crucial.
Ideally, the meeting will be led by someone who is skilled at both stimulating and focusing discussion – not to mention note-taking.
“The facilitator needs to do a good job encouraging people to talk, rephrasing ideas, figuring out what to write down, asking people who are perhaps quieter to offer their ideas,” Pau said.
Release yourself (and your team) from judgement
It’s important to treat ideas with open-minded consideration rather than instant negativity – including your own.
“One thing I notice all the time is people are so quick to judge ideas,” said Mark Franklin, practice leader at CareerCycles and co-founder of OneLifeTools.
“Sometimes they’ve even judged their own ideas so harshly they don’t even say them. Sometimes I use the metaphor of the angel and the devil, one on either shoulder. The angel says: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if…’ And the devil whacks them over the head and says: ‘Here’s 100 reasons that’s a bad idea.’
“It’s about releasing yourself from judgment, and that’s hard.”
Although premature judgment could threaten to put a limit on your team’s creativity, you also don’t want your team wandering down some tangential rabbit-hole.
Once a train of thought gets off-track, it can be tricky to correct course.
One way to keep a discussion focused, without ruining the open-minded atmosphere you’re trying to create, is to jot down good but unrelated ideas for future consideration.
“If there’s a topic brought up that’s completely irrelevant, the facilitator needs to say: ‘We’re going to put this down as another discussion point so we don’t lose it, but it’s not the topic of conversation right now.’ We’ve heard it called the ‘parking lot,’” Pau said.
It’s also important, however, to make sure that you really do circle back to those ideas at some point, rather than jotting them down simply to save face.
“We were in a meeting once and someone called it the ‘valet lot’ instead of the ‘parking lot,’ because with the valet lot, there’s actually someone responsible for checking on it later,” Pau noted.
A brainstorming session is a terrible thing to waste
Ultimately, it’s not just about generating and jotting down the ideas – it’s about implementing them.
Sometimes, the sheer number of ideas and initiatives brought up in a brainstorming meeting can feel overwhelming.
Plan in advance how the ideas will be further evaluated or implemented and stick to it – otherwise you’ll undermine any idea sessions you hold in the future.
“You can’t just have the brainstorm session and you never hear about it again,” Kay said.
“What’s going on beyond the brainstorming? That’s an important piece to get the buy-in from your staff.”
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