How to run a brainstorming session

That actually produces good ideas

Some of the world’s most revolutionary ideas have come to life during the course of a brainstorming session. The concept for NASA’S Earth Observatory was hatched in the back of a cab stuck in traffic. Over the course of a single lunch, the plots for Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life,” “Monsters, Inc.”, “Finding Nemo”, and “Wall-E” were dreamed up on the back of napkins. Even America’s Declaration of Independence was drafted over the course of a multi-day meeting of the Continental Congress.  

Whether they’re scheduled or spur of the moment, there’s gold that can be mined from any brainstorm -- when they’re run effectively. Here’s how to strike it rich every time.  

1. Identify your goal

While brainstorming is exciting in the moment, it’s best to stay within the boundaries of your business goals. You should only call a brainstorming session if there’s a.) something specific you’re trying to achieve and b.) you’re prepared to take action on the ideas presented. Summarize your goal in a sentence or two, like “determine ways that we can reduce our response time to customer tickets” or “plan three key marketing campaigns for next quarter.”

Share your goal with anyone who will be participating in the meeting. Create an agenda for the brainstorming session that includes the summary and a loose schedule for the conversation. Let everyone know ahead of time (not that morning) what the meeting is about, so they have a chance to be prepared.

2. Gather the right team

Jersey

Save your colleagues’ creativity for the brainstorm itself, not on wondering why they are sitting in your meeting. In a survey of more than 800 teams, it was found that too many minds in one room can lead to ‘social loafing’, or letting a few star players do all the work and little to no contributions from everyone else. The more people in your meeting that don’t know why they are there, the poorer quality brainstorm you’re going to get.

Unless you can point to something specific you’re hoping they’ll bring to the table, let your colleagues keep their free time. This is especially important if they’re not going to be responsible for owning a piece of the outcome.

In addition to listing the goal of the meeting, make sure everybody invited is crystal clear on why you want them there.

3. Set the stage

It’s easy to auto-default to the same old conference room every time you need to call a meeting. But our brains love novelty, and being in a new location can also exercise our brain’s neuroplasticity, or our ability to think about things in a new way. By switching up locations, you can improve the quality of ideas that come out of that brainstorm. Try heading out to that picnic table behind the office, the cafe around the corner, or even a different room in your workspace.

If you can’t access an alternative meeting space, bring a new element to the old routine. Switch up those unspoken claims on whose chair is whose or become the office MVP with a surprise treat.

Opinions vary on the best runtime of a brainstorming session and depend on the individual team(s). Would 30 minutes work best for a deadline-driven team, or would they prefer closer to an hour to let the ideas free flow? Are they fresher in the morning or with some post-lunch fuel in the tank? Try a few variations to find what works best for your group.

4. Pick a qualified facilitator

Pad with pencil

If a team meets for a brainstorm and no one leads it, did it even happen? Brainstorming sessions are collaborative conversations, but you still need somebody in charge.  

A brainstorming facilitator should have:

  • Great listening skills to fully absorb ideas
  • Time management skills to keep the meeting on track
  • Organizational skills to create an agenda and record ideas
  • Leadership skills to encourage all members to participate

Decide before the meeting starts if you should lead or if someone else is better up to the task. Bear in mind that the facilitator’s role is to be a neutral party that keeps the session moving forward and the participants focused.

5. Find the right tools

You have your agenda, you have your facilitator, you have your goal. But once you’re in the meeting room, how are you going to ignite those sparks of genius?

Spend some time pre-meeting to decide what brainstorming technique will best suit your team’s style and think through all of the equipment you’ll need. If you’re in-person, you might need a whiteboard, sticky notes, and markers to write out ideas and a timer.

Working with a remote team will require a little extra thinking. To make sure everyone has a chance to contribute, use a tool like Trello as an online whiteboard. Record ideas digitally to avoid losing them in a sea of voices both in-person and online. 

Once all of the suggestions have been written out and organized, document all of the new ideas in a shared space like Confluence so your team and key stakeholders can have access to one centralized source of truth. This is also helpful if inspiration strikes on a coffee run or on your commute home, you can hop back in.

6. Make sure everyone participates

Collaborative illustration

You called everyone into the meeting for a reason, and your goal is to hear from all of them. However, some people are naturally more reserved or introverted.

To ensure no one feels bowled over, establish the ground rules for the meeting at the start. For instance, outlaw criticism of other peoples’ ideas. Team members who feel a sense of psychological safety will be more likely to suggest innovative ideas. Ask participants to build on ideas that were just suggested; research proves it increases team cohesiveness.

To make sure it’s not all work and no play, loosen up creative flow with a lighthearted icebreaker to get your attendees into the right frame of mind.

7. Don’t stop when the meeting ends

A brainstorm only works if you actually do something with what you’ve created. Maintain that momentum by committing to a few follow up actions as a team. Assign owners to these action items in Confluence and attach due dates to move work forward.

To really go the extra mile, send a survey or ask for feedback about the brainstorming session itself to improve future conversations.

The sky's the limit

With thorough preparation and effective execution, your teams can produce incredible ideas. Practice makes perfect, so keep those brainstorms regular and constantly evolving. Every session is a learning experience. And you never know when the next great idea will appear.

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Brainstorming Template

Plan, run, and document a remote brainstorming session for your next great idea.

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