The Right Way to Brainstorm

The concept of brainstorming is simple. But that does not stop people doing it the wrong way. Participants might keep quiet, stick too closely to the status quo or put forward ideas that just are not related to the topic. Here, we will look best practices for leading effective brainstorming sessions with your team. 1. Set clear objectives In order for the session to work, you need to first clarify the objectives so that nobody has any doubts on what is being asked. Before the session, conduct some problem analysis of your own and come up with a solid problem statement or SMART goal for your team to work with. Have this in writing for everyone to see. This will help you to set clear boundaries and give you something to refer back to when if the process gets stuck.

For example, when directing the team to come up with new process improvement ideas, rather than simply asking “how can we do this better” you could identify some specific pain points in the current process, summarise the what and why of a needed solution, and then ask for the team to come up with the how. On the other hand, you could take a step back and ask the team to suggest the pain points first. Either way, the team should know the scope of what you are asking for.

2. Allow time to think Participants will need some time to think deeply about the problem and develop their ideas. You may hand out some post-it notes or sheets of paper for people to write suggestions – lots of them – and then decide which ones they are going to put forward. At this stage there should be no talking. The more time each person has to think, uninterrupted, about their suggestions, the more likely you are to get high-quality output when the time comes for sharing.

You may ask participants to think of “ideal perfect world solutions” where time, budget and resources are no object. The point is to generate as many ideas as possible with no restrictions. Later on, you will get to narrowing down and selecting ideas with a decision matrix or other analysis tool, but for now the goal is to get all sorts of new ideas out in the open.

3. Let ideas flow Next, ask everyone to share with the group what they have come up with. Let the ideas flow and record everything without discussion or elaboration. If you have handed out post-it notes, have them come to the front of the room, present their idea and stick it on board. Remember that during a brainstorming session there are no bad ideas. Often, team members will be tempted to comment on or even criticise someone else’s ideas. Criticism of any sort should not be tolerated. It will put a damper on creativity and participation. As a leader of the process you should actively discourage any commentary, especially the negative kind. Keep things moving, adopt a light tone and get everyone to participate in the process.

4. Narrow the options Only after all ideas are on the board and you are satisfied that everyone has had a chance to participate should you then begin to narrow the options. As before, avoid any criticism. Rather than ask about “pros” and “cons” of each idea, focus on the “pros” and get the participants to weigh in on what they like best. You can have a vote to identify the top ten options – but again, the outcome is best if you are elevating what the team likes, rather than eliminating what they don’t like.

Remember that the point of a brainstorming is to be creative and identify possibilities. Don’t expect to leave the session with a fully-baked solution and action plan. You could go into a separate decision-making process in which you weigh priorities and come up with one or two solutions to plan around - but then you will have moved well beyond the brainstorming stage. To get the most of your team, it’s best to put your critical mind aside for a while and just let the creative juices flow!