Brainstorming is an old collaboration method – originating as early as the year 1939. Despite its age people still apply it all across the globe. It almost has become a synonym for creative collaboration. The problem: it is usually done wrong. In this post you will learn how to facilitate a successful brainstorming session.
Often, when someone proposes to have a collaborative, creative session someone else in the team would directly respond: “Oh…! Brainstorming.” The face expression to this statement would be either bored or sometimes even annoyed. Too many meetings have been called brainstorming and then faded into endless discussions or just ended with clueless shrugs.
What many people call a brainstorm could rather be titled as a brainbreeze: you sit (!) in a room around a huge meeting desk, everyone just randomly utters their ideas and after five minutes you are deep into a discussion about why idea number 5 does not work. This is not what brainstorming is all about. As the name suggests the energy level in the room for a successful brainstorming session should be very different from all the regular meetings you are having all day long. If done right, brainstorming can be the break in your daily routine that helps you to get away from your desk and play a team sport, while creating meaningful outcomes.
So what do we need in order to make this traditional method more successful?
Many of the so called brainstorming sessions lack a facilitator who is in charge of moderating the ideation effort of his or her colleagues. Especially for teams that are not used to creative collaboration or who are spoiled with years of boring brainstorming experiences, a facilitator is really helpful. The facilitator is in charge of organizing everything (eg. the space, the needed material, the agenda etc.). Being a facilitator is a little bit like being a host: the participants are your guests and you are in charge of making them feel welcome and inspired. The facilitator should keep the focus of the group on the topic. If the group doesn’t come up with ideas, the facilitator should reframe the question or use inspirational material in order to help them.
Instead of doing your brainstorming session in the same old meeting room you just sat in for a three hour IT presentation, find a more inspiring corner of your office or rearrange the room in a way that it allows communication between the participants. The furniture (eg. the massive wooden table in the middle and these heavy, leather office chairs) shouldn’t hinder you from talking to each other.
Before even going into a brainstorming session you should think about all the things you could possibly need during the session. Sticky notes and markers are the basic equipment. Whiteboards or at least brown paper on the walls should be provided. Additionally you also might want some inspirational material: We often work with mood boards that show pictures, texts and other inspirational things that is somehow (even loosely) connected to the challenge we are going to solve.
In order to be able to create answers, you will need a good question or – even better – a good set of questions. What goal are you trying to achieve with your brainstorming session? What question(s) do need an answer? Good questions should inspire the participants and enable them to easily find simple answers. The ideas should be formulated as crisp as possible.
Two special characteristics of a storm are that it is very energetic and very powerful. This is the reason why it shouldn’t go on for ages or it will destroy everything. Instead of planning a five hour brainstorming session, think about shorter sessions and plan in breaks. Brainstorming is just one method, but in such an ideation session you can also use others. Some research shows that classical brainstorming when used alone does not work so well. It is better to enable every participant to write down their ideas first (brainwriting) and then start into a brainstorm. If you have really crazy participants you can even try out a brainstomp – dancing to music shooting out ideas on the way. I have seen this work very well with a group of 50 rather older engineers from a big German car maker and an Austrian steel company… but of course it needs some preparational work before you can expect your participants to dance along with that.
When you start into a brainstorming session it helps a lot to loosen up your participants. In the projects I do, I often use warm-ups from different sources: improv theatre, street games or even childrens games. It really brings the participants away from their daily routines and it sets the right energy. One of my favourites for brainstorming is “Rock, Paper, Scissors – Tournament”. It creates an energetic atmosphere and really makes a cut to all things that happended previous to the meeting.
As the cartoon character Lucky Luke – hero of my childhood – would say: “It’s all about legwork!”. In the cartoon image you would see his legs blur in rapid movement while boxing against an opponent. The same is true for brainstorming. Instead of sitting you should be standing! Make sure that everyone has access to the whiteboard or brown paper on the wall where you collect the ideas. Brainstorming is a physical activity and just like a boxer each participant should have the goal to follow an idea punch with a backlash of his or her own. The attention of every participant should be focussed on hitting the target question as often as possible.
One big problem of so-called brainstorming sessions is that ideas are only uttered and not written down or even visualized. If you want to make your session a success, make sure that every (!) participant has the tools to sketch down and post their ideas so that everyone else can see them and react. If you think about a color code to track your ideas (eg. for each participant one color of sticky notes or one color per question) you will find it easier to work with the ideas later on.
In this stage of the process it is all about creating as many ideas as possible. That is the whole point behind brainstorming. Once you have created a good amount of ideas it is time to select them and discuss them. The selection process should be designed just as carefully as the ideation process itself. Clustering and other methods can help you to restructure the clutter of ideas on the wall. Voting can be one method to choose ideas, but never just ask your participants to vote for their favourite idea. Apply a structured voting process in order to learn more about your ideas. In my projects I often use the categories “radical, relevant and resonant”. I ask the participants to put a red sticky dot on the idea they see as the most radical, a green one on the idea that seems to be most relevant for their target user and a yellow one on the idea that might have the biggest market potential and would resonate with the most people.
Encouraging wild ideas is a common place when discussing about brainstorming, but it is worthwhile to mention it again. Every idea counts, therefore no idea can be dismissed early on. Even the ‘crazy ideas’ can help the participants to find the one idea that will actually solve their problem. If your team gets stuck there are methods that can help you to break them loose. Sometimes the simple question: “How would superman solve this issue?” can create wonders.
I have seen a bunch of very zynical software engineers struggle with their challenge. When I introduced the perspective of superman they thought I went nuts and stopped taking the project seriously. This was the moment they finally stopped discussing their negative views on why each single idea cannot work. They started trumping themselves in finding more hillarious ones. The final outcome of the session was amazing, because they managed to bring these crazy ideas back to reality in the selection process.
Let me know, if these tips helped you and share some stories about your own experiences with brainstorming.