When you come across a challenge that requires alternative points of view, you may decide to run a brainstorming session. They often involve a group of people, and group meetings are expensive.
Think of the last one you attended and count how many people were involved in it. Now assess what their hourly rates are. How much did your company just spend on a session? The answer probably is “a lot.”
Nowadays such sessions are undoubtedly necessary, as many companies have to rethink their strategies.
Brainstorming sessions can help you come up with amazing ideas by tapping into the power of collective intelligence. However, you will only benefit from the session if you make sure it’s well-thought-out beforehand.
In this article, you'll find out what mistakes you're probably making during brainstorming and how to hold a fruitful session, step by step. We’re also including a sample agenda you can use in your next meeting.
Without further ado, let’s demystify the myth of brainstorming.
Table of contents
Let’s get something out of the way first. Some brainstorming sessions are destined to fail before they even start.
- If you invite people to a session but they don’t even know why they are supposed to attend, that’s a problem. It means the goal wasn’t defined correctly.
- If the participants get lost in a discussion and start arguing in a way that isn’t constructive, you can lose hope that discussion will get anywhere.
- If the meeting ends abruptly with a vague “”we’ll follow up on this later”, the participants get stuck in limbo, and they will feel their time was wasted.
Avoid these situations at all costs.
Before we get to all the tips in greater detail, here is the bare minimum you should prepare for the session to even make sense.
- The goal of your session (not necessarily a super specific one),
- The facilitator, who will moderate the meeting,
- Separate phases for: 1) ideation, 2) group discussion, 3) evaluating ideas, 4) prioritization.
If your process lacks in some of the areas we’ll discuss below but you remembered about these three elements, you already are in good shape.
For most of the tips we’re sharing, it doesn’t matter whether you are conducting a brainstorming session online or in the office. These are best practices that need to be kept in mind whenever you decide to do a session.
However, doing it remotely adds an additional layer of difficulty. It’s like playing a game on expert instead of intermediate. You have to be extra careful, and you can’t forget about any of the best practices. Of course, we’ll also throw in some remote-specific tips as we go along.
Now, here are the tips for a successful brainstorming session:
1. Set a goal
Why have you decided to run the brainstorming session? You have to figure this out before you start sending out the invites to people’s calendars. The goal will impact whether you need a brainstorming session or maybe an entirely different meeting, who to invite, who could be the session’s leader, etc. All of these will be impossible to plan before setting a goal.
If you need help, you should consult someone before you plan the session. The bottom line is, you can’t hope to figure this out during the session itself.
Your goal should be defined on a high level but also on a low level. For instance, “decide what my company should do during the pandemic'' is a general goal of a brainstorming session. However, “decide how to change the communication in relation to the company strategy” is more specific.
If you’re unable to define the goal on your own, that’s fine. It’s simply a signal that you should discuss it with someone else—a senior teammate that will steer you in the right direction. Sometimes it’s not even their ideas that will help. You talking about your ideas out loud can provide more clarity.
After such a conversation it’ll be easier to decide your specific needs. To continue the example from before, the conversation will help you establish what industries you’re addressing with your communication and what kind of a person is on the receiving end of your messages.
You will also get to decide what is your tone of voice, whether you should focus on positive or negative communication, and finally, what exactly you should say. These are no longer general goals: they are very specific. You went from “what should we do as a company” to “what should we do in terms of company communication.” Now you can decide whether tackling this challenge requires a brainstorming session or not.
2. Choose the participants wisely
Who should attend a brainstorming session for it to be a success? It may turn out that you need people from across the company, who have competences that are very different from yours. That’s where those different points of view would come from.
That being said, you should be selective when choosing the invitees. Think of it this way: you established the low level goal of the session. Who do you need to make sure you come up with enough ideas?
An effective brainstorming session should be attended by 4-6 people. Any more than that, and it will be difficult to make sure everybody’s engaged. Such discussion would also be tricky to moderate. If you think you need more people, you should consider why that is. Do you actually need their active participation? Or do they just need to be informed of the results? Are you only including them because you think you have to?
If you decide that you really need more than 6 people, consider dividing the brainstorm into several sessions. The part with more participants should be limited to ideation—listing as many ideas as possible. After you have all the input, carry on with evaluating the ideas in a smaller group.
Also, always keep in mind what exactly you want to achieve. If you want to get as far as an action plan you can implement, you may need more sessions, or more sessions with fewer people. At the end of the day, it’s your brainstorming. Be selective.
3. Tell everyone what you need beforehand (ask them to do research, but don’t assign homework)
Preparing participants for what you need from them has its good and bad sides. Sure, they may come to the session with ideas up their sleeves, and that’s great.
But they may also limit their creativity during the session itself. They may feel that they have already done what was asked of them, and the ideas they thought of before are enough. This would deem the entire brainstorming session unnecessary—they could just send those ideas by email and be done with it.
That’s not what we want. The goal of the brainstorming is to benefit from the collaboration with other people invited to the event. That’s why your invitation should stress that everyone should just do some research beforehand, to find inspiration.
4. Appoint a facilitator
A facilitator is the guardian of the brainstorming process. That’s the person who will support the culture of creative thinking.
Here are some tips for the facilitator how to lead a brainstorming session (be it you or someone else you appoint):
- Use vocabulary that supports creative thinking. This is the difference between “we have to fix this problem” and “let’s come up with a solution”.
- Take control over how much time is spent on what. The session should be divided into reasonable sections that allow everyone to come up with ideas as well as discuss them. Having a clear, established time box helps participants be efficient. You should divide the session into stages: for instance, plan 10 minutes for silent idea generation, 10 minutes for a discussion and so on. Click here to skip ahead to our brainstorming agenda example.
- Manage the structure of the meeting. As the facilitator you are the compass of the group. You have to establish the structure of the meeting and make sure other participants are not getting sidetracked. That’s why the discussion has to be moderated: so that everyone sticks to the topic.
- If the brainstorm is happening remotely, tell the participants to turn off notifications and close unnecessary apps so they can focus on the task at hand.
5. Separate ideation from prioritization and group discussion
Our brains can’t do two things at once. They can either focus on coming up with ideas or on evaluating them.
That’s why during a brainstorming session you have to separate ideation from judging the ideas. What works is setting clear time intervals for all of these:
- First, you ask the participants to come up with as many ideas as they can on their own, during a silent idea generation portion of the session.
- Then, they should present their ideas.
- Finally, it’s time for a moderated group discussion.
This helps to balance the dynamic between the quieter and louder participants—they all have to write their ideas down first. This ensures they will all have a chance to speak up and be heard.
During a remote session, an essential tool here is of course your laptop and its camera. Remember that everyone’s cameras should be on. Brainstorming with cameras off simply won’t work. It’s a way to show respect and to show that your energy is focused on the task at hand, not on a million other things.
6. Be visual
Draw it. If you’re moderating the group discussion part of the session, write down the main motives on a vision board. This way you’ll be able to say “these are our main points.”
This frees up some mental capabilities of the group, as they no longer have to remember it—they see it in front of them. Now they can focus on assessing how the group’s ideas impact the main points.
In a remote context, you will have to use a tool that allows everybody to create notes together, or that lets you share a whiteboard. Miro and Mural are two examples of such tools that work great. You can also share your screen when you want to bring everyone’s attention to whatever you’re saying, just don’t share it all the time. For instance, the participants don’t need to look at what you’re doing during silent idea generation.
7. Don’t forget about the wrap up
The wrap up doesn’t have to be anything spectacular, but you absolutely have to take a few minutes to conduct it. It will keep the spirits high and let you keep the momentum. Simply saying “this is where we’ve been at the beginning of the session, this was the goal, and now we’re here” could be enough to ensure everyone is aware of the progress made.
The participants need to feel that they achieved something, they need to know what still needs to be done, and what the next steps are. You should tell them whether they are needed at another brainstorming session, and who to come to with potential additional ideas.
8. Remember that creativity is connected to having fun and being in the moment
As the leader of the session, you are responsible for the creative flow of the group. You create the environment and invite others to it.
It’s important to do it mindfully and to help others be mindful during the session as well. You have to help them focus on the task at hand.
- Start the meeting making sure everyone in the group is present in the moment. One way to do it is starting with a minute of silence focused on breathing.
- Before you get to work, do something fun together. Play a quick game of tic-tac-toe, or some other game. I sometimes ask everyone to draw 10 spiral sketches, and then turn them into chickens. Or divide people into pairs and ask them to list as many things as they can that are green and soft. Why? Because they don’t expect it. Using some ice breakers from this list could also work great. Basically do something others are not expecting from the session, to wake them up and keep them curious.
- Make ideation enjoyable. For instance, play some music during idea generation, to introduce a more relaxed atmosphere. Don’t forget that creativity is connected to having fun.
- Keep the group attentive. I use a Tibetan hand-bell whenever the discussion transforms into an argument. If I feel bad energy during the session, I ring the bell. It will vibrate for a minute, and during this time no one is allowed to speak. If you don’t have one, you can simply ask everyone for a silent minute.
- Be mindful of everyone’s involvement, especially if your session is remote. If a person is not speaking up or you don’t think they are participating enough, ask what’s going on, consider having a break. Creative work is tiring, it requires a lot of brainpower. It’s important to check in with others, to make sure they aren’t too tired to continue.
That’s also why the session can’t be too long. It’s better to have breaks or to hold a few shorter sessions over a few days if the topic is big, than to plow through a long session where people turn off their cameras and don’t pay attention.
How long is too long? 2 hours (with breaks, of course) is fine. A 4-hour session is asking for trouble, especially if you’re inexperienced.
This sample agenda is for a 2-hour long session. If your session is shorter or longer, tweak the length of each section accordingly.
- The warm up: this is the place for loosening everybody up. You should play a short game, ask some questions, make sure you are all in the moment and ready to do some creative work. Length: 10min
- Goal introduction: reiterate why the participants were invited to the session, what the goal of the session is, and how the session will look. Length: 15min
- Idea generation: now the participants try to come up with as many ideas as possible. Doing it silently, on their own, would work best. This way the more active participants won’t overshadow the more silent types. Length: 25min
- A break. Length: 10min
- Presenting the ideas: after everyone came up with some ideas, it’s time to present them to the rest of the group. Be as specific as you can, so that everyone understands your idea. Length: 20min
- Assessment of ideas through a group discussion: discuss them and choose the ones that show the most promise. Length: 30min
- The wrap up: reiterate what the goal was, specify what was achieved during the session, let everyone know what the next steps are and who to contact in case of questions or additional thoughts. Length: 10min
- After the session: keep others informed of what’s been happening with the project, especially if their ideas ended up being used. Time: an email directly after the session and additional communication as needed.
Brainstorming is a creative process. As all things creative, it’s difficult to do successfully each time. Unfortunately, when the process has to move online, it’s even more tricky. You need the energy of the group, and you can accidentally get rid of it during a digital session.
That’s why you need to pay extra attention to building a creative environment. Start with a warm up exercise. Play a game. Make people realize the session is not just another catch up meeting.
What it all boils down to is getting people out of the confines of their rhythm and making them think out of the box. This is where creative thinking thrives.
At the same time, a good brainstorming session requires a thought-out goal, a well-prepared agenda, and the discipline to keep to it.
A perfect brainstorming session can be found somewhere between letting your creativity run free and keeping the process under control. It’s tricky to find this middle ground, but it is worth it.
So, what ideas will you work on next?
For more product development goodness, check out some of my other articles:
P.S. If you need help brainstorming ideas related to your next app, contact us. We’ll be happy to help!