The thought of going to a team brainstorming session might have many people groaning – and rightly so! Despite being in use for more than 70 years, the art of how to brainstorm effectively still escapes most people. The truth of the matter is that when done well, brainstorming sessions can be productive, but what should you do to ensure you’re brainstorming effectively?
How to Perform a Productive Brainstorming Session
Before jumping into some of the steps you should take to perform a productive brainstorming session, consider if this is the correct technique for the task at hand. Brainstorming should be used to field as many ideas as possible, open up new avenues, and create new possibilities. It should not be used to drill down into concepts or plan out tactics, and generally speaking, it will be more helpful at the start of a project when you’re looking into lots of possible directions.
As with any productivity technique, it has its pros and cons. Some common ones are:
Great for lots of ideas.
It can be intimidating for introverts or those not comfortable voicing their views in public.
Can create a fun, inclusive environment.
The views are only as suitable as a person’s ability to express them in that format.
Can result in more creative solutions than other techniques.
It can cause arguments or negativity if not properly managed.
Can build the confidence and “soft skills” of participants.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at how to perform the most productive brainstorming session possible and maybe overcome some of those cons!
Prepare Before The Brainstorm
You should never go into a brainstorming session completely unprepared. If you organize the session, make sure to send out a plan in advance with a reminder that people should do a little background research around the topic you’re going to be discussing.
Send links to interesting articles, a couple of videos and pictures, or anything else you can think of to get people thinking about the topic ahead of time.
This is especially important if you know that a team member in the brainstorming session is less confident voicing their ideas. The prep time can give them a chance to note down some thoughts, boosting confidence in delivering them to the group. Of course, it’s best to discourage people from doing all the creativity in advance since this somewhat undermines the point of a brainstorming session.
Similarly, group preparation before the actual brainstorming session can also be beneficial – not just for less confident participants but also for the team. This preparation could include activities like:
Having various images around the room for a quick word-association activity.
Physical objects related to the topic in the room for a tactile kickoff.
Audio or video that can be fed into a quick word-association activity.
Have a bad-idea brainstorm where people come up with the worst solutions they can think of.
Some activities that might work for video conference brainstorming sessions are:
Shared visual on the main screen.
Anagrams or word lists for association in the chat.
Collaborative note taking for a word race.
This will help keep people’s focus on the task, idea, or topic at hand in advance of the brainstorm and thus keep the session focussed while allowing for the freedom necessary to generate genuinely new ideas.
Stop Following The Herd Mentality
The herd mentality develops when participants in a brainstorming session feel pressured into agreeing with one idea over another because they believe that is what everyone else in the group thinks is the right choice. This is especially prevalent when there are stronger or more confident speakers, as those who are less sure of themselves may feel the need to “just go along with” the given idea.
This is detrimental to a productive brainstorming session since it limits the quantity and diversity of ideas being put on the table.
One of the best ways to overcome this potential downfall is to designate specific roles to the brainstorming team members. This way, each person feels comfortable, secure, and confident in their role and is more likely to put forward new ideas and challenge old ones.
The thought of challenging ideas can be seen as unfavorable. Still, controlled conflict over ideas is an integral part of brainstorming as it allows for the rapid exchange of ideas, and those systems empower less confident team members to challenge ideas. Which takes us onto our next point…
Encourage a Safe Environment for Throwing Out Ideas
People need to be comfortable in the brainstorming session to share all ideas they have. This will give the space for really innovative suggestions, so it’s a crucial part of effective brainstorming.
Some of the preparation and herd-mentality avoidance mentioned earlier will already be creating a more comfortable environment, but there are some other simple ways to foster inclusiveness, such as:
We are running workshops ahead of time about different personality types and how to work productively with them (e.g., how to deal with extreme extroverts).
Acknowledge your failures or times you’ve had bad ideas, so others in the group know it’s ok. This may even encourage other team members to share anecdotes.
Set up a system as part of your broader work environment where team members can chat less formally. Some of the best productivity apps for android, iOS, and desktop, such as Spike, include chat features out the box, so your team feels comfortable with each other.
An essential part of a safe environment is creating boundaries. These enable all participants to feel comfortable sharing their ideas while at the same time knowing that they aren’t going to be caught out by what somebody else says or that they themselves are going to say something out of line.
Whilst these boundaries might seem counterintuitive, they create a more expressive environment in the end and can even help boost creativeness. After all, “necessity is the mother of invention,” and that still holds true today. When you impose limits on yourselves in a brainstorming session, you may well come up with things that you would never have thought about before.
For example, if you’re part of a marketing team and know that you have the means and permission to fly anywhere in the world to shoot a commercial, your ideas are going to conform to that possibility. However, if you limit ideas to your own city? Your own street? Your own office? Well, now you’re thinking outside of your comfort zone, and that’s when you’re going to get some originality.
Play Word Association Games (and Others!)
Even with the greatest structure in the safest environment, brainstorming sessions can still be a little boring if it’s just a bunch of people sitting around a conference table presenting ideas. Think of some ways to make it productive and fun! Word association is a simple option for generating lots of new ideas in a fast and fun way. Here’s how:
The group or an individual decides on a starter word and writes it on a piece of paper, whiteboard, or collaborative group chat. This can be within the confines of the task at hand, as per the preparation you’ve all already done.
The first member of the session then writes an associated word as quickly as possible after the starter word (having this on a whiteboard encourages lots of movement which is great in a meeting environment).
The next person then writes a word they associate with the previous one. This continues on for a set amount of time, the number of words, or until the paper is full. There are some templates that can be very useful.
Go through the words to develop ideas and evaluate them as they come up.
This is a great way to produce a huge quantity of ideas, and this “quantity” is key.
Quantity Over Quality is Key for Productive Brainstorming
This isn’t Shark Tank. You don’t have to tear down every idea that comes along to make sure it’s 100% solid. A brainstorming session is about getting those first ideas rolling in, so quantity is much more important than quality at this point. This will allow for a broad range of leads that can then be analyzed and developed at a later stage.
Activities such as word association are a great way to do this and think about imposing a time limit for how long your team can spend on any single idea. This will force people to keep thinking up new things—remember, you can always come back to them later!
Brainswarming – A New Approach to Consider
Brainswarming is a different type of group ideation. Individuals silently come up with new ideas on their own and then add them as notes to a structured graphic, something like a tree of notes mapped together. It is designed as a more efficient form of brainstorming as it cuts out the time-consuming aspects of a traditional storm, such as verbally presenting.
Brainswarming can be especially useful in the digital work age when talking over one another on a video call can become very tiring, very quickly. Since brainswarming relies on short notes in a graphical form, this is the ideal format for a platform that offers collaborative online notes. All the most highly recommended productivity apps for iOS should have collaborative notes. Spike has teams at its core with online notes allowing for group brainswarming wherever your individual members might be.
Brainswarming could also be a much better solution for members of the team who are less confident in public speaking or uncomfortable presenting ideas since it separates them slightly through the use of notes. That said, a mix of tactics, such as including brainswarming within a broader brainstorming session, might prove most effective when trying to include all personalities.
Summary of How to Brainstorm Effectively
Overall, an effective brainstorming session is one that produces a large number of ideas, very quickly, within a safe environment. This must be fostered as part of your broader company culture, but there are specific ways to induce positive sessions such as the inclusion of word games, techniques such as brainswarming, and through the use of different mediums such as digital whiteboards and collaborative notes.
Everyone should walk away happy from the most productive brainstorming sessions, and you can then follow up by developing the best ideas further.
Effective Brainstorming FAQ's
First, you need a clear outline of what type of ideas you’re looking for:
- Business development?
- Product development?
Once you know that, the next step is to gather the right people and give them time to get comfortable enough to throw out that next million-dollar idea!
When brainstorming with clients, the most important thing to remember is that they are an outsider coming in. Therefore, it’s really important to make them feel comfortable! Make sure to send them plenty of prep materials and consider running a couple of warm-up activities before actually getting to the main topic.
You know your team and they know each other. The most effective way to brainstorm with a team is to play to their strengths. If you know they are all quiet and a little shy, consider brainswarming. If they are overly boisterous, make sure to set those boundaries!
Talk with your team until you agree on what the problem actually is. Then come up with a starter word for the root of possible solutions and get members to add related ideas one at a time.
Once you have a substantial number of loosely connected ideas, start sifting and developing them to find the best path to your solution.
Mind mapping is a fantastic way to visually connect related ideas or thoughts. It can be done in person using paper or a whiteboard, or for remote teams through collaborative online notes platforms.
Look at how the team leaves the room and how many ideas you have at the end. A good brainstorming session should leave you with a pile of new thoughts to sift through and leave the whole team animated and inspired to chase after new topics.
People are often very hesitant to share creative ideas since they can be quite personal. For the most effective creative brainstorms, it is important to focus on having a safe and inclusive environment.
It is also worth thinking about other ways to present ideas (such as visually) since many people who are extremely creative in one field can struggle to express themselves in others.