How to make brainstorming work for you

If two heads are better than one, as the adage goes, would not three heads be better than two and so on? If you answered yes, then you are already a proponent of Brainstorming – simply getting a few people together to generate ideas. Brainstorming was a term popularised in 1953 by Alex Faickney Osborn in the book Applied Imagination. Born out of his frustration with employees’ inability to develop creative ideas individually for ad campaigns, he began hosting ‘group-think’ sessions resulting in a marked improvement in the quality and quantity of ideas. Thus, the brainstorming session had been born.

Today, brainstorming is part of our business vocabulary. I am sure you have all been involved with these types of sessions experiencing varying degrees of success. Whilst brainstorming itself is a very creative process, it is neither self-sufficient nor guaranteed to succeed. When hosting a session, as with any other meeting or project, planning is critical to success. To run a fruitful brainstorming session, here are the key steps to consider….

Step 1: Question – Why you are doing this in the first place? What is the core purpose? Which problem(s) are you trying to solve? How will this assist in achieving the strategic direction of the organisation? Where can you make the biggest difference – to the business, customers or employees? How can you address the biggest pain points or capitalise on new opportunities? Indeed, is a brainstorming session the best way to achieve the outcome you desire?

Step 2: Resources – What resources are at your disposal. Have you allocated a budget for the session, not just in terms of a meeting room, but the cost of employees stepping away from their day job? Now is also the time to think about implementation. Ideas, however good, often require resources to be implemented. It is best to ensure there is budget allocated upfront. Remember, ideas without implementation are just a waste of everyone’s valuable time!

Step 3: Environment – Think about where the session will take place. Your aim should be to create an environment which encourages participants to create, explore and develop ideas. A board room with fixed table and chairs is not conducive to creativity. Does your budget allow you flexibility to book an alternative venue? Is there outside space you can use? How can you adapt your surroundings to prevent people from feeling constrained by their normal work environment? Cushions on the floor for seating, flip chart paper and crayons, balloons, clay, coloured paper – bring out the playful and creative child in everyone.

Step 4: People – Who needs to be involved very much depends on the problem you are solving. A very technical, specific problem, may seem to only require your technical experts. However the more diverse your participants, the more diverse the ideas you are likely to generate. So think about how you encourage participation from a range of disciplines, perspectives and experiences. In terms of forward planning, don’t stop with the participants, now is the time to identify whom will be evaluating and implementing the ideas, plus enrolling the senior leaders who will support this initiative? Voluntary involvement is always superior to compulsory attendance. The glue holding the entire exercise together is a trained or experienced facilitator who is neutral to the problem and the participants.

Step 5: Timeline – Think of a brainstorming event as a mini campaign and put a timeline together. If you are just getting a couple of people together, this may not be so necessary. But if you wish to include individuals from multiple teams, you will need to think about the timing of the event ensuring to avoid or embrace key calendar dates. Also consider what targets to set in terms of timelines to review and implement ideas. This is especially helpful in setting expectations for all involved.

Step 6: Communication – What communications are needed in advance of the event. Can you circulate any background reading – the problem statement perhaps – to allow people to start their thought process in advance? Remember, some people need time to digest information to be more productive. If the brainstorming session is part of a wider campaign, how does it fit into that overall campaign? Take care to communicate this relationship appropriately. Think about how you create some excitement around the session, encouraging people to sign up and get involved. Have your communications appeal to your whole audience by avoiding acronyms and technical jargon where possible. When their use is unavoidable, be sure to explain jargon and spell out acronyms.

Step 7: Rules – Although it may sound counter-intuitive when you are hosting a creative session, it is worth setting some ground rules which you run through at the beginning of the session. We are not talking war and peace, just a few statements to set expectations such as:

  • All ideas / solutions are welcome no matter how absurd they may first appear
  • No immediate evaluation of ideas or evaluative comments
  • All views are entertained and counted
  • No negative comments are to be made during the session
  • Explore and capture details for each idea fully before moving on

This not only helps to nurture the process but also ensures everyone gets an opportunity to have their ideas heard. Remember, it is not just the quantity of the ideas you seek, but also their quality.

Step 8: Tools – There are many techniques for helping the creative process and I am sure you will have your favourites. With a well-crafted problem or opportunity statement and some enthusiastic participants, special techniques may not be required. However it’s always worth preparing a few options to reignite the process should it stall. Taking a brisk walk outside for a few minutes can help to get the blood and thoughts flowing again. Think too about the appropriate tools to capture ideas and ensure you have time to review each idea before the end of the session. When evaluating at a later date, you are then better able to understand what has been recorded – potentially a huge time saver for the project!

Whilst I appreciate this is not rocket science, following these simple steps to plan your brainstorming session should help deliver the positive results you require. After all, Einstein is quoted as having said that if he had one hour to save the world he would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution. Why should brainstorming be any different?!