How to transform your brainstorm sessions

Brainstorming is the most frequently employed creative-thinking technique in the workplace.

Written by
John Grain
May 21, 2013
Fed up of too many post-it notes? Transform your brainstorm sessions with practical advice from John Grain.

However, attending brainstorming sessions can often be a formulaic experience, usually involving a group of people being called together in a bland meeting room with a flipchart. A whole range of thoughts and ideas are then scribbled up on the paper and stuck up on the walls. Afterwards, the pages are transcribed into a Word document, which is circulated to all participants.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, but it is only the first half of the process and the crucial next steps of filtering, building, and follow-up are often missed out entirely.

Seven ways to improve

We have identified seven areas that can transform the effectiveness of your brainstorm and turn it into a far more valuable and useful activity.

1. Define your topic

It is essential you make sure that the topic of the brainstorm is focused. If it is too vague or imprecise then the suggestions you get back will be as well and it is likely you won’t be able to implement anything practical afterwards. Spend time in advance clearly defining the challenge you want to tackle.

Consider giving the brainstorm a title that will inspire and motivate people. Turn it into something lively and engaging that sounds like it will be fun and interesting to be part of – in this way you are more likely to get enthusiastic, positive and participative involvement from all concerned.

Set some basic objectives for the brainstorm. They can be very simple and straightforward. If you cannot easily set objectives from the topic you have defined it is likely that the topic is not yet focused or specific enough.

2. Plan ahead

With some forethought your brainstorming can be far more productive. By circulating your well-defined subject two weeks before the session you give participants the opportunity to think about the topic in advance. Then they will arrive at the meeting well prepared, rather than having to think about possible ideas and suggestions at the start of the session. This will ensure that you capture a far greater number and variety of suggestions.

3. Choose your participants

It is too easy to just invite those people close to you or who are in your team. Simply doing this will not expose you (or them) to the widest variety of thinking or options.

As part of the planning process consider inviting people who:

  • Are not in your immediate team.
  • Are not directly related to the area of work you are involved in.
  • Are connected in an entirely different way to the defined topic.
  • Are external to your organisation (but preferably still have some connection to the topic e.g. external stakeholders, donors, suppliers etc).

All of these people can bring a new and valuable perspective to your brainstorm session.

4. Select your venue

Avoid the traditional characterless, featureless, grey meeting room with inadequate equipment and no natural light, where you can feel your creativity begin to ebb away the moment you enter. Instead, find a new, alternative venue (perhaps off-site) or properly prepare the room you will be meeting in.

There are certain things that are non-negotiable.

  • Space – you must have enough room for everyone participating to be comfortable, to be able to see and move around easily.
  • Light – natural light is a must.
  • Air – a stuffy, humid room stifles creativity within minutes. People become distracted, lose concentration and stop enjoying themselves. You should have made sure you have windows – now can you open them?

Also, consider the equipment you need. A flipchart and paper obviously, but we would suggest plenty of pens, post-it notes and some external stimulus (see point seven).

5. Invite a facilitator

Consider having an external person facilitating, or someone internal who doesn’t have any vested interests in what is being discussed. This brings the benefit of objectivity, as well as preventing the brainstorm following the path of least resistance as the group may assume the leader knows the answers or has a preferred direction to follow. This can stifle any genuine creative thinking and restrict innovation.

e would suggest you allow at least two hours (and if this is not possible then 90 minutes as an absolute minimum). The reason for this is the traditional brainstorming activity should only account for half the time.

The same amount of time should then be spent filtering, selecting, building, and refining ideas so that you finish with (at most) three or four that the group feel have genuine potential for development. You should also have identified a clear way forward in terms of leadership, communications, and deadlines.

It is also worth reconfirming to everyone the one golden rule of brainstorming – no criticising.

A session could be structured like this:

Time (h/m)               Activity Notes
0.00 – 0.05 Introductions, objectives, ground rules. Setting the scene and expectations.
0.05 – 0.20 Capture initial thoughts. Participants should have had two weeks to think of these.
0.20 – 0.45 Traditional brainstorm. Using facilitator to capture ideas and suggestions.
0.45 – 0.55 Silent brainstorm. Ten minutes of silence to let people write down their ideas – encourages the quieter participants to contribute.
0.55 – 1.05 Traditional brainstorm.
1.05 – 1.35 Filtering exercise. Participants discuss and select three or four prime ideas for development, separate out those that are liked but not as relevant, and discard others.
1.35 – 2.00 Build and refine exercise. Selected ideas are developed further and individuals given the task of ownership of the next steps. The group agrees actions and deadlines. Follow-up communications are agreed.

This outline structure can be adapted as required, but the key is in the three elements: capturing ideas, filtering ideas and developing ideas.

Do not be afraid to park those ideas that may have merit or potential, but are not right for the project you are working on at the time. They can always be revisited at a later date.

Nor should you be afraid to discard those ideas that, on reflection, do not appear to offer much potential for further development. This is to be expected and should not be perceived as a failure or disappointment.

7. Use stimulus

Multiple behaviours and new thinking are often set in motion by introducing random or unusual stimuli. This can range from the visual (the way the room is prepared and decorated, display boards containing a haphazard range of unconnected images, quotes, photographs and abstracts), the social (bringing in expert guests for the participants to interview) and the interactive (role-plays of scenarios).You can also prepare stimulus boxes – these contain a set of entirely random objects that can be introduced at any time and can help to force associations that would not be otherwise made and take thinking in entirely new directions for short periods of time.

You can genuinely accelerate the overall creative process by systematically managing your brainstorming in this way.

And one last lesson

Treat your brainstorm as just the beginning of a process and not the end of one. Once you have identified and captured three or four ideas to take forward these need a structure and format of their own to follow. We suggest nominating one person (ideally a willing volunteer) to lead each idea and be responsible for doing further research into its potential and feasibility. So, with a little bit of additional thought and preparation, your brainstorming sessions can be massively improved and become a far more effective creative tool at your and your team’s disposal.

© John Grain, 2011

About the author: John Grain

John Grain

With nearly 30 years experience of direct fundraising, John has held senior posts in within Oxfam and Practical Action, and was Director of Fundraising for Western Europe for Habitat for Humanity International. He founded John Grain Associates (JGA) in 2004 since when he has worked with clients large and small to develop innovative, sustainable and long-term individual giving programmes. He is a passionate advocate of permission based, ethical fundraising with an emphasis on understanding our donors and how best to deliver an inspiring and motivating experience for them with every interaction they have with charities. He led the recent Commission on the Donor Experience’s project into Thanking and Welcoming and last year launched the Secret Giver, the sector’s most comprehensive mystery shopping and competitor benchmarking programme.

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