Groups can certainly come up with unique perspectives that are out of the reach of individuals, but they need careful guidance.
For optimal brainstorming success, you need to not only understand what brainstorming really is, but take deliberate steps before, during and after the session to maximize its effectiveness.
What is Brainstorming? Beyond a Common Definition
A common, and very general, definition of brainstorming gathering people together with the goal of coming up with more/better/different ideas than the individual group members were able to generate on their own.
Where most people get tripped up is when they try to narrow this definition by replacing “ideas” with “solutions.” (Locking 20 people in a room until they have solved a problem isn’t an optimal arrangement either.)
Instead, think of brainstorming not as a solution generator but a possibility generator. By focusing on possibilities instead of solutions you’ll encourage more creative thinking, leading to better results (and less time in a locked room).
The point of having a brainstorming session is hopefully to come up with thoughts, ideas and suggestions that individuals alone couldn’t produce. If you fixate only on solutions, you’ll shut down many avenues of possibilities and cripple your team before it even gets started.
Brainstorming For Results
Focusing on generating possibilities, not solutions, in your brainstorming sessions is a good first step, but you need to have specific strategies in place to maximize the results of these meetings.
Here are the top three ways ensure you’re getting the absolute best results from brainstorming:
Set the stage for success. Invite people in advance, set a time limit and honor it, encourage post-brainstorming session feedback
Harness individual brain power. Engage introverts and eliminate anchoring by encouraging pre-storming.
Be prepared to lead effectively. Start with an input activity before moving to output, be ready for a lag in the session, encourage creativity
1. Set the Stage for Brainstorming Success
Most brainstorming sessions are doomed to fail before they even get started because the person planning them hasn’t adequately prepared. Invite the right people, give them advance notice, and manage your time effectively to give your team the best chance of success.
First and foremost, don’t invite 7 versions of the same person to your brainstorm. Make sure you have different perspectives, different departments and different levels of experience in your group, or you’ll just get regurgitated versions of the same idea.
After choosing your attendees, make sure you notify them of the time and subject matter in advance; don’t just go around and pull them all into a conference room.
Our brains start working on problems subconsciously as soon as we hear about them, so by giving your team an opportunity to ruminate ahead of time you’re giving their minds a chance to get a head start on generating possibilities.
Notifying people in advance also forces you to block off a particular amount of time so they can schedule their attendance. Set an end point for your brainstorm and stick to it. This shows people that you value their time, and gets them more invested in the session if they have a hard stop looming. It also makes them more likely to come to your next brainstorm!
Finally, once the brainstorming session is over, encourage people to continue to provide you with possibilities for a set amount of time. Just as our subconscious starts churning out ideas as soon as we encounter a problem, it continues to work after we’ve stopped focusing on it consciously.
Many of the best ideas from a brainstorm will come after it’s over, and you don’t want to miss out on those.
2. Harness Individual Brainstorming Power
Allow your individual team members to think about the problem on their own and generate possibilities outside of the group. This can happen either before the meeting or as one of the first activities after it starts.
Brainwriting, an exercise in which team members simply write down their own ideas without speaking them, is the simplest way to achieve this goal.
Leigh Thompson, a management professor at the Kellogg School, has found that “brainwriting groups generated 20% more ideas and 42% more original ideas as compared to traditional brainstorming groups,” so it’s definitely worth incorporating into your brainstorming plan.1
Using individual ideas as a starting point not only lets introverts get their ideas into the mix more effectively, it also eliminates one of the most common drawbacks to brainstorming success: anchoring.
Anchoring refers to people’s tendency to latch on to the first ideas presented in a brainstorming session and not move on from these initial suggestions, which are usually the most obvious and least creative.
3. Effective Brainstorm Management is Vital
Finally, you need to be prepared to optimize the output from your brainstorming session by leading the discussion creatively.
An excellent way to do this is by starting with an input activity. With an input activity you’re asking your team members to enter into the world of the problem you’re brainstorming about in some way before generating output – ideas – about that world.
They can come up with types of people they think may be encountering the problem and how they feel/think/act. For example, if you’re trying to come up with ideas for a new marketing slogan for dish soap, ask team members to suggest the kinds of people who might be interested in the soap, and then to create detailed descriptions of these characters.
This kind of input thinking helps people connect more intimately with the problem at hand. You should plan to spend about one third of your brainstorming session in this input mode before moving to idea generation, or output.
An effective brainstorm leader also plans for a lull in the storm. Keep a related but somewhat bizarre activity (shout out as many different dish soap scents as you can go!) up your sleeve to pull out when the ideas come to a halt; don’t just try to force participants to power through and keep trudging along the same path.
Key Brainstorming Takeaways
Remember that brainstorming is about generating possibilities, not solutions.
Prepare yourself and your team well in advance; no surprise brainstorming sessions!
Allow for individual brainstorms as well as group interaction to harness all types of ideas
Manage the brainstorming meeting effectively; foster creativity and honor your participants time commitment
What brainstorming ideas or games are working best for your team?