How to lead a brainstorming session?

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Gathering a group of people in a room for an effective brainstorming session is a wonderful way of generating new ideas. But all too often I’ve been in sessions where the person who is running the meeting says “Let’s brainstorm!” without introducing any rules or guidelines. Some people might throw various ideas out, but more often than not the results are futile. In my opinion, this is a guaranteed way of destroying the value of an otherwise very effective process. Leading a brainstorming session takes some practice, but if you follow some basic rules you can make sure that you get the most out of your brainstorming session.

1. Clearly define the topic for your brainstorming session

The topic can be about an opportunity you want to explore like ideas for a new service or it might be a problem you want to solve like a product failure. Don’t have a brainstorming session on something you already have a preferred solution to, then you are just wasting everybody’s time. The topic should be clearly defined so that everyone is on the same page. If you want, you can send out a meeting request with the topic ahead of time and ask people to prepare some ideas in advance.

2. Ensure people come with a creative mindset

Brainstorming sessions are usually a time-out from our normal day to day problem solving and solution seeking. In order to get the most out of the session, you want to make sure that the participants brains are in the right “mode”. Ideally, choose a room that you normally don’t have meetings in. Try to find a room that is bright and spacious that allows for standing up and walking around. If you are scheduling a brainstorming session, try to schedule it after a break where people have had a chance to step outside, or if you can’t do that, ask people to stand up and stretch. You want people to come to the session with a creative, “brainstorming” mindset.

3. Limit the brainstorming session

The ideal size for a brainstorming group is 5-7 people. It is a small enough group for you as a facilitator to write down all the ideas that are being generated, but it is still large enough for there to be plenty of energy in the room. Limit the brainstorming session to 15 minutes. It’s difficult to be creative for more than 15 minutes and you want to make sure to keep the momentum. If people know that the brainstorming session is only 15 minutes long they will make sure to optimize the time you have at hand.

4. Introduce the brainstorming session and lay out the ground rules

When you start the session you should announce to the group that it is a brainstorming session and you should lay out the ground rules:

  • The goal is to generate as many ideas as possible. At this stage we are not trying to make sense of anything, just throw ideas out – the more the better!
  • There are no bad ideas. All ideas are welcome. Every idea that is said out loud is captured.
  • No evaluation or critique of ideas. There shouldn’t even be questions about an idea, clarifications come later.
  • Ideas don’t have to be unique. It’s ok to steal someone else’s idea and build on it.

5. Take visual notes

Every idea that is aired should be written down by you as a facilitator. The notes should be taken on a big board, flip chart or a big piece of paper taped to the wall so that everyone can see – you can’t take notes on a sheet of paper! Your writing doesn’t have to be neat and structured (though of course, it must be readable). It also helps the visual image if you use different colors and shapes. Write down things exactly as they are said, don’t re-phrase it in a way that makes more sense to you. If you didn’t hear exactly what was said, ask the person to repeat. You can also invite the attendees to add ideas on post-it notes and stick on the board, or clips from magazines.

6. Encourage participation by positive feedback and speed

Encourage participation by saying things like, “Thank you, great, nice, good one, wow and I like that”. Don’t just stand there facing the board with your back towards the group and write things down. Engage with the group, have eye-contact and use your entire body to provide positive feedback and a high level of energy in the room. Also, make sure to keep up the pace of the brainstorming session. Speed is good for brainstorming, it lowers people’s barriers to share their ideas and it keeps the energy high.

7. Have fun!

Remember that brainstorming should be fun! There shouldn’t be any criticism or rolling of eyes. If someone says something, just repeat the ground rule again and keep going. You as a facilitator have a very important role to play here. Smile and laugh (laughter is contagious) and cheer on the group – it’s ok to be a bit crazy. Hopefully, some of the ideas that come out will help you to have fun.

A final word

When carried out correctly, brainstorming can be a wonderful way to solve problems and discover new opportunities. It’s also great for team building. If you have a successful brainstorming session the team feels a sense of joint accomplishment and builds stronger bonds with each other. Make sure to thank everyone for their input and share the long-term results of the brainstorming session so that everyone feels that their participation was valuable.

If you follow these steps you will be sure to get more value out of your brainstorming sessions. To get even more insights, I recommend you listen to the Manager Tools brainstorming podcasts where Mark Horstman and Mike Auzenne share some of their experience. Good luck with your brainstorming!

(If you have difficulties reading this article, you can access the full article in pdf here)