Think about the last time you brought your team together to solve a problem.
Perhaps it was a creative problem, a brand problem or an operations issue. You likely called your people together in a room and decided to brainstorm some solutions.
Hopefully the session was effective. Problem is, more often than not, we treat brainstorms like any other meeting in an attempt to come up with an original idea. You’re sitting around an artificial wood table, the fluorescent lights are beaming bright. You’ve got Megan in the corner, drinking lukewarm coffee from a random promotional mug. Dan’s scrolling through his phone, looking at important emails with the intensity of a grade school kid in a thumb war. Lastly, you’ve got poor Janet trying to lead the brainstorm. She’s vested in this brainstorm and is pulling out the stops trying to motivate a group of people who are focused on the million other things they have to get done (or worse yet, people who don't give a crap).
We end up treating a brainstorm like we would a status meeting or resourcing discussion — cramming them into a random Tuesday morning.
It's time to stop.
You need to take brainstorming sessions seriously or stop having them.
They are important to your business, and if done properly, can lead to real change for your organization. Rather than have a series of haphazard meetings, try and bring a bit more structure to your brainstorms. It's important to set your brainstorms up differently than a traditional meeting - this helps let your brain know that it's about to do something new, and frees it up to think in a different way.
One of the easiest ways to make brainstorms more effective is to use different techniques to engage participants and create room for new and out-there thinking.
To help do this, we've created four different brainstorm models that we encourage you to try next time you're stuck solving a problem.
Each of these models is further broken down into three separate sections, described below:
- Kick-Off Meeting It's really important to explore the problem before we try and solve it. We're using different parts of the brain to understand and to ideate — don't push them into one meeting.
- Brainstorm Here's where we will get specific about the problem-solving portion of the process. If you're brainstorming right, you'll have a lot of vulnerable ideas on the table. Remember, it's not easy to bare your soul and put yourself out there to be rejected, so be kind to one another and embrace those bad ideas. We need them to know what the good ones look like.
- Selection This is often where brainstorming goes south. People don't know who the decision maker is, they're afraid to hurt feelings, they look for consensus and will often settle on a mediocre idea that appeases everyone. Be clear in your selection - before it's time to decide on a direction announce your decision maker out loud. That will make it easier to own when it comes time to make a call. I would also encourage you to read up on decision making.
Model 1: The Brain Dump
An oldie but a goodie – the classic think tank style brainstorm can sometimes give you great results.
Kick-Off Meeting: The whole team should get together and your brainstorm facilitator should provide a summary of the problem you are trying solve. The most important part of this meeting is that everyone understands the nature of the problem they are trying to solve. Questions should be answered and clarity should be sought. Be sure to let people know the process that you'll be following and inform them of the decision-making process.
Brainstorm: In this model, the brainstorm might look pretty familiar — it's a think tank discussion. Your facilitator should host a group discussion where people throw out various ideas in an effort to solve the problem. The facilitator should ensure they are getting engagement from the entire group and also ensure no personalities are overtaking the room. Also, be mindful of organization hierarchy in this room — it can be hard for people to suggest alternate ideas than what their manager may have put forward.
This is not the time to shut ideas down. The goal is to get as many ideas as possible up on the board. As the facilitator, it's important to call up big personalities and make sure they aren't taking over.
Selection: A smaller project team should determine next steps after this meeting. The decision maker will need to decide whether you've got what you need or if you need to get more info to make a final call on the direction.
Model 2: The Pitch
Create a few small teams and then pit them against each other to come up with great ideas. They'll pitch only the best.
Kick-Off Meeting: Bring the team together and get the brainstorm facilitator to provide a summary of the problem you're about to tackle. From here, break your full team into smaller sub-groups that will become Pitch Teams. Each team needs to fully understand the problem they are trying to solve before they head out.
Mini-storms (Brainstorm): Each team should schedule and hold their own brainstorm; the mini-storms can look like whatever each Pitch Team wants. They'll need to come up with alternatives, settle on an idea and flesh it out for presentation. That could mean making a preliminary mood board, a product mockup or acting something out.
The Pitch: Reassemble all the teams and present your ideas! This meeting can include a panel of judges who make recommendations on the ideas based on criteria like presentation, novelty and relevance. Make this fun; these pitches can be a really great way to bring out healthy competition — people often step up when they've got a chance to prove themselves.
Selection: Once the pitch is done, your decision maker will need to select the ideas they think might work, or ask teams to come up with additional ideas if there aren't enough.
Model 3: The Notebook
This model is great if you've got a team of introverts or quiet thinkers. Basically, everyone breaks out and has some quality one‑on‑one time with their thoughts.
Kick-Off Meeting: Same as above, bring the team together and get the brainstorm facilitator to provide a summary of the problem you're about to tackle. Make sure everyone is clear on what they need to come back with and that each person understands what is expected of them! From here, let people go out on their own and do their own thinking, researching, reflection, etc. Make sure you provide a timeline and clear deliverables.
Rumination (Brainstorm): Everyone goes off and has a think by themselves. Each person should come up with three or more separate ideas, or, if you want to be more specific with your deliverables feel free to do so.
Report and Selection: Reassemble everyone, and hash out your thoughts. Is there repetition of ideas? Contrasting viewpoints? As a group, build on what you came up with on your own. Work with the decision maker on the project to determine next steps and direction.
Model 4: Seeding
This model is great for quick idea collection when you want as much input as you can get.
Kick-Off Meeting: Present your problem to your whole company or an entire department (depending on how ambitious you are). Tell them what kind of solutions you are looking for — you can be specific or broad depending on what you're hoping to get back.
Brainstorm: Hand out cards to everyone and request that they write, draw or print out something on the card — anything that pops into mind when they think of your project — and put it up on an "idea wall." If you work with a remote team, try sharing this on your intranet or simply ask people to email their ideas.
Selection: Grab everything from the idea wall and start sorting! What are your favorite ideas? What do you feel solves your problem in the best way? The decision maker on the project will need to determine whether or not they've got enough to work with before settling on next steps.
Brainstorms can be as unique as the ideas that come from them.
Have fun, make sure your teams are well informed of the real problems they are trying to solve and make sure to create space for different types of people to think in their own unique ways. For a truly successful brainstorm, you'll want a blend of different thinkers and personalities in the room.
Ultimately, brainstorms are best when we try new things.
So test these models out and see where you get!
Now that you're an expert on brainstorming, you might want to streamline the way you run other types of meetings, too. Check out our video post to learn more: