Get More From Your Brainstorming Sessions
There’s a curious paradox at the heart of any productive brainstorming session: The goal is to let imaginations run free and generate all kinds of “out of the box” thinking. But in order for brainstorming to work, it’s necessary to follow a few rules. Otherwise, you get more of a brain dump than a brainstorm.
Here are some guidelines for getting more from your brainstorming sessions.
Before the brainstorming session begins, determine what the central issue or question is. Do you want to come up with a different way to market an existing product? Are you seeking a dramatically new type of service compared with what your business currently provides? Share the specific problem with the group to put people in the right frame of mind.
The most productive sessions generally take place off-site. Why? In a “safe” and relaxed environment, people feel freer to speak up than, say, in the conference room right next to the owner’s office. Holding the meeting elsewhere gives it more of a special feel, too.
Be mindful of the session’s length, too. You’re looking to come up with as many ideas as possible within a prescribed amount of time. The best sessions last between 15 and 45 minutes, with 30 minutes usually being the sweet spot.
Brainstorming veterans contend that the ideal size for a group is between four and seven people. Their logic: Fewer than four people are unlikely to produce much of creative value; more than seven can border on chaos.
A group leader or facilitator is essential to keeping the discussion moving. This person’s job is to stimulate ideas and get everyone to speak up. Everyone means just that. The leader starts by inviting each person at the table to contribute in turn and then lets the discussion flow. The facilitator is also responsible for ensuring that no one or two people dominate the conversation.
Most importantly, the group leader strives to generate a fun, upbeat experience. This should translate into a wave of ideas (from silly to profound), plenty of laughter, and some playful competition. Nothing good ever comes out of a tense or fearful environment.
Brainstorming depends on group energy. A high-voltage session gets everyone pumped up and mentally agile, paving the way for all kinds of freewheeling ideas. The facilitator can use encouragement, motion, props, and other tools to keep the energy level high. As for the ideas themselves, nothing is too wild or off-limits. No one gets to say, “That’ll never work!” In the initial stage, what you want is quantity vs. quality. Who can predict which pie-in-the-sky idea may end up boosting your small-business revenues?
Another helpful technique to build on someone’s idea. One participant’s suggestion can trigger a complementary thought from someone else, and so on. From time to time, people may start discussing the implications of a particular suggestion. This is fine, as long as the facilitator keeps the discussion short, brings the group back to the problem at hand, and keeps the brainstorming going.
What good is a brainstorming session if nobody captures all of its wacky — and potentially brilliant — ideas? Appoint someone to serve as the meeting’s recorder. Use a flip chart or a whiteboard to jot down the group’s suggestions. Have these notes transcribed and distributed to support future discussions.
When the brainstorming session is over, it’s time to filter and evaluate the fruits of the group’s efforts. Sometimes it’s beneficial to enlist a second group of people to review the ideas and assess their relative usefulness. That way, you clear out any residual ego or emotional involvement from the original participants.
Ideo, an innovation and design firm, captures the flow of ideas on easel-sized Post-it Notes. One brainstorming session yielded the idea for Jumperoo by Fisher-Price, which resembles a doorway jumper for toddlers but comes with a freestanding base. Ideo partner Brendan Boyle wanted to resolve an issue with the original jumper because it "blocked key passageways and [moms] were scared it would fall down." From the brainstorming session came a sketch for the prototype Ideo designed for the Jumperoo, which now sells some one million units a year and has become a minor YouTube sensation.
Lee Polevoi is an award-winning business writer specializing in the challenges and opportunities facing small business. He is former Senior Writer at Vistage International, a global membership organization of CEOs.