In this guest post, entrepreneur Josh Althauser discusses his eight best tips to run productive brainstorming sessions…
You need to come up with a name for your latest product. Or perhaps you’re looking for a great slogan for your next marketing campaign. After staring blankly at your computer screen for the better part of an hour, you know it’s time to bring in the rest of your team.
Together, you can come up with a long list of ideas and choose the best from the group.
But brainstorming sessions can easily spiral out of control without good leadership. To be effective, it’s important that someone manage the process, encouraging participants to freely state ideas and jotting everything down to ensure no idea is lost. If you’re planning on leading a brainstorming session in the future, here are eight great tips that can help you get the most out of it.
Have the right tools in place
A fruitful brainstorming session starts with the right tools. Most professionals use a white board or an easel with flipcharts to collect ideas, although you could also type them into a projector-connected laptop. The end goal is to have a focal point at the front of the room, along with a large blank space that attendees know they need to help fill.
Some of the most successful businesses and innovators such as Steve Jobs, James Richman, and Elon Musk have found the mind-mapping style of brainstorming is more effective than traditional list-based methods. Ensuring that the team keeps an open mind often lead to some of the most creative ideas as a result. If so, there are tools available to help. To help employees feel more comfortable, it might also help to bring in refreshments or have a catered lunch before the brainstorming portion of the meeting starts.
Ask employees to contribute new ideas
In a group session, attendees can tend to feed off of each other, letting the suggestions of participants affect their own thinking. One way to start on a good note is to ask invitees to create a list of ideas before the start of the session and bring those ideas in. You can even choose to collect the list at the door and allow the suggestions to remain anonymous. Often the best ideas in a brainstorming session will come when participants don’t fear being ridiculed by others in the group. Jot down the provided ideas to kick off the brainstorming portion of your meeting and set the tone for the session – encourage creativity.
True productivity can only come when participants are free from distractions. Most brainstorming sessions are held in conference rooms, but if someone is going to interrupt every time an important phone call comes in, the only solution might be to rent a conference room in a nearby building. If possible, have all attendees silence their cell phones and avoid looking at them during the course of the session. If everyone in the meeting will be spending the time reading every email and text that comes over, you’ll all be wasting time. That said, you should also make clear at the outset of the meeting that you’ll only need their undivided attention for a short period to avoid panic at the thought of being out of touch for a long stretch of time during the workday.
Set a time limit
People are more productive when they know they only have to focus on a task for a limited amount of time. That’s the theory behind the Pomodoro Technique, which involves setting a timer for 25 minutes and forcing yourself to do only that until the timer buzzes. Download the Pomodoro Timer app, or use the timer app on your phone, and let participants know that when the timer starts, they need to provide ideas for 25 minutes. When the timer buzzes, you can all review the ideas and see if there’s anything that can be added. If 25 minutes is too long, you can set your timer for shorter bursts or if you need more time, you can take a brief break between multiple sessions.
Make all team members equal
For a brainstorming session to be effective, the hierarchy that defines most organizations must be set aside for a short time. All managers and subordinates are equal and everyone should feel comfortable sharing ideas. If you feel combining employees with their supervisors will make
it impossible to accomplish a free flow of ideas, you may need to have separate sessions for people in different roles. For most small businesses, however, staff levels are so small, everyone within the organization will be part of the session. It may help to invite a few colleagues to alter the dynamic of the group and help break the ice.
Go around the table
If your brainstorming session is like most, there will be a few people over-contributing while others sit by silently, perhaps occasionally tossing out an idea or two. To even out participation and warm up the crowd, it could help to kick off the session by going around the table and having each person give an idea. Once the meeting has started, occasionally make friendly eye contact with those who aren’t contributing. Sometimes that will remind them that they’re considered part of the group. Try to avoid calling on people who are quiet, though. Doing so will likely only make them feel more uncomfortable.
No idea is rejected
There will be bad ideas among the good ones. In fact, some may be so off base, you fear the session will derail and suggestions after that will be similarly bad. The next idea thrown out will likely be a good one, though, and if it isn’t, you can always make a few suggestions of your own to get things on the right track. The important thing is that you never reject anyone’s ideas during a brainstorming session and you should make that clear before you start. Keep to that promise by writing down every idea someone provides, no matter how far fetched or irrelevant. At the end of the session, have everyone pick out their favorite ideas and avoid scratching any off the list while you’re in the group session. This will ensure no one feels left out or publicly ridiculed.
The most important part of any brainstorming session is its results. At the end of the meeting, go over the suggestions and ask participants to vote on their favorites. It’s important that everyone feel as though they are part of the decision-making process. Once the voting is complete, there are tools you can use to make a decision, including using an affinity diagram, where you group similar items together and choose from the category that is most relevant.
If you’re having difficulty coming up with a great idea, a brainstorming session can help. When you combine the right people with the perfect technique, you’ll come out of the meeting with the right idea. Knowing that they were part of the decision-making process will also strengthen your team.