How to run great brainstorming sessions

Posted in Business and entrepreneurship.

Brainstorming is a neat way for people to come up with a bunch of ideas in a short span of time. These ideas don’t need to be good per se. Brainstorming works on the basis of linking different ideas and starting out with a bunch of bad ideas might be just what is needed to get the ball running towards better ideas. Brainstorming can be done alone, but when working in a group, different perspectives can provide a wider variety of ideas especially since we tend to railroad ourselves onto one train of thought.

Focus on ways ideas can work

Brainstorming is all about quickly thinking of ideas and building off of them. The idea is not to critique these ideas. One can often come up with an idea and then easily find a reason why it wouldn’t work. This may lead us to dismissing the idea entirely when parts of it might actually be useful.

If brainstorming in a group, quick dismissal of an idea may cause the person who put forth the idea to participate less. Some people are not quick to voice their opinions in the first place, so focusing on the ways in which an idea works serves as encouragement to continue adding ideas.

Once brainstorming is over, the ideas can finally be examined critically, and less effective ideas can be left on the cutting floor. Or various ideas can be merged by focusing on what makes each individual idea great. The key idea behind brainstorming is to separate out idea generation from idea discussion.

Focus on getting as many ideas as possible

According to Parkinson’s Law, “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” What this means is that given more than enough time to accomplish a task, a portion of that will go into being unproductive. Giving a time limit for brainstorming (and a shorter one especially), people are more likely to write down whatever comes to mind. It is almost like a more focused means of freewriting.

When beginning a brainstorming session, lay out clearly what the crux of the issue is – the main purpose behind the brainstorm. Once everyone understands what they need to do, set a time limit that is short enough to give people enough urgency to not slack off and reasonable enough to actually produce some ideas.

When more time is spent on generating ideas rather than dissecting them, there are more ideas to work with in the end. Some might not prefer to have two separate meetings for brainstorming and critiquing; or they may want to bring in the critiquing discussion whilst generating new ideas. Even in these situations, allocating different time slots for generating and critiquing will tend to be more effective. In this way, ideas can be generated in a short span of time, and once that time is up, the ideas can be discussed. From there, new ideas are generated and those are thus then discussed. Rinse and repeat.

Visualise these ideas

When dealing with so many ideas, many of which intertwine with each other, we can lose track of some of them. A good way to deal with this is by writing these ideas down, but just listing ideas can leave out all the ways in which those ideas associate with each other.

The simplest way to visually represent these ideas and their connections is through a mind map. A central idea is drawn and all other ideas that sprout from it are connected by a line. Those ideas then have other ideas that link to them and so forth. With more intricate mind maps, hand drawing becomes a complex task in and of itself.

Ask questions and answer them

Oftentimes, brainstorming can just have one central idea or issue and more can be added around it. Sometimes we may need to be guided. This is where asking questions comes in.

One method is called starbursting. Draw a 6-pointed star. In the middle is the issue or opportunity that needs to be addressed. On each point, write one of the following words: who, what, when, where, why, how. In this way, the ideas can be guided in how they answer a specific question. This allows ideas to be more focused and shows us gaps in the ideas. When many ideas are dedicated to answering “what” and “why” we may not notice we don’t have an answer to “how”. Starbursting reminds us of this distribution.

Follow a train of thought until it can no longer continue

Let your ideas beget more ideas. Aimlessly brainstorming doesn’t account for gaps in our ideas. Once a bunch of ideas are already laid out, organise them in terms of how they can get you to the final goal. Doing it like this allows you to see any gaps in moving from one point to another. This is a method called gap filling. Gap filling is useful for thinking of bridging points between ideas that may seem too far from each other but are promising, nonetheless.

Another way in which this can be tackled is by working backwards. What is the challenge that needs to be addressed? Now, instead of brainstorming to solve the challenge, cause it. We call this “reverse brainstorming”. If there is a problem, attempt to find ways to cause it. In doing so, you may find points of interest that can be addressed in order to solve the problem. For instance, if the problem is that not many people want your product, think about how you could go about causing it. You may come up with causes such as poor marketing, poor design, or expensive pricing etc. Now that you know the possible causes, you can brainstorm ways to fix them.

Similarly, the ‘5 Whys’ also work backwards. When addressing a possible cause or idea, ask why it is happening. Then, ask why that is happening. The process of asking an urgent series of whys will eventually lead us to the root of the issue. Solving problems farther down the root may be useful in solving problems higher up.

Find ways to think differently

We can often get stuck in our ways of thinking which prevents us from seeing things from other perspectives. Think of it like a maze with a long branching path that leads to a dead end. The only way to find the exit is to completely abandon that path and try other ways. This is kind of what it means to see things in other perspectives.

Working in a group can often allow for varied opinions and perspectives, but we can still suffer from something called groupthink. We can be primed to think in a certain way in response to other people’s ideas which is great for expanding on those ideas but may limit our breadth of thinking.

This is where roleplaying comes in. Ask participants to imagine themselves in the role of a person whose experiences relate to your brainstorming goal. Pretend that you are a client and try and think in ways in which they might. Another common thing is figure storming. Figure storming is where participants imagine themselves in the role of someone famous. What would Abraham Lincoln do in this situation? How would his approach work here and how would it not? That is the kind of role playing that is happening here. If you have ever heard the phrase “what would Jesus do?” then you have experienced figure storming before.

Try and accommodate those less willing to share

Not everyone is willing to openly share their opinions and ideas on a subject. This may hinder the process of group brainstorming. If people are not willing to share their ideas there will ultimately be less ideas to work with in the end. Furthermore, those ideas may potentially be very fruitful.

There are many reasons why people may be hesitant to voice their opinions. Perhaps they are afraid of being shut down or maybe they are afraid of hurting other people’s feelings by negatively critiquing their ideas. Thankfully, there are ways in which we can create a more inclusive brainstorming environment for these participants.

Stepladder brainstorming is generally seen as the more time consuming process, but it can be effective for some people. How it works is as follows:

  • Pitch the central idea.
  • Have everyone but two people leave to generate ideas.
  • The two remaining participants generate ideas together.
  • Then a third person comes in and discusses the ideas they generated before the already discussed ideas are discussed.
  • A fourth person is brought in in the same fashion and so on until everyone has voiced their opinion.

This may feel similar to a round-robin setup, but if ordered smartly can allow those that are more reserved in front of crowds to build up confidence over the course of the discussions.

Another method that is completely anonymous is called brainwriting. Brainwriting works by ideas being written anonymously and randomly distributed to people for them to anonymously comment on the idea. This removes some of the fear of rejection as well as some of the fear of hurting other people’s feelings. If done in-person, this would work by writing ideas down on a piece of paper and adding them to a box for them to be distributed around. There can be multiple rounds of ideas floating around and being commented on until the brainstorming session ends. If done digitally, anyone can make an anonymous comment on an idea they have an opinion on.