Peter, a sales executive, invited his sales team to a brainstorming session to the board room. “I want to see new solutions on how to grow our online sales”, said the invite.
15 sales experts arrived in the impressive boardroom and gathered around the massive oak table. Peter had ordered plenty of croissants and coffee to make sure people were at their best for a creative input.
Peter asked his team to shoot ideas, while one of the team members would write them down. While most of the group members stayed quiet, a couple of eager sales managers kept throwing in ideas. Peter reserved the right to analyze, evaluate and shoot down most of the solutions on the spot.
“No, that’s too expensive.”
“But, that just doesn’t work out, I mean, just consider it..”
“That idea is actually quite good, but it doesn’t work in this context, we have tried it before.”
Does it ring a bell?
I hope not. The scenario above may be stereotypical, but there are several mistakes that we have seen in “brainstorming sessions” over and over again. We don’t actually like the word brainstorming, because it is so often misused and deflated. But for the sake of common understanding, let’s stick to it, and if possible, try to reclaim some respect for brainstorming.
We have seen a couple of great articles around the subject, which we reference below, complemented with our own experiences of good brainstorming practices.
The list is by no means exhaustive, so please add your own ideas in the comments or on LinkedIn!
The ideas fall into three categories:
1) Improving the brainstorming environment and setting
2) Using effective methods and processes
3) Enhancing the experience with facilitation and communication skills
How to improve the brainstorming environment and setting?
Go take a walk
According to Stanford University research, a person’s creative output increased by an average of 60 percent when walking. Additionally, it doesn’t matter whether you walk indoors or outside if your space allows it. Even standing up and little movement helps.
Brainstorm in a new location
Changing your regular project room or office space to another, perhaps in another city, lets you mentally prepare for it – and puts your mind to work on possible ideas before the brainstorming. It also helps in diminishing power positions held in your normal work environment. A new space can inspire new thinking.
Have a round table or no table at all
This is quite simple, but too many rooms have that great oak table in the middle. We prefer to not have tables due to tips 1 and 2 above. But if your approach requires something in the middle, then small round tables create an equal structure and won’t diminish shy people from speaking.
How to develop good brainstorming methods and processes?
Separate divergent thinking from convergent thinking
The goal of brainstorming sessions is often to come up with some ideas that can and will be implemented at work. For these types of outcomes, the process of divergent and convergent thinking makes sense. Divergent thinking is the action of generating a maximum number of ideas. Convergent thinking is the part of brainstorming when you start crossing out ideas.
Set a time limit for brainstorming
When you are doing divergent thinking, or brainstorming, set a time limit to it. This will create a sense of urgency and people will start blurbing out ideas. Some use a time limit of just 2 minutes, some use 10 minutes. What’s important to highlight here is that you can have multiple sessions and keep brainstorming efficient.
Re-frame the problem
The father of creativity – or lateral thinking to be precise, Edward de Bono, has said “You can’t dig a new hole by digging the old one deeper”. We tend to come up with the same idea no-matter how long we try to iterate for a better if we stick with the same issue every time we generate ideas. Re-framing is a very powerful way to start ideating if you are stuck. It allows you to look at the problem from another perspective.
As a practical example, if your brainstorming topic has been “how to improve our product” and you are stuck, try changing the topic to “if you had a magic wand, what job would our product do for the customer, and how would this improve our product”.
Brainstorm questions, not answers
Brainstorming for questions grants worry free brainstorming because it erases the thought that ideas should be good. Hal Gregensen from the MIT Sloan Leadership Lab explores this in his excellent HBR article. Use this for breakthrough ideas.
Draw or prototype ideas
Familiarised by design thinking, drawing or prototyping – or visualisation – can help you communicate your idea to others. It can also help you to see the bigger picture, especially from a practical perspective. This is almost a must when you start validating or testing ideas in the later phases of brainstorming.
Try silent brainstorming
Many brainstorming meetings are overpowered by who ever happens to be the loudest in the room. One way to give equal voice to everyone, is to actually shut up and write and draw the ideas. Just put a big piece of paper on the table or wall, write your brainstorming topic or question in the middle and go! Try some music in the background if you wish. No talking allowed!
Play, is (naturally for us game-learning geeks) the go-to method of brainstorming. Games and play are a great way to unleash creativity. We use our own Insight cards in brainstorming (and networking settings) by distributing sets of question cards on the wall or on small tables in a space where people can move around (e.g. in trios). The question cards can be pre-selected from a deck of 50+ cards to guide the ideation. More detailed instructions can be found here.
How do I better facilitate brainstorming sessions and what are good practices of communication?
Don’t be the boss
Don’t put yourself in the position where you organise the brainstorming and have all the power to kill or endorse ideas. If you are, ask someone else to facilitate and try not to judge or impose ideas. Let people run free with the ideas.
Be a host
Invite people to the ideation like you would invite people to your home. Be a host to the good conversations. This will create a safe space, which is much more likely to produce creative thinking. More on the Art of Hosting conversations that matter.
Try out improv
Improv is a form of art that has originated from the theater scene, but is now commonly used in organisational development. It is about communicating in a way that does not stop flow, eg. changing negative sentence starts, like “No,..” or “But,..” with “Yes, and..” and about stopping the limiting of what the another person said or did. Applying the principles of improv in brainstorming gets people to share more ideas – because no idea will be diminished – and by building on top of ideas. We have worked together with Ralf Wetzel from Vlerick Business School in sessions where we have combined improv and leadership simulations.
There are no right or wrong ideas
This is as simple as it sounds. The point of brainstorming is not to generate good ideas – or bad ones, but just to generate ideas. Therefore, there are no right or wrong ideas. Stating this in the beginning of a brainstorming session can help new people or introverts speak – as long as you walk the talk and don’t judge ideas.
Bring an outsider, a colleague or a customer to the brainstorming
This can create unexpected results and change the dynamics, when used at the right place and time. When people are new to subjects, they tend to simplify matters. And, on the opposite if people are experts on subjects, they tend to make matters complex. If you are brainstorming new product features, why not bring some customers on board!
Let’s brainstorm more!
Here you have 15 ideas to improve your brainstorming sessions. Let’s co-create some more! We’d be happy to learn and test out new ideas. We would be curious to learn, what has worked for you? Or what was the worst brainstorming you have been to? 🙂 What tip would you give to others?