How to brainstorm effectively

Brainstorming gets a bad rap. Like many productivity exercises, brainstorming needs a very clear purpose, otherwise it can lead to reduced productivity and focus. To help you get the most out of your brainstorming sessions, here are a few top tips to keep you on the straight and narrow.

When used correctly, brainstorming can not only produce fantastic ideas but actually bring teams together and get them invested in a project. So, what is brainstorming and when is the most appropriate time to use brainstorming in a business meeting?

Brainstorming is both a group and individual creative activity that has a primary goal of developing a wide range of ideas or solutions to a predefined problem.

As the name suggests the main technique follows a fairly rapid output of ideas that are presented onto one shared canvas. There are no "wrong" ideas and critique only comes at the end of the session. The culmination of the ideas from as many different perspectives leads to the generation of more inspirational ideas and creative solutions. It is a fantastic way to get people "unstuck" in an ideas process. Here are my tips to get great brains storming.

Get the fundamentals right

1) Decide whether brainstorming is the right process for your meeting

Brainstorming is only really useful during the early creative process - the ideas stage. It is not useful for analysis of solutions or decision-making. These processes come after brainstorming, once all ideas have been fleshed out. Predefined ideas or solutions are unlikely to lead to idea generation as participants will be distracted by existing solutions or generation of new ideas will conflict with the predefined solution.

2) Define your problem clearly and understand the goals related to the problem

Like all problem solving understanding the end goal and defining the problem clearly are important steps to solving problems - almost as important as the solution itself! In brainstorming you should aim to discuss the problem but be sure to avoid discussing a solution. That's what the brainstorm is for!

Preparing a brainstorm

1) Create the right environment

Brainstorming requires all participants to have the opportunity to participate and contribute ideas. The room layout should allow each participant to be facing one another. Circular table layouts and U-shaped tables are great for this purpose. Failing that, remove the tables and sit in a circle!

2) Get your equipment ready

Clipboards, note pads, coloured pens, big marker pens are all useful brainstorming tools. Do you need computers or a display/projector to project the problem? Sometimes it is useful to have a permanent visual cue that is associated with the problem as this can often spark visually associated ideas and remind participants about the nature of the problem. Also think about how many resources are needed - if your group is quite large then you might need to provide a clipboard for every pair of participants.

3) Book an external meeting room

Sometimes taking participants away from their natural environments can refresh ideas and give participants better focus. Meeting rooms and training venues can also provide the much needed space and help you organise (and provide) the right equipment for your meeting.

4) Assign a facilitator

In every brainstorm meeting you should have a facilitator to help control the creative process. They will be there to introduce the brainstorm, ensure the participants are abiding by the rules of the meeting and be the meeting's time-keeper. They can also be the meeting secretary who is responsible for documenting and logging suggestions. It is important that the facilitator keeps the flow going but does not directly contribute or influence ideas.

During the meeting

1) Get people thinking by asking them to brainstorm on their own

Studies have shown that people are better at generating ideas when given the opportunity to brainstorm, even on their own. Therefore, given the opportunity to have a think before they get into a group brainstorm participants will be able to generate some early ideas without being influenced by others.

2) Make sure everyone is heard

Go around each participant asking for their contribution - generate as many ideas as possible! Get all participants involved and try and to create an enthusiastic attitude among the group.

3) Encourage participants to develop each others' ideas

A different perspective on an original idea can produce alterations and inspiration for new ones.

4) But don't spend too long on one idea

Again the main idea purpose is to get as many ideas as possible - if one idea/solution is getting a little bit too much focus try and move on. You can always return make an analysis post brainstorm.

5) Be creative - no idea is a bad one

Encourage crazy even impractical ideas wherever possible. This serves two purposes - first it reiterates no idea is a bad one and supports the flow of creativity. Secondly it enforces the principle of having absolutely no criticism or evaluation during the brainstorm - a very important factor to follow.

Some additional tips

1) Make sure there are plenty of refreshments

2) Invite strangers to the brainstorm

This might sound quite odd but it has some logic. Try inviting work colleagues who you might not ordinarily include in meetings or work with. They could be loosely related to your project/problem especially if the project requires the output of several different departments. Either way, a group with a varied skill-set will ultimately lead to a more diverse brainstorming outfit which will (hopefully) be able to give a different perspective on the same problem.

3) Play ice-breaker games

If you find that the meeting is not flowing as you hoped then try a few ice-breaker games to break the tension.

4) Tailor the brainstorm to the group size

The tips so far have been quite general in regards to group size however we would suggest that you can have a very good session with around 5-10 people. If you have a smaller group size then you might need to concentrate on maintaining a flow of ideas by getting into the brainstorming process as soon as possible.

Very large groups may need a conference style approach with the main facilitator taking a more active approach at the front of the conference.

Brainstorms have had some flack in the past but they remain a valuable resource when getting groups engaged in a problem and aligned with the solution. They can also be a lot of fun for participants and be a pretty good bonding experience if done right.

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