How to Run a Better Brainstorming Session

Brainstorming is a common technique used by many organizations to create new concepts and products. In a typical brainstorming session, a small group of people discuss potential ideas and solutions. The goal is to generate and record as many thoughts as possible by postponing judgement and analysis, and encouraging unusual or far-fetched contributions. In theory, brainstorming allows diverse perspectives to combine and build off each other to produce creative outcomes. Participation in an ideation session can also help team members and stakeholders gain alignment, have their opinion heard, and feel included in the process.

There are a few problems with this method, however. Sometimes, ideas are stifled by the presence of others. For example, a participant might not feel comfortable expressing unusual ideas. Vocal people or management may dominate conversations. Thoughts can also begin to converge or be compromised as participants try to work together, and a group may focus on one idea and become distracted from other potential solutions. The following questions can help address these issues to plan a more effective brainstorming session.

1. How can we incorporate individual thinking into the process?

Incorporating individual reflection into the brainstorming process allows ideas to first grow independently before being influenced or overwritten by others. This strategy encourages divergent thinking and ensures that a unique perspective is preserved and developed. Once an idea has been nurtured by an individual, it is ready to be introduced to the group to either stand on its own and be improved upon or help inspire other ideas. Writing thoughts down and then passing them to other group members for input is one way to combine the benefits of both individual and group thinking.

Moments for individual work can also be interspersed throughout a brainstorming session. Have your participants complete “homework” before a session to give them a chance to think independently before sharing their thoughts with the group. During the brainstorming, plan moments of independent contemplation in-between group discussions as well as opportunities to break out into smaller groups. These approaches will help give individuals more of a voice and provide a different dynamic compared to the larger group.

2. How can we make participants feel comfortable and engaged?

A facilitator or brainstorming leader has the important role of setting the tone of a session and structuring its interactions. Creating a trusting, friendly, and playful atmosphere can make participants feel more comfortable, which in turn will make them more likely to voice unusual ideas that may end up being very influential. Games or challenges unrelated to the current project can help build trust between participants and “break the ice.”

For idea generation, consider using different methods, such as:

  • Open discussion
  • Visual communication
  • Written responses
  • Structured questions to give people with different personalities and thinking styles a chance to contribute

Switching up formats and activities throughout the session can also help avoid boredom. For example, have your team draw, build, make a collage, or move around in order to keep them engaged and energetic. It is also important to set rules about suspending judgement during the idea generation phase so that the fear of being negatively perceived is reduced.

3. What strategies can we use to inspire creative ideas?

Having a plan for the brainstorming will help keep the session focused and lead to successful outcomes. Think about how long you want to spend on each task and what tactics to use if the group seems to be losing energy or ideas are becoming stagnant. Free associations, mind maps, coming up with questions, imagining you are a different person, re-framing, and drawing inspiration from other industries can all help with idea generation. It is also helpful to present prior research and insights to use as thought-starters and provide context. When the time comes to narrow down options, anonymous voting on ideas can help the group come to a consensus.

The following techniques will challenge participants to think from a new perspective:

  • The Six Thinking Hats method gives each person a different role to play within a group. These roles are Logic, Optimism, Devil’s Advocate, Emotion, Creativity, and Management. Using this technique improves the likelihood that diverse perspectives are heard, which will lead to better ideas.
  • The acronym SCAMPER provides prompts to assess a challenge from different angles. These perspectives include Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Magnify/Minimize/Modify, Put to other use, Eliminate, and Reversal/Rearrange. This tool can help generate new ideas when your team feels blocked.

Design thinking is another method that guides the creative process. This strategy first focuses on empathizing with customers and their needs and then builds solutions around them through prototyping and testing.

These questions will help you run a more effective brainstorming. Whether your participants are employees, team members, or clients, an ideation session that includes multiple methods and task types, has a comfortable and trusting atmosphere, and uses processes that encourage creativity will be more likely to generate innovative ideas that lead to success in the future.