Tips for Running a Successful Brainstorm Session

Brainstorming is a practice that most businesses need to employ from time to time, but it’s not as simple as just getting a bunch of people together with a whiteboard and some sticky notes. It’s a real skill. It requires a lot of preparation, guidance, structure and a plan. You need to be able to help the team focus but also be creative. Brainstorming sessions can be invigorating and exciting, if not challenging. And with work from home being an ongoing reality, brainstorm sessions might seem impossible to manage.

In this episode we speak with SLD’s brand strategist Ada Zhang about some foundational brainstorming tips and how to make the magic happen, even remotely.


Melinda: Hi, I’m Melinda and you’re listening to Think Retail. Brainstorming is a practice that most businesses need to employ from time to time, but it’s not as simple as just getting a bunch of people together with a whiteboard and some sticky notes. It’s a real skill. It requires a lot of preparation, guidance, structure and a plan. You need to be able to help the team focus but also be creative. Brainstorming sessions can be invigorating and exciting, if not challenging. And with work from home being an ongoing reality, brainstorm sessions might seem impossible to manage.

Today we’re talking to SLD’s brand strategist Ada Zhang about some foundational brainstorming tips and how to make the magic happen even remotely. Ada, thank you for speaking with me today. Can you just start us off telling us a little bit about you?

Ada: Hi, Melinda. Thanks so much for having me. As for me, my startings right out of undergrad were actually here at SLD itself. I started as a project manager and was promoted into my current strategy role. So, I’ve had a really good look at all sorts of angles and practices in the company. And brainstorming is something I do very, very frequently these days. I’m excited to talk more about it.

Melinda: If we could just start off with the foundational practice, what is the purpose of a brainstorm?

Ada: A brainstorm is kind of the moment where people of all different levels and segments in their company, and of different perspectives, and ages, can come together and collaborate to find these brand-new angles and opportunities that were completely missed before. Since my perspectives and your perspectives and some 20-year-old perspectives and some 60-year-old CEOs perspectives are going to be fundamentally different, but we can all learn from one another. And that’s the whole idea. You want to go in with one perspective and leave with a dozen and a half if we did our job correctly. And have a learning process and really grow together in terms of a culture as well, since facilitating a brainstorm demonstrates that your company and brand is open to change and true innovation.

Melinda: You need a lot of bad ideas to come up with even one good idea, but just throwing out ideas at random seems pretty chaotic. Can you tell us about some of the different ways that you can structure a brainstorm?

Ada: Sure. So, I have a very effective agenda that I usually put together. It’s along the lines of the first 15 minutes is just an intro and then you go into 15 minutes of presentation of background context. And then the next 15 minutes would be, “Here’s the structure of the brainstorm” and explicitly outlining that we’re spending half an hour on this, we’re spending 20 minutes on that, we’re doing breakout rooms for this amount of time. So, making sure that you have the guidelines that people need to follow, while not being confused and lost is really important. And another way to structure is just making sure that as the facilitator, you jump in and say, “Oh, this is a good idea, let’s elaborate on this,” or like, “Great, but we’re getting off track. Let’s go back to the main topic.” So, you have to be constantly engaged and make sure that you are having everyone on the same page at all times.

Melinda: So how much context do you need to provide, and do you give it before or during the session?

Ada: I typically give it during, but I will send out a full version of the context before, which could be something like a 50 or 90-page deck. Whereas during would be the 15-slider condensed version for people who did not have time to go through it in detail. And that’s typically enough. And if you open it up for questions and answers, all the gaps of knowledge will be filled.

Melinda: Right. And do you typically ask people to come to the session with any sort of resources or prepared materials or do you like them to come in completely fresh?

Ada: I absolutely love having people come with some kind of resources. Something that we love to do at SLD in particular is have them choose three words that describe the brand, or how the brand makes you feel, or what the brand is supposed to deliver. Which is a great way to also break the ice between coworkers and get that understanding of, “Oh, we all are in the same company because we all believe these are the similar attributes the company has.” Or you learn very, very early on, “Wow, there’s a lot of internal miscommunication about this brand and no one is on the same page.” So, it’s always enlightening to begin with that.

Melinda: How would you prepare differently for an internal session with just your own company or, versus a collaborative session either with a client or with a partner?

Ada: Mm-hmm. So with an internal brainstorming session, there’s always the risk that it gets too loose and informal, which is always fun, you want to keep it light, you want to keep it engaging, but you still need to enact that structure and make sure it’s in place. Whereas with an external client, you might want to spend more time on designing a very aesthetically pleasing brainstorming virtual whiteboard, for example, that is branded to them. The colors are on brand for them things that are more presentable, whereas internally you can, willy-nilly kind of make things up on the fly in terms of a visual structure.

Melinda: So, if you’ve got a plan, you’ve got an agenda, how do you motivate people or just sort of free them to start taking the plunge and throwing their ideas out there?

Ada: This is where I really love using online resources that are virtual whiteboards. SLD enjoys this one platform called Miro, where you have the option to add sticky notes in boxes and as many as you want and in any color that you’d like. So, you usually would begin with some kind of exercise where you have a big box and you just tell everyone, “Let’s just put any words or ideas that you have about this topic. We’re going to give you 20 minutes and go wild.” So, we’ll also have members of our own team in there to just get the ball rolling in case people are nervous to make sure that it doesn’t have to be a brilliant million-dollar idea. It can be anything off the top of your head and just put as many things down as you can think of.

Melinda: And once the ball gets rolling, people are coming up with ideas, how do you moderate this part of the session? Or do you just let it flow as long as the ideas are coming?

Ada: I would let it flow. And then at the certain cutoff point, which can be extended, if it feels necessary, then we would sit back with everyone together and say, “Look at all of these ideas, and let’s filter it down more.” At which point we might do something like creating buckets. “Which of these ideas belong in a similar theme or category, and let’s break those down.” And then you filter, filter, filter and distill until you get to more concise nuggets of truth and knowledge.

Melinda: Once the actual brainstorm portion of the process is over, then what happens?

Ada: Once the brainstorm is over, the entire session has concluded and wrapped up. What happened is that an internal strategist member at SLD would take it and compile it into a report. Which would go step-by-step through the entire agenda and visually demonstrate all the ideas throughout the session. And then at the very end generate some strategic ideas of what direction that this could go in. And since many of the ideas from the brainstorming are really rough, this is where the strategists have an opportunity to polish them and make them very cohesive and distinct as individual ideas in the final report. And then that would be given to the client to which the client would select what they like, what they don’t like, and then whatever next steps comes next.

Melinda: Because everybody’s working from home, and at SLD we’re really used to doing this in a boardroom where we get sticky notes all over the walls of the boardroom. And you mentioned that we’ve been using a virtual whiteboard. How does this change the process being online?

Ada: I actually think being online has some really great benefits, for example when you’re putting down sticky notes in person, it’s a lot more strenuous in terms of, “Oh, you can only put down so many at a time. And I’m self-conscious about this particular sticky note.” But when you’re in an online environment, you have 15 people putting down sticky notes, rapid fire, so there’s no time or real energy to waste on being self-conscious or second guessing yourself. So in this way, you get a lot of more weird ideas. But you also get a lot more interesting and out of the box ideas.

Melinda: Are there any technical tips in this new world where we’re all working from home? Have you encountered any issues that you would flag for others who are going to attempt to do a brainstorm session online?

Ada: Oh, absolutely. So, of course, we know that system settings and making accounts are a little bit painful. One thing that I think is very important for Miro, the online whiteboard in particular is making sure that people can access, and contribute, and participate, before the meeting begins. We’ve had a lot of challenges in the past where people couldn’t add a sticky note, people couldn’t click into the link because it prompted them to make an account. Honestly, on the safe side, just ask them to make an account. It’s free, it shouldn’t hurt them in any way. On the side of things like videos conferencing, like Zoom for breakout rooms, there also needs to be a setting that is enabled within their profiles so that their system will allow them to do the breakout rooms. So, making sure that that’s enabled on their end. So, there’s no more hiccups when you go into the process as well. I’d say those are the top two issues we’ve had. But otherwise, we expect that the first 10 minutes will be dissecting those hiccups for any brainstorming.

Melinda: If you were going to take the best of an in-person experience and the best of an online experience, what would you take from each of those?

Ada: Definitely in person you see the people, when you’re presenting, there’s engagement. I think that’s something I’m definitely missing from online brainstorming, just being able­ – when people are presenting their ideas ­– to see their faces and their voices and just being in that physical space together. That being said, easily resolved if you just turned on your cameras in a Zoom call, and it would be 90 percent of the way there. As for online brainstorming the best, again, would be the fact that it’s almost anonymous in a lot of ways of the ideas that you are contributing, so people aren’t as shy about what they’re saying. And the ability to vote as well is very helpful in platforms like Miro, which again, are anonymous, so there’s no second guessing for that as well. And if we could marry those together in a better way, which I’m sure these platforms are all working on, that would facilitate a fantastic experience. I’m sure.

Melinda: If you could give us three easy tips on how to run a brainstorm session, let’s just imagine that I’m setting a brainstorm session up, I don’t have very much experience doing this, what would be your three top to do’s.

Ada: My three top to do’s is one, I cannot drive this home enough, have an agenda and keep to it. Because nothing is worse than going over time and having to end the brainstorm early when you only have two thirds of what you were trying to get done. My second tip would be to make sure that you have a technical understanding of both Zoom and Miro or whatever platforms you use so that you know how to troubleshoot, because it will happen. And step number three is just going into the brainstorm before as a facilitator and thinking through kind of role playing with yourself what scenarios that people will come up with anticipate what people will say. And have a few things in your back pocket in case there’s a lull. And then you could say, “What about this angle? What about this idea?” Just to keep things going, should things slow down.

Melinda: Excellent. Well, thanks so much for chatting with us. And we will post links to a tutorial in Miro, so anyone who’s interested in running a brainstorming session on Miro can learn a little bit more about it. Thanks so much for chatting with us.

Ada: You’re welcome. It’s been a pleasure.

Melinda: We do a lot of brainstorming at SLD. And it can be a really rich, rewarding experience not only in the pursuit of specific ideas for a project but in collaboration and challenging yourself to think differently. A good facilitator will know how to free people up to really embrace that in a brainstorming session there are truly no bad ideas to provide structure and context and to help move things along if they get stuck.

If you’re having challenges with remote brainstorming, we’d love to hear from you. You can reach us at Thanks for listening to Think Retail and remember you can find us on iTunes, Spotify or at


Ada Zhang is a Strategist at SLD. She supports strategic initiatives through research, audits, analysis and strategic foresight.

Think Retail is a podcast where top designers, strategists, thought leaders and business people discuss what’s coming next. For more information, email