7 secrets to holding a productive brainstorm

If your brainstorms aren’t producing the right ideas, it isn’t necessarily because your team is unimaginative. Some people are better-suited to lateral thinking than others, but certain conditions are more conducive to creativity than others. Moments of light-bulb inspiration are rarer than people like to think.

Inspiration can’t be forced, and nor can it be relied on to spontaneously occur – but if you lay the proper groundwork and provide the right environment, it can be funnelled and teased out, before being refined into good ideas.

Here are seven ways to improve your brainstorms – some I’ve learnt from trial and error, and others were inspired by Claire Bridges from NowGoCreate’s excellent creativity training:

1. The brief encounter

The briefing process is theoretically quite straightforward: it more or less boils down to identifying the problem, and then asking people to figure it out. And yet despite this simplicity, the briefing process is the source of many a failed brainstorm.

Why? Essentially, people overcomplicate it: they lavish their briefs with detail, they ask long, difficult questions, they narrow the parameters of conversation and thereby close off potentially fruitful avenues of inquiry. Consequently, brainstorms can become discussions about micro-level issues – resulting in incremental positive improvements at best, and at worst, resulting in nothing at all.

Briefs aren’t supposed to be complex; the clue is in the name. They should be concise and direct, starting conversations rather than pre-emptively ending them. In Thinkertoys, Michael Michalko recommends distilling the issue down to a sentence, and then a word – analysing the word’s dictionary definition, discussing it with other colleagues, and doing the same with their words. By compiling your briefs in such a way, you can reduce problems to their simplest and most elemental forms. Also, nobody ever actually reads briefs, so this methodology precludes the need to begin each meeting with a five-minute recap.

Admittedly, this format doesn’t allow for much nuance, but then, it’s not supposed to; brainstorming is about starting discussions, not shutting them down. Worry about the particulars later on.

 2. Teaming with ideas

Focus groups, family dinners, long bus rides, Christmas parties, regular parties, new business meetings, contemporary politics, ancient politics, orchestras, checkout queues, school trips, dating, sports crowds, sports teams, and salsa dancing all tend to be dominated by extroverts. This doesn’t mean that extroverts are necessarily the best at these things, or the ones most deserving of a hearing – it just means they’re willing to take action and shout the loudest.

It’s the same with brainstorms. Extroverts and introverts are equally likely to have good ideas, but only the former find it easy to give voice to them; the latter, out of nervousness about public speaking, a fear of sounding like an idiot, or a simple preference to not speak unless spoken to, will have a harder time of it.

You need their suggestions as much as anyone else’s – so pair the more reserved members of your team with your all-singing, all-dancing, contributors and ask them to come up with an idea together and bring it to the presentation. The identity theft technique – where you ask both participants to look at a problem from another person’s perspective – is a particularly useful method for getting these individuals to step out of their respective comfort zones.

3. Context is king

The brief should be snappy, but you still need to provide people with enough exposition to understand the problem – it’s quite possible that not everybody will have worked in this area, or on this specific client before. Either way, context is critical to the success of your brainstorm.

If you’re talking about a client-facing issue, this may involve elaborating on the company’s history, its activities, and its target audience; if it’s not, you’ll want to jump straight to the task at hand. What are the pain points? What solutions have been tried – and haven’t worked – before, and for what reason? Why are you hosting the brainstorm in the first place? Come up with suitable answers and make sure everyone is aware of them.

It’s often easier to conduct this part of the process verbally: asking participants to read and analyse a long document is basically asking them to do homework. Instead, ask everyone what they already know about the problem, and fill in any gaps: they need the fullest possible understanding of the issue before they can get to work solving it.

4. Setting the scene

Traditional boardrooms can be fairly stale or bland environments – unless you work at Google, with its beanbag chairs, disco balls, chocolate fountains, etc. It can be hard to feel very inspired when you’re sitting in the all too familiar office meeting room.

So, weather permitting, it’s worth taking your brainstorm outside and seeing if the wider world can’t stimulate more productive discussions. Go to a café. Go to the park. Jump in a ball pit. Try different things. Everyone responds differently to their surroundings, and what stifles one employee may motivate another to express themselves.

5. Same goal, different methods

Get your team to try out different creative brainstorming techniques…

There’s brainwriting, where you suggest a topic, write down your ideas, and have the next team member elaborate upon them and add their own – some studies have found that it generates 42% more original ideas than other idea generation methods.

There’s the time travel method, which asks how you’d deal with this problem in a different era – be it Shogun-era Japan, WWII, or some chrome-plated, jumpsuit-clad future utopia where technology can immediately solve all problems forever.

There’s the simple, classic Osborn method, which asks only that you source as many ideas as possible and defer judgment on all of them until after the meeting.

There’s the ‘yes, and…’ approach pioneered by improv comics, which starts from a basic idea and asks each participant to elaborate and develop it further.

There’s semantic intuition, which asks you to combine different keywords in the hope of coming up with something new.

There are thousands of brainstorming methods, and an infinite number of possible variations on these methods. Make sure your team knows how to use them so they don’t get stuck when brainstorming.

6. Stay positive

According to Robert Dilts, there were three sides to Walt Disney: the dreamer, the realist, and the critic – the first devises the big ideas, the second thinks about implementation, the third identifies potential barriers.

Brainstorms are about the dreamers. Don’t say no, don’t shoot people down, and be open to suggestions: there’s plenty of time to dismiss unworkable ideas after the meeting has concluded. During the meeting, you should listen attentively, ask follow-up questions and give people plenty of space to respond. Even if it doesn’t seem viable during the meeting, it’s perfectly possible for good ideas to rise from the ashes of weaker ones.

Facilitate – don’t criticise unfairly.

7. Follow up

Finally, make sure you update people on the progress of these brainstorms. You’re asking your colleagues to give you their time, and you need to respect that they could be using this time for other things – servicing clients, getting tedious admin tasks out of the way, surreptitiously browsing celebrity gossip sites, etc.

Thank them, follow up with them, and let them know when their ideas become reality: it’s great for their confidence, and it encourages them to be bolder and more interesting when the next meeting rolls around.

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