Picture this: You’ve spent weeks jotting down notes for a brainstorming session with your teammates. You’re excited to hear their ideas. The day has finally arrived. You sit down in the session, and. . . Crickets. Maybe you volunteer an idea and get several nods of approval before the dead air fills the room again. What went wrong? Let’s explore effective brainstorming techniques.
Planning for the (Brainstorm) Weather
We’ve all been in situations where we reach the end of an hour-long brainstorming session and realize there’s been very little, well, storming. It’s often hard to pinpoint what went wrong, but with our effective brainstorming techniques, you don’t have to be a mind meteorologist to effectively weather any session.
I would apologize for the jokes, but I’m going to do it again, which actually leads to the most important part of every brainstorming session:
Setting clear expectations.
Many brainstorming sessions fail simply because people don’t have a clear idea of what to expect. One person’s storm is another person’s drizzle, and if people aren’t on the same page before meeting, it’s difficult to course correct.
Furthermore, Art Markman, in an article for Harvard Business Review notes that people often have better ideas working alone because brainstorming time is so directionless.
One way to avoid this problem is to send out a clear agenda before the meeting, offering a clear outline of the topic to be discussed
and inviting participants to answer each of the wh-questions:
1. What are we addressing?
2. Where would we make changes?
3. Who would make those changes?
4. When would we do this?
5. Why does it matter?
By the time you meet, each person should have a rough framework for sharing their ideas—the question is whether or not they will feel comfortable doing so.
From Brain Drain to Brain Storm
A major hurdle for fostering effective brainstorming techniques is understanding roles and actually creating space for new ideas. We’ve all been in situations where it’s clear that our opinions and ideas don’t actually matter, and the leader of the meeting just wanted to go through the motions. It’s disheartening, and it’s a good way to shut down every creative impulse that could make a project thrive. If you’re planning a brainstorm, ask yourself if you really want new ideas or if you just want validation.
It’s a hard question to be honest about, but asking it will do one of two things: You’ll either cancel the meeting because you already have a solution in mind, or you’ll begin to make intentional decisions about the background knowledge people will need in order to bring their best ideas. In turn, it will be easier to make many of the planning decisions mentioned above.
For more on the importance of creating a collaborative culture, check out this post from Amelia!
The (Im)Perfect Storm
Another effective brainstorming technique is to invite bad ideas. Really. Sometimes, it’s helpful to ask people for their worst solutions to a problem. This approach seems counter-intuitive, and in a world where time is precious and we can feel it trickling away, it can be a deeply frustrating exercise if you don’t understand its purpose.
Simply put, to understand what makes a good idea good, you also have to understand what makes a bad idea bad.
There have been multiple times on the Anna Montgomery & Co team where someone jokingly makes a terrible suggestion, and it turns out to be exactly what we need. Often, it sheds light on the nuances of the problem we’re addressing, but sometimes, it’s also just a good idea.
Bad ideas can still lead to good solutions, as long as there’s a clear action plan, which leads to our final suggestion.
Effective brainstorming techniques: idea & action
You wouldn’t plan a beach day if you know a hurricane is coming, and in the same way, brainstorming is only effective insomuch as it’s enacted. Our final tip, then, is to structure your sessions in such a way that you shift from ideation (coming up with ideas) to activation (thinking through how you would act on them).
If you have an hour-long meeting, maybe the first half is built on jotting down ideas, and the second half is focused on discussing ways you could actually implement those ideas. This approach is helpful for a few reasons. First, it helps shift the discussion from abstract ideas to real world consequences, and second, it can highlight the hidden blind spots in the initial ideas. Restructuring your meetings like this is an easy change, but it can make all the difference.
Effective brainstorming techniques are ultimately recursive or circular processes as ideas develop and change, and these sessions can be exciting if you structure them thoughtfully and create space for everyone.
To put it another way, if you’re going to brainstorm, plan on bringing an umbrella.