Preparing brainstorms in 3 easy steps

Brainstorming, blue skying, thought showers, idea mills…call them what you will and find least offensive, they are a powerful tool and I’m a huge fan. As a bubble of productive creativity, they are a safe hub of generating ideas that tackle a particular problem, decide how to get a particular outcome or direction for a particular project, plan a particular event – I could go on.

In short, it’s a dedicated session to dump ideas and provoke discussion and debate on feasibility, practicality and follow-up concepts.

If you have been asked to lead or facilitate a brainstorming session, you may be wondering how to go about it. Without resorting to brainstorming the ways in which to facilitate brainstorming sessions (although this is do-able), here are 3 steps to help prepare your session.

Step 1 – The objective

The first thing you need to be clear on is the brainstorm’s objective. Without being absolutely clear on this, you cannot effectively steer the session to the desired outcome. The three questions you should be asking yourself are:

  • What events have taken place to warrant the brainstorm – understanding what has happened for there to be a need for a brainstorm, as opposed to a meeting, round-robin email etc., will give you some background to the reasoning behind this. This should be included in the introduction to the session (look out for next week’s post on leading brainstorms) as it sets the scene for the attendees.
  • What are the desired outcomes from the brainstorm – ideally you should have been given a clear outcome for the brainstorm. If you can answer the first question, the outcome should be in context with the reason for the session.
  • How will the outcomes be presented after the session – how do the end users (this could be the person asking you to do the brainstorm or for another team who will take the actions away) want the information to be presented. Rarely will you be able to get away with presenting the crude pieces of paper the group dumped their ideas on, so you will need to determine before collecting the ideas how they will be cleaned up and summarised smartly to the end user. This should still be done at discretionary effort if the end user is happy to see the crude pieces of paper.

Step 2 – Additional information

Once you know the objective of the brainstorm, decide what additional information you will need. Being prepared will increase the effectiveness of the session, as well as avoiding any embarrassing questions you cannot answer in a room full of people, making you feel a little more confident. Additional information could include: the background; statistics or figures that help illustrate a problem; information from other people or teams that are not part of the session but will help with how the attendees come up with ideas; an agenda, explaining how much time will be spent on introductions and each topic; or case studies from other teams, departments or external organisations on how they approached a similar issue.

You’ll especially need to know who the attendees will be (or decide who they should be if you can) and what their experience, background and potential perspective will be. If you know them personally, it would be helpful to know if there are too many strong/weak vocalists. This will also help you to decide how to format the session.

Step 3 – Format

Now you know why the brainstorming session is needed, what its purpose is and all other additional information including who is attending, you will need to decide the format of the brainstorm. This needs to be appropriate to the audience, the objective and the time you have to conduct the session. You’ll also need to consider the strong/weak vocalists, for example, if there are more loud people than quiet, a big group session might not be the best option as the quiet’ns might not feel comfortable competing to be heard. As long as you can create and develop productive and usable ideas, there is no wrong way about it, but there usually is two or three ways that work the best. There are more and more ideas on different types of brainstorming – far too many to list and link to (but I’ve listed my favourites below) – so have a search on the number of formats and pick the best one that caters for the audience, objective and time. A few to mention are:

  • Old-fashioned brainstorm – a group of people giving the objective and begin to create, challenge, develop, imagine, and (hopefully) applaud ideas.
  • Individual and group think – similar to above but the objective and additional information is provided to the attendees well in advance. They all then individually start generating ideas before the session. They then take it in turns to share their ideas to the group on the day of the session. Not only does this really help for time-sensitive meetings, it also allows the attendees to do their own homework and gather their own additional information that would help the session.
  • Sticky notes – this is particularly helpful for ideas that aren’t too lengthy or complex and normally consist of 1- to 5-worded answers. The attendees are each given a sticky-note pad and use one note per idea (they can work on their own or in separated groups) and then stick these on a big board at the front. The group then discuss the ideas and can rearrange the positioning of the notes if there are a sequence of events. This is usually called storyboarding.
  • Stepladder brainstorm (1992 Rogelberg et al) – this is a new one for me and have only recently heard about it but it’s an interesting concept. Essentially the attendees are asked to leave the room bar two people. These two are then given the objective and so begin to create and discuss ideas. Then one person from the group that left is brought in to join the two people and given the objective. The one person tells the two people their ideas before the two people tell them what they came up with. Then another person joins the 3 people and so on. It’s a great way to steer away from ‘groupthink’ yet allows each person to have their say while also benefitting from the group’s thoughts.
  • Talking stick – this is a method where each member of the group provides an idea and the thoughts around it individually and in turn. The name comes from schools when children could only speak with they held the talking stick (my school had a wooden spoon). Props are optional…

So, preparing the brainstorm session is half the battle. But making the effort into this side of the process will make the other side, ie leading the session, a lot easier. Next week I share 5 easy steps for leading and facilitating a brainstorm session.