Leading brainstorms in 5 easy steps

Last week I shared 3 easy steps for preparing a brainstorming session and explained that putting in the effort and hard work into these steps will make leading the session a lot easier, as well as maximising its effectiveness.

As a recap, the 3 steps to prepare a session were:

  1. Identifying the objective – why is there a need for a brainstorm, what are the desired outcomes, how will these be presented to the end user
  2. Additional information – what information will you need to give you and the group some background knowledge to put the session into context
  3. Format – which approach will you take?

Now you have prepared the session, you should hopefully know feel more confident in leading the session. These 5 steps should help you:

Step 1 – Introduction

It’s crucial to set some basic ground rules for any type of brainstorm session. This should always include the likes of:

  • No belittling or dismissing ideas – all ideas, no matter how far-fetched or ridiculous, are allowed
  • No interruptions
  • Respect other people’s views and communication style
  • If the group wanders into a tangent, explain that the idea will be noted separately (so not to lose any good ideas) and that the group should come back to the main topic in the time they have.

The introduction should also include a brief summary to the group about why they’re in the group, the reasoning behind the session, the objectives, and how the findings will be used.

Step 2 – Leading the session

At this point, most of the hard work has already been done. You’ve prepared, you’ve told everyone why they’re here and what you expect of them. Your main job throughout the session is to make sure people stick to the ground rules and that each attendee has their chance to participate.

You will also need to make sure the input is balanced, for example, if someone is doing most of the talking, thank them for their input and tactfully ask if someone would like to add to their point or come up with a new idea. This opens the floor to everyone else, briefly but professionally silences the person doing all the talking and subconsciously gives permission to those who feel they need it to speak up. If there is someone who seems disengaged or just doesn’t provide any input, use this time to single them out by asking for their specific view.

Just don’t single out too many people – if a lot of people are disengaged or not participating, it might be appropriate to ask the group why this is. Word it in a way that isn’t accusatory but more inquisitive for example “The group isn’t coming up with a lot of collective ideas, do you think we’re missing something? Do you feel this approach isn’t the right one for idea generation? Do we need to work on this individually and reconvene at a later date equipped with more information? If so, let’s discuss what this information should be and decide how we will find it.”

But what happens if there’s a lot of enthusiasm and participation? Keeping an eye on the time is essential. If there a number of sections or topics you need to get through, you must make sure you stick to the allotted times. Going over time on one topic will have a knock-on effect for ALL following topics. However, enthusiasm shouldn’t be killed purely because an agenda you have created states the group needs to move on to the next topic.

Over time you will be able to figure out a way of allowing the time to go a bit over and shuffling the timings for the other topics. This of course is more restrictive the less time you have, but if you choose to do this, make sure you inform the group so they are confident the time is being looked after. If push comes to shove and it’s evident a lot more time is needed, you can always look into the option of having a follow up meeting at a later point.

Step 3 – Collating and relaying the information

About 10 minutes before the session comes to an end, you will need to start to discuss as a group which ideas are going to be taken forward. So that no ideas are lost (for example they might not be appropriate for one particular issue but is a good enough idea to not waste) you might find it helpful in categorising the ideas. Below are some examples of categorising your ideas:

  • Immediate action/Non-immediate but important action/Park for another project
  • Action within a month/Action within 6 months/Action within a year/No immediate action
  • Actioned by Team A/Actioned by Team B/Actioned by Team C
  • Needs approving/No approval but needs referring to/No approval or reference needed
  • It’s worth have a separate category for any ideas that weren’t related to this topic

Once the ideas have been categorised, relay the information by category to the group. This helps everyone structure the ideas in a logical pattern, but also highlights how ideas will be acted upon.

Step 4 – Formatting the outcomes

After the session, begin to format the ideas in the best suitable way, which should have already been determined in step 1 (third bullet point). Usually you could summarise the ideas by both category and as a whole. In some instances, you might find highlighting key themes in the ideas, or starting off with the big ideas that then feed into the ones with less impact. As with any presentation of data, it is all about the audience. How do they want to use the information? What do they really need to know? What would constitute as being too much information? Can the data be presented visually, for example with a word cloud to highlight common themes, or with a graph, or even infographic?

Step 5 – Follow up

Be sure to keep the brainstorm group updated with how the information is being used. It can sometimes be disheartening when you take part in a session and you hear nothing from the lead again, especially after having put the effort into the session. Even if the ideas haven’t gone any further, for example with management, let the group know this, ending it with a general “I will continue to chase and will contact you if there is any progress”. This means you won’t have to keep updating them on a regular basis if there is nothing to update them on.

It is also important to follow up with the end user. If the findings have been presented to the end user (see the post for tips on presentations) it is useful for them to also receive the same or more information by a follow up email for them to peruse in their own time. It’s always courteous too to remind them that should they need any more information or more work done on this (eg to include you and/or the group in any follow up actions) for them to get in touch.

I’ve taken these 5 steps on leading a brainstorm, and the 3 steps we looked over when preparing for brainstorms, and combined them in an awesome infographic which I’ll share on The Avid Doer’s social media accounts, and put at the end of this post.

Brainstorms are a great way not only to collect and formalise ideas, but to also bring different teams and people together whose differing perspectives can really add a fresh light on an issue. Essentially the success of a brainstorm lies within the solutions that are generated; making sure the preparation, format and facilitation of the session only makes the generation of solutions more time effective.

It’s also important to remember that as long as the solutions are found, the group have a say in how they are found. If you have a certain way in which you wish them to reach the end goal, but the group are veering to a more productive or innovative approach, it’s OK to take their lead and ‘roll with it’ – granted that the desired outcomes will be met in the same (if not less) amount of time.

Now, of course leading any sort of group, including brainstorms, involves an element of public speaking but as avid doers, we recognise this is something we need to work on to succeed in our careers. Even if your dream career doesn’t involve any public speaking, it’s a skill worth developing, especially if you consider yourself as an introvert or shy (please note these are two completely different things).

Over time, I will share ways that have helped me overcome these jitters, as well as inviting guest writers to share their tips on confidence. In the meantime the post I wrote on presentations offers a few pointers on how to handle speaking to a group of people.

 

Preparing and leading brainstorms

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.

 

Presentations for introverts: Part 2

In my previous post, I shared 5 tips on what anyone, and particularly introverts, can do before a presentation to put in place some safety nets. We discussed the importance of getting clarity on the point of the presentation, fact-checking, getting your intro right to start things off on the right foot, rehearsing, and the ‘prepare, pause, repeat’ method. In this post I share a further 5 tips on what you can do to keep your cool during the presentation.

  1. When you mess up

Allow yourself to mess up. Unless you are a political or power figure who needs to deliver a flawless speech, you are a person telling people about something at work that they need to know about. Simple as that. So if you mess up your words, just stop, excuse yourself, dust yourself off and try again. Don’t make a big deal out of it. Would you feel embarrassed if you did that in a one-to-one conversation? Like I said, this is work, with people, who just need information given to them, not a flawless production. Lost your train of thought? Then say that. Don’t pretend you haven’t and bluff your way through it, it will look really obvious. Admit it and make a joke out of it – prepare one if needs be – ‘sorry, I’m that excited about this glamorous subject, my mind’s raced ahead to the next slide! Where was I?’.

If you are stumbling your words or rushing, make yourself aware that you could be afraid of silence. Some people feel they need to fill silent gaps as quickly as possible, making them panic and stumble. Taking time to punctuate your presentation with a suitably timed pause actually looks and sounds better than rushing from one topic or sentence to the next. The silences can be a conscious decision, or a natural pause of concentration. The 2 or 3 seconds of silence (even though it might seem longer to you!) is enough time to compose yourself and gather your thoughts for the next sentence.

  1. Offer experienced people to share their view

I understand the intimidating feeling of presenting to people who are more experienced than you. If they have been given the objective of the presentation and they still felt the need to attend the presentation, then that’s one victory already achieved – they want to hear what you have to say. If you know in advance who these people are, do a bit of a background check into their experience (don’t be creepy about it) and find out what they do. That way if they really do know more about the subject, find a way of letting them offer their thoughts into the presentation. Ask them what their views are or relate a certain point to them.

‘…and this is why the figures look to be so low in the next quarter. Susan, I believe you worked with Finance a lot on this, would you care to share what your thoughts are on this? Is there anything you would like to add that I might not have covered?’

You have given Susan less imaginary power to challenge or embarrassing you by controlling the situation. You’ve practically told her ‘I acknowledge you know a lot about this, I’m not trying to say I know more. Please can we use your knowledge and share your experience with the group’.

Of course, Susan doesn’t actually want to challenge or embarrass you, she’s actually quite lovely.

  1. Visual aids

Now, as I mentioned, I will be writing about putting together a presentation at a later date, but the reason I have included visual aids to help you overcome your nerves is because they’re a great place for eyes to rest. In other words, everyone is looking at something other than you! Be it a PowerPoint slide, a physical handout or infographic, give the group somewhere they can rest their eyes on, taking the focus away from you.

Some, if not most, introverts feel uncomfortable with attention on them, so having a bunch of eyes ‘judging’ you while you’re going through your already nerve-racking presentation adds to our worries! Give them something else to look at.

  1. Check in regularly

Make sure you check that everyone is happy with the presentation at regular points, or in corporate lingo, ‘checking the temperature’. Not to a point where it’s annoying, but maybe after each big topic or every 20 minutes or so. Sometimes your nerves can build up throughout the presentation if you are the only one talking. If no one is saying anything and you just see a sea of faces looking blankly at your presentation, firstly remind yourself this could be just their resting faces as they’re digesting the information; it might not have anything to do with you boring them.

Secondly, by checking in on them, you can gauge how they’re feeling about it. If asking them has snapped them out of a trance and they all confirm they’re happy with the pace, information etc. then you can carry on with a bit more confidence. If they’re struggling to keep up or digest the information, then checking in on them early means not only can the presentation be readjusted or re-explained in another way for the audience to really get the most out of the presentation, but it’s also good to find this out now rather than get through to the end and no one not knowing what the hell’s just happened. This causes embarrassment and will hit your confidence unnecessarily.

  1. Open the presentation to the floor a lot

Not only does this keep your audience engaged or give you 5 minutes to recompose yourself, you get to know a bit more about the people you’re talking to when you make them part of the presentation. Sometimes it could be not knowing someone, or being intimidated by them because you’re not familiar with how they act with colleagues that puts you off presenting to people. By asking for input and open discussion throughout the presentation, you get an understanding of their character and you’re more than likely going to realise they’re not as scary as you imagined.

Make sure to not stick with the same person or selected few; try and get everyone involved so that you get the maximum group contribution. Edging quiet people to share their views also helps if there is someone dominating the discussions.

Giving presentations is scary to begin with. But admitting that alone will really help you, and bring yourself to terms that this is the way it is, and not necessarily a sign of danger or something that you shouldn’t be doing. Remind yourself this is a professional environment and no one will boo you off stage or think any less of you if you trip over your words. Remember to breath, take your time, and in time, you’ll become better and better.

 

Presentations for introverts: Part 1

“I have to give a presentation to a group of around 20 people but I’m really scared of public speaking. What’s more, there are a couple of people in the group more experienced than me who probably know a lot more about the stuff I’m going to talk about anyway. As an introvert, I haven’t got a lot of confidence with having all eyes on me and I’m just dreading making a mess of it. I know I need to develop this skill to grow professionally, so any advice would be much appreciated!”

I hear that. As an introvert myself  I can’t tell you that the nerves will go away anytime soon. Believe me when I say though that it does get easier with practice though, as with probably every other challenging task in existence. So it’s great that you acknowledge this is something you need to do. To get ahead in your career, it’s an important thing to learn, whether you’re comfortable with it or not, and approaching it head on rips off the proverbial plaster. I’m much more confident with them now and once the momentum picks up, it’s really (nerdily) enjoyable!

My approach is having a number of safety nets in place before and throughout the presentation in 10 simple steps. The first 5 talk about what you can do before the presentation. I will then talk about the other 5 in the next post, where I explain what you can do during the presentation. These are tips on delivering a presentation – I will write another post later about how to put one together.

  1. What’s the point…

…of the presentation? To avoid wasted effort and time, clarify what the presentation needs to be about. To use a corporate word for it, what is its ‘objective’? What does the audience need to take away from the presentation? Who are the audience? And if this has been commissioned by someone else like your line manager, confirm the point with them so that you’re both on the same page before work starts. This saves you embarrassment if you’re pulled up in mid-presentation that you’ve got the wrong end of the stick.

  1. Fact check

Always routinely fact check your presentation. Even if you are pretty sure a certain fact is correct, double check this from a reliable source. Odds are the one fact you didn’t check will be brought up by someone who will challenge you. Scary right? Check your facts.

  1. Get your intro right

While conquering my fear of public speaking, I find that the best way to start a presentation is a really good and well-rehearsed introduction. Starting off on a trip or stumble (verbally of course, although physically is just as humiliating) will really knock your confidence and you run the risk of this setting the tone for the rest of the presentation. Only a risk though, not a guarantee.

Knowing exactly what you’re going to say at the beginning and how you’re going to say it will really get you on the right foot and build confidence-momentum. This will involve writing down the tiny detail, even an ice breaker, of what you’re going to say to hush people to attention. Practise what you’re going to say, you need this in your ammo. For example:

Right everyone? Excuse me, everyone? [you need to choose specific wording otherwise you won’t feel comfortable using a hushing expression on the spot without knowing what the words sound like in the air]. I think it’s time we all crack on with this if we’re going to make the best of our time so if we could just settle, we can begin.

‘Right, thank you everyone. My name is Bob, and today I will be talking about X so that by the end of the presentation, we will get a really clear understanding of what we need to do next, while also opening the floor for any comments’.

  1. Rehearse

Go through the presentation a number of times and make sure the flow is right. You don’t want to write an entire script down that you read off, which sounds like a safe option, but it’s really awkward hearing it. And once you start and you realise people know what you’re doing, it’s incredibly hard (and more awkward) to break out of it mid-presentation.

  1. Prepare, pause, repeat.

Preparing for a presentation might sound like an obvious step, and rightly so as without preparing for the presentation, you feel less in control, and that’s where the fear kicks in. What you need to be cautious about though is preparing too much. That might sound a little odd, but you can actually prepare so much that you play out the same presentation over and over again so rigidly but in your head. Come the day you present, it’s more likely not going to turn out the way you planned, and frankly, you can never be 100% sure how it will go. Preparing too much gives you a false sense of security.

Instead, give my ‘prepare, pause, repeat’ method a go. What I do it prepare a lot for a presentation then ‘pause’, or just put it away out of my mind and not think about it for a day or two. Then I prepare again, be it a rehearsal or quick fact-check, and then I put it away out of my mind again. This stops you preparing so much that you overwhelm yourself with such a rigid perception of how it will go while also giving you the opportunity to not be so heavily involved that you can’t spot grammatical errors or inaccuracies.

So these are 5 things you can do to put some safety nets in place before the presentation. In my next post I will share 5 further tips in what you can do during the presentation.