How to plan a winning brainstorm

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Essential Reading

Easy mistakes to avoid, expert tips and techniques to help you plan a winning brainstorm.

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How to host a winning brainstorm: Tips and techniques from the experts

You don’t need to consider yourself as a creative “out of the box” thinker to run an effective brainstorm in your business. In fact, methodical preparation and planning is key to a successful brainstorm. Provide the right structure, develop a plan, and creativity will follow. We set out the basic fundamentals to help you plan, along with some proven techniques and tips from the experts to ensure your brainstorm goes down a storm.

 

A common mistake: Invite all the “creative” people

You may instinctively invite the most creative thinkers in your business, but are these the right minds for the problem (or opportunity) you are trying to address? A long-standing employee from your finance team will have a back-history of successes (and failures) to draw on, though they may not be considered the most creative people. And do you need to address a consumer issue? What about inviting somebody from the front-line on customer service who talks to your customers every day. They may have more insight to offer than a Marketing Manager with little day-today contact with customers. Mix it up. Make sure you have a good mix of expertise, from different areas of your business. After all, some of the best inventions in history have come from “cross-pollinating ideas” – using the expertise of one field, and applying it to another.

 

Attendance: Make it mandatory

With brainstorms, there’s a tendency to open out the invite to everybody, in the hope that on the day enough people will be able to attend and participate in your planned group activities. But why shouldn’t your brainstorm carry as much importance as your budget meeting? So yes, be strategic about your guest-list, select participants from different areas of the business. But also make attendance mandatory, make sure your guestlist knows this, and if they are unable to attend, invite a suitable replacement.

 

Exercises to warm-up the room

Depending on the size of your business, the participants may not have met before, or may not work directly with each other in the office. They also may be stressed with their long ‘to do’ list for the day, so you need to warm everybody up, and create positivity in the room. One simple exercise is to ask everybody in the room to pay a compliment to the person on their right. This builds trust and comradery, and helps to bring the group’s guard down. You could also stock up on some silly party hats for everyone to wear, depending on the culture of your business, this is a great way to make everyone feel a bit silly and get the room in high spirits.

 

Keep it visual: Provide materials

“Make it stimulating; bring props, imagery, words, any materials you can to help spark ideas.”

Steven Workman, Creative Planning Director at Disrupt

Use visual props to bring the brainstorm topic to life. Some people are analytical thinkers, some people are more visual, different stimulus will inspire ideas from different types of thinkers. Use as many pictures as you can, and if you have products and prototypes, bring those along too.

And don’t stop there, invite your participants to draw their ideas on a white board, or even to use playdough to create models to explain their ideas. When you engage people to create with their hands, you invite them to access a different part of their brain, helping them to think more creatively. Bryan Mattimore, brainstorming expert and author of ‘Idea Stormers’ explains that “Visual techniques have a way of “bringing to the surface intuitions, emotions and feelings”.

 

Before group activity, set a quiet solo task

Before you kick-off with group exercises, allow everyone some time to think quietly and write down as many ideas as they can. One key benefit to this is to avoid the “anchor” effect. This is when a group gets stuck on the first solution contributed in the session. It could limit the creative thinking for the entire session.
One useful technique to avoid this problem, is to follow the “6-3-5 Method”. Split into groups of six, and each independently write down three ideas. Then each pass your ideas to the person next to you, and add your own contribution to build on, or improve these ideas. Repeat this step five times, so that you stop before receiving your own ideas back. You can modify this exercise depending onnumbers, but the steps remain the same. The group can then discuss all ideas openly, and decide on the strongest to present back.

 

Preparation: Set homework

“Spontaneity sometimes yields the best results off-the-cuff. The ideas and solutions tabled will be unfiltered - raw and have a lot of truth and insight behind them.”

Vumile Mavumengwana , of VM DSGN, Former Creative Director, M&C Saatchi Abel, South Africa

Depending on the topic, you may want everybody to begin the brainstorm with a clean slate, with no information prior that could take away their spontaneity. This is great to keep the idea generation instinctive. However, be realistic about what background knowledge is required so that you don’t need to have an education session at the beginning of the brainstorm.
For example, if your brainstorm is to come up with ideas to improve your website, are all members of the brainstorm familiar with the current website? If not, then set them homework a few days before the session, to familiarise themselves with the website. You don’t need to provide any more detail than necessary, or give away the purpose of the brainstorm. But you might want to set a little bit of homework.

 

Protecting egos: No idea is a bad idea

“There's a popular phrase: 'No idea is a bad idea’. I do believe ideas can come from anywhere, and anyone. Remind your group of this, it will help encourage input from everyone. The facilitator needs to be energetic and enabling to the process throughout, to keep the session as open as possible.”

Vumile Mavumengwana , of VM DSGN, Former Creative Director, M&C Saatchi Abel, South Africa

Everybody has heard this cliché, but how do you create the right environment in your session so that everyone contributes even their wildest ideas? You might have some hierarchy in play, some juniors brainstorming alongside senior managers, keen to impress with their “good ideas” could cause them to filter ones they consider bad. You’ll also naturally have some more introverted people in the group.

Be an active facilitator throughout the brainstorm. Set rules at the beginning, and make it clear that no judgment or criticism of ideas is allowed, (unless you’ve set a task asking them to criticise their ideas). You can even have a moderator in the group to sound a horn if they hear any negative feedback, or idea ‘blocking’. If you hear somebody say, “no, that won’t work”, ask them instead to ask “how can we make that work?”.
Another exercise is to have a “bad idea” box in the room. Ask the participants to put what they consider their worst ideas into the box. You can then use these in a later exercise, and ask groups to draw a bad idea and come up with suggestions to make it a successful idea.

 

Ask for questions, not answers

The “Starburst Technique” focuses on generating questions rather than answers. Set a challenge for everyone to come up with as many questions around the brainstorm topic as possible. Have a member of the group write all the questions up on a large board for everyone to see, you can refer back to these questions to approach new angles that youmay not have thought of before. This also generates a useful list of possible risks and issues, that you can then use to troubleshoot some of the top ideas.

 

Apply pressure

Some of the best ideas are generated under extreme pressure. Try using a few techniques throughout the session to force everybody’s minds to work a little harder. One example is to set a short time limit for an exercise and set the stop-watch.

Another example is by introducing an extreme limitation and pushing the group to come up with solutions. Set a ridiculous challenge, a challenge so ridiculous that it would never become a reality. For example: You only have 2 days to create this product, or, you only have $50 to market the product. These extreme limitations will push the group to think more creatively.

 

Overcoming creative block

Is the energy in the room getting a bit low? Or are the ideas starting to dwindle? Keep a few tricks up your sleeve to inject some energy back into the session. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Get the group to physically move around - set a rule at the beginning of the brainstorm, that every time you say “Rotate”, everybody has to switch seats.
  • Introduce “Rolestorming” – ask everyone to pretend that they’re a different person, it doesn’t matter who, Madonna, the Queen of England, even your company boss. By asking a simple question: What would they do? Everybody is forced to think about the topic from a different perspective. This also helps to reduce inhibitions, as some people in the group might have more confidence to share an idea from Madonna, rather than themselves.
  • Try a brainstorm soundtrack – the right music can help maintain energy levels throughout the session, and create a more relaxed atmosphere. You can also find many playlists on YouTube created specifically to focus the mind, or boost creativity.
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After the brainstorm: Keep the channels of communication open

After a brainstorm, it is likely that people may have ideas later on – that elusive “eureka moment in the shower”! Keep the channels of communication open and set up a postbox at your desk, or even in the office reception. Some of the more introverted may not have spoken out in the brainstorm, but they may still have a great idea to share, this gives them an opportunity to contribute in an anonymous way.

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