“Nothing gets me more jazzed than a good brainstorm!”
This exclamation unironically slipped my lips just last week. I was a little embarrassed after realizing how dorky I sounded, but it’s true — I totally feed off of the creative energy that comes from thinking big, exchanging rapid-fire ideas and collaborating with my colleagues.
It wasn’t always that way, though. I’ve sat through some brainstorms that were real duds: sessions where I felt discouraged, uninspired and even afraid to speak up at all. It got me thinking — what exactly is the difference between a great brainstorm and a mediocre (or even terrible) one? And how can you ensure that the brainstorm you host turns out more like the former and less like the latter?
To get the scoop, I reached out to a handful of professionals — here’s what they said.
1. Set a Goal
You can’t have a great brainstorming session unless you define exactly what it is that you’re aiming to do. So before you even send out a meeting invite, ask yourself: “What are we [here] for? What's the problem we are trying to solve? What are the requirements/constraints for this solution (if any)? What would the ideal outcome of a solution look like?” suggests entrepreneur Diane Elizabeth, founder of Skin Care Ox. “By approaching the meeting with this level of clarity, it really helps all of the brains in the room to hone in on the same thing and speak the same language.”
2. Be Selective With the Invite List
Once you’ve answered the questions above, send an email sharing this context with anyone you want to participate in the meeting — but be careful with how many people you send those invites out to.
“While the more the merrier applies to parties, it does not apply to brainstorms,” says Susan Pyle, Senior Vice President of Tonic Life Communications. “Too many people in a brainstorm drives the dispersion of responsibility and you actually get fewer ideas. Invite a smaller group to your brainstorm (5-6 people) and each person then has a personal responsibility to put forth ideas.”
And make sure that you’re not just inviting your closest work buddies, or only people from your immediate team. Sabrina N. Balmick, Marketing Manager at ACA Talent recommends “including a diverse cross-section of individuals from your company encompassing different departments and position levels. This helps surface new ideas and also allows employees who may not regularly work with one another to collaborate on something new and exciting.”
3. Assign Homework in Advance
To guarantee productivity in the moment, sometimes you have to start working in advance. In the invite itself, or a follow-up email before the brainstorm, ask your team to come up with at least a couple of ideas in advance so that they arrive prepared to talk through their concepts.
“There are a couple of benefits to this: First, it allows the introverts in the group time to think about new ideas. Introverts process internally, and too much talking while they are processing can make an introvert shut down and stop contributing during a meeting,” says Dr. Ty Belknap, CEO of MyCoach.Life. “Second, it gives the opportunity for more independent ideas to come forth. Rather than everyone banding together on the first good idea, it gives the opportunity for the group to look at many ideas.”
4. Find a Change of Scenery
If you want to really come up with innovative solutions, sometimes it helps to break away from the familiarity of the office.
“You’ll never be at your sharpest after staring at a computer screen or being in meetings for five hours straight. A change of scenery or a game that gets the blood flowing will also stimulate your creative juices,” says Harrison Brady, Communications Specialist at Frontier Communications. “Where we work, we have a small duck pond outside of our building, and it has actually turned out to be one of our greatest assets. Some of our best ideas have come during our ‘walk and talk’ brainstorms around the duck pond.”
5. Timing Is Everything
Don’t be the person who schedules a brainstorm for 4:00 pm on a Friday. Even if your participants actually show up, you’re nearly guaranteeing that they won’t bring their A game.
“Try to avoid scheduling brainstorms at times when mental grogginess will be at its peak. Research actually suggests that we are at our most creative states of mind during the early hours of the morning, so try to take advantage!” Brady says.
6. Bring Snacks
When I used to work at a creative communications agency, it was an unspoken rule that you had to provide food if you were going to host a brainstorm, and it worked like a charm! Not only did it incentivize people to show up — it also ensured that nobody was distracted by the rumbling of their stomachs.
“Great ideas don’t often occur on an empty stomach, so I highly recommend ordering lunch or buying snacks, especially if the session will long,” Balmick says.
7. Designate a Leader
Nothing derails a brainstorm quicker than a lack of leadership. But take note: a leader isn’t always (and in fact, probably shouldn’t be) the person who talks the most — rather, it’s a person who helps keep the conversation flowing and ensures people stay on track.
“A leader who spends too much time talking at the group is a brainstorm inhibitor. The leader's role is, pure and simple, as a facilitator,” says Steve Eisenstadt, Content Director at PR agency Kulesa Faul.
8. Create a Welcoming Environment
Once in session, the first of your brainstorm leader’s tasks should be to make sure they’re creating a friendly, inviting space where everyone is empowered to weigh in.
“Set a tone at the beginning that everyone's ideas are welcome, encouraged and needed. There are no dumb concepts or silly questions. The brainstorm is a total safe zone, and everyone's thoughts matter,” Eisenstadt says. “This is meant to avoid the wallflower syndrome that hits some people in group meetings — who knows what great ideas they're not expressing — and to make sure a few folks don't dominate the session."
It’s also worth banning laptops, phones and tablets so that everyone knows they will be given attention and respect, Eisenstadt adds. Furthermore, make sure that nobody dismisses ideas as stupid or impractical. There’s a time and a place for deciding which ideas should be pursued, but in the heat of the brainstorming isn’t it.
“You’ve heard the expression, ‘There’s no such thing as a bad idea.’ Take that literally when it comes to brainstorming,” Brady says. “Most of the time it’s one person’s ‘dumb’ idea that inspires another idea, which inspires the ‘just right’ idea.”
9. Write it Down
A bunch of great ideas won’t do you much good if you can’t remember them afterward, so make sure that somebody is serving as the official note-taker so that ideas can be discussed and vetted later. This can be on an individual’s laptop (they can be the one exception to the ‘no electronic devices’ rule), a whiteboard, sticky notes, etc.
If you’re having trouble stopping others from dominating the conversation, you may want to go one step further by going from brainstorming to brainwriting.
“Brainwriting is simple — have everyone write down their ideas, then pass it to the person next to them. This process will continue for 10 minutes or so,” says Vincent Schantz, Digital Marketing Associate at creative agency Fieldtrip. “Our ideas are confidential and written down, so any personality type can put their ideas out there. It is also more effective because seeing other people’s ideas can spur on our own imaginations and lead to new ideas.”
10. Think Outside the Box
If you’re having trouble coming up with ideas, you might want to try a few quirky exercises and activities.
“Bring elements of contrasting nature into a brainstorm to shift mental gears and cover a spectrum of thought,” says entrepreneur Jenn Nicken, Founder of The Chef & The Dish. For example, “bring a toy car into the room to shift into thoughts on mechanics and how things work together,” or “a phone into the room to shift thoughts to communications… the key is to ensure you have a ‘representative’ item for the variety of things you’d like to explore in your brainstorm.”
Another way to get the creative juices flowing is by making employees stand up and move, Eisenstadt says.
“Sitting down for long periods is guaranteed to bring on ennui. Look for creative ways to get people on their feet, and not just at the beginning with the ‘icebreaker,’” he advises.
And if you’re totally stumped, turn to the experts for advice.
“There are plenty of brainstorming books and resources out there, and it’s up to you to find what works best for you and your team. I personally have enjoyed The Imagineering Way, written by Disney’s best and brightest,” Brady shares. “Every page has a different brainstorming idea from a different worker. Sometimes we’ll flip through the book and decide on a new approach to brainstorming that we can try out.”
11. Follow Up
Many an effective brainstorm have been rendered futile by failing to outline and execute next steps — don’t fall prey to this common trap.
“The most important part of any brainstorming activity is what happens after,” says Bill Faulkner, Principal Consultant at Out Loud Strategies.
He recommends outlining an "Action Item Commitment” like this:
- I WILL = An indication of what you will specifically do. Declare your stated intention or goal for this action item.
- By DOING = List the specific step or process you will accomplish. This can also include conversations you will have as well as investments of time, energy and other resources you will commit.
- By WHEN = Indicate a specific date by which you will accomplish this action item. Make sure to list it as a To-Do item on your electronic calendar so that it will stay visible until you mark it as accomplished.
- WITH = Make sure to include those individuals, groups and/or organizations that will assist you in accomplishing this action item.
- RESULTING IN = what will be different, better, changed, improved, etc. as a result of accomplishing this particular Action Item?
- BECAUSE = This is rarely considered but is incredibly important in considering an action item. It speaks to why you are choosing this course of action at this particular time in light of other options. Why is this item more important, advantageous, relevant or necessary than others? How will this move you forward more efficiently and effectively?
You’ve heard others’ top tips — now go out there and host your own incredible brainstorm!