I love a good brainstorming session. Throw a diverse group of people together with a different set of experiences and backgrounds. Give them a problem to solve and add in some time pressure and you’ve got a good formula for getting something done.

It sounds like a simple thing to organise but it doesn’t always work out that way. Some of the problems emerge when there is no agreement about the brainstorming approach that should be taken. For example, should it be a free for all, democratic process where everyone’s voice and opinion gets carefully and equally considered? Or should it be a brain dump of ideas that quickly get filtered through to one (or a small number) that are worth exploring further? Or is it something else altogether?

In my own experience I have struggled with the free for all approach. It sounds great in principle but it can get bogged down “in the weeds” because everyone is trying to be nice (i.e. democratic) about everyone else’s ideas. The hard truth is that some ideas are good and some aren’t. Sooner or later you have to cut through them and get to the good ones, without hurting anyone’s feelings (too badly).

To achieve the cut-through needed a strong set of rules need to be agreed up-front for any brainstorming session. Here are some that I use:

  • Start by precisely framing and understanding the problem you are trying to solve. This is the most difficult part and is the one that the least time is typically spent on. Without REALLY understanding the problem you can’t move to the solution stage. How can you? You’ll just come up with a bunch of nice sounding ideas that might or might not make a difference.
  • Focus on these four questions:
    • What problem are we solving?
    • Is it worth solving and why?
    • What are the options to solve it?
    • Which is the best option and why?
  • Get a diverse group together and allow every idea (even wild ones) to be heard. Move through all the ideas quickly until you get to the bigger, more substantive ones that are most likely to solve the problem.
  • Adopt an “anything is possible” approach – the focus should be on creation and innovation – not on hanging on to the past or limiting the possibilities.
  • Appoint a strong facilitator to guide the session, keep it on track and make sure that it is moving forward.
  • Ensure there is only conversation at a time with everyone given a reasonable amount of time to air their views. Remember, though, the focus should be on solving the problem.
  • Don’t worry about how you will execute the solution(s) – that’s for later.
  • Keep it short – smash it in 60 minutes!

The biggest benefit of a great brainstorming session is that it draws on the wider collective intelligence of an organisation and applies that intellect in a structured manner to address a problem that needs to be solved. This is a much better approach than concentrating “ideas-generation” in the hands of a few. All you need is a whiteboard, some open minds and an hour of time to get started…

Featured image sourced from here.