Get Better Ideas by Tweaking Your Brainstorm Sessions
Brainstorming sessions are the heart of pursuing new ideas. But a major mistake companies make is running idea-generating sessions right out of the box, without structuring them to fit their goals as well as their team’s needs and personalities. Brainstorming sessions are most fruitful when they are adapted to fit your needs. According to architect Chauncey Wilson, author of Brainstorming and Beyond: A User-Centered Design Method, brainstorming is more than simply gathering people in a room and firing off questions: it’s an active and complex social process that requires some psychological know-how to facilitate. Her are some of the key goals of successful brainstorming sessions, with recommendations for ways to accomplish them.
Improve brainstorming sessions by:
Engaging introverts
Brainstorming sessions can be intimidating for shy people, and overwhelming for introverts, who typically work best by processing ideas internally. Meetings that only ask for ideas through a raise-your-hand approach have a tendency to leave these team members out, which excludes their (often very creative) ideas. Instead, try these ideas:
  • Have team members write down ideas on cards, which are then posted on the wall or read aloud by a facilitator.
  • Send out clear questions for the brainstorming session a few days before the meeting, so that everyone has time to think about the ideas beforehand.
  • Start with an ice-breaker. Asking everyone to go around and spend 30 seconds describing something delicious they ate last weekend gets every person talking early on in a low-stakes conversation, which can make nervous team members more comfortable speaking up later.
Keeping things organized without feeling rigid
Wilson encourages session facilitators to stay organized by following these four phases:
  • Invite 3-10 participants from different backgrounds.
  • Post a clear question or topic to the group.
  • Table criticism and reactions while participants freely generate ideas in the “divergent” phase.
  • Open the conversation to discussion and critiquing of the ideas in a “convergent” phase.
Following this loose structure has the benefit of creating a space that allows for the most diverse ideas while giving participants a sense of structure. Being explicit about the avoidance of critique in the divergent phase, while encouraging it in the convergent phase, gives participants permission to use both their creative and critical skills.
Bringing out more creativity by creating a safe space
People are, by nature, creative—they just don’t always share it. One of the main reasons people don’t express their creative ideas during the divergent phase is because they are afraid of criticism or ridicule. The social pressure of a brainstorming session, especially one with high stakes, can send even the most confident team member into a storm of doubt that keeps his mouth closed. In order to generate the most ideas:
  • Have participants cast anonymous “idea” ballots into a box, which can later be assessed in the convergent phase without knowing who wrote them.
  • Challenge every participant to come up with 25 solutions to the problem at hand. This makes it more acceptable to articulate wild ideas, because everyone is trying to fill a quota.
  • Have team members build upon the idea of another person. When people don’t feel responsibility for the authorship of an idea, they feel more free to be creative.
Asking the right questions
The questions you ask during a brainstorming session will depend on your organization’s particular situation, but they often look something like this:
  • What is the problem we are trying to solve?
  • Who is impacted by this problem and how?
  • Have we ever encountered this problem before? If so, how did we try to solve it then? Did that work?
  • What is at stake?
  • Who are our key audiences and/or stakeholders?
  • When have we been most successful in the past?
  • What ideas would we absolutely never try? Why not?
Do you have any tips from your own team brainstorming sessions? What works for you?

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