While generating fresh ideas requires limber and liberated thought, there is more to consider than the standard group brainstorming techniques.
The most productive and galvanizing idea generating sessions are guided by qualified facilitators applying best practices under the right conditions. According to one study, brainstorming sessions that meet these guidelines can generate more than four times the number of useful ideas than those that don’t.
While there’s no substitute for a group brainstorming session led by a trained professional, if you know and apply the following best practices, you will likely get more out of your brainstorming session, making it a more satisfying experience for your group and a more fruitful pursuit for an organization.
Establish Ground Rules
Make sure all participants understand what a brainstorming session involves, and don’t get caught up in problem solving. Add ground rules that best reflect your group and culture and set expectations ahead of time.
Set the Setting
Make sure all participants have the opportunity to plan ahead for the session and think about the key questions and issues in advance. Allow space for solo thinking ahead of time to enable members to contribute freely, avoid groupthink and generate a larger number of ideas.
The session itself should take place in a quiet and comfortable place, free of the normal workday distractions. Some organizations rent off-site rooms (such as those available in co-working spaces). A change of scenery may help shake up established assumptions and patterns of thought.
Ask the Right Questions
To be useful, brainstorming must be more than a group of people talking. To borrow from Proust, the right questions, games, and structure can inspire participants to ideate “like good poets whom the tyranny of rhyme forces into the discovery of their finest lines.”
This excellent piece offers a menu of structured brainstorming exercises that may help generate more productive thinking and discussion. The most important factor for success is to build the session around a powerful central question. According to the research of Flow author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the brightest thinking is prompted by the strongest questions. Create a central question or theme that best describes the issue you are brainstorming around.
Write First, Talk Second
In a piece for Fast Company, Rebecca Greenfield recommends that much of the mental action take place before the group convenes. All participants submit their ideas in advance, which can then be made anonymous and put to a group vote. This mitigates the influence of more dominant and vocal personalities, empowering everyone to contribute more and establishing a “meritocracy of ideas.”
At the least, the session should be set up and run in such a way that constructive criticism is encouraged and the loudest voices don’t dominate the exchange. This requires rigorous adherence to time limits and other rules, and a pervasive atmosphere of mutual respect. This can be a delicate balance to establish and maintain.
Each organization is different. Its particular decision-making criteria will factor into whether or not actionable ideas emerge from brainstorming. Thus, leading a productive brainstorming session can take some trial and error, but the investment will pay off in greater satisfaction, innovation, and organizational cohesion.
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