If you have been part of a team, you have likely been part of a brainstorming session.
The brainstorming session is an anomaly in our workdays because the activity's outcome is often uncertain even though the agenda is clear.
Owing to this uncertainty, brainstorming sessions are often not given the attention or the credit they deserve in an organization and hence are not optimized to get the best output.
So in this blog post, we will explore common problems with brainstorming sessions and possible solutions/practices to get the most out of it.
Common problems with brainstorming sessions
Facilitating a session involves more than telling people when to talk.
It involves creating a pleasant environment, encouraging participation, ensuring that discussion stays on topic, etc.
So a lousy facilitator is a sure shot way to ensure a bad session, and hence it makes sense to choose or train someone who can play the role effectively.
Lack of focus
It is easy to get off topic during a brainstorming session, like most discussions.
Hence, it is essential to know the exact purpose of the session and reiterate that regularly to avoid getting side-tracked.
A good start would be to have the topic and the scope of the discussion written down on the board or the display screen.
It will also help if the facilitator asks himself if the meeting is on track every 4-5 minutes.
Failing to follow-up
A competent leader/facilitator understands that a great brainstorming session is useless unless the ideas explored are followed up after the meeting.
To ensure these ideas are followed up, the facilitator can set up an accountability list at the end of every brainstorming session in the following steps for each of the ideas explored.
This list can be shared with participants of the session for accountability.
Bad participant recruitment
Adding people to the discussion who will not and can not contribute productively is a common mistake made while preparing for a brainstorming session.
Having a set criterion to filter for suitable candidates for the discussion can help eliminate time and effort wastage.
Some of the criteria used could be subject matter expertise, critical thinking skills, creative aptitude, ability to work with teams, etc.
Setting up a brainstorming session
Now that we have explored common problems associated with brainstorming sessions, it is time to look at how to get it right. So let's jump in.
Create checklists to write down the process
Often, we assume that we know systems and processes so well that we believe that writing them down and going through them is a waste of time.
This could not be further from the truth. Before even creating a brainstorming process, start by developing a habit of creating a checklist with steps you need to take before the session.
This could include logistics, personnel, topics, time limits, etc.
Validate the session's function
It is easy to assume or jump on the brainstorming bandwagon, assuming that everything from adding a product feature or culture changes in the company warrants it.
But it is usually not true. Some ideas require brainstorming sessions to explore and validate them thoroughly, and then some concepts or ideas need nothing of that sort.
Ask yourself if you need to conduct this session and the inherent value you might derive from this.
If you believe that the value vs. effort proposition is not ideal, consider other ways to get your team's thoughts like surveys, polls, etc.
Define the problem statement
A vaguely defined problem statement is a sure-shot way to have an unproductive session.
Hence, to ensure a good session, you need to define your problem statement accurately.
For example, a problem statement like "We need to increase our revenue" is not ideal since it leaves too much room for people to wander off-topic.
However, a problem statement like "How to increase revenue y 30-40% through effective advertising" will help focus the session's efforts.
Also, remember that problem statements must be relatable to the participants; they should be simple enough to understand and evoke curiosity and precise enough to warrant a scope.
Set the context and agenda
The agenda is different from a problem statement. While the problem statement focuses on what has to be done, the agenda gives a rough structure of how to get there.
For example, using the revenue example, the agenda here would be coming up with three advertising ideas, creating a hierarchy of those ideas based on feasibility, and possible role-playing drawbacks of that idea.
The agenda sets the context for different parts of the session and ensures a structure and scope to adhere to.
After setting the agenda, make sure that the participants are clear about the expectations based on the agenda before starting the session.
Set scope and milestones
It is important to set milestones and scope during the session because participants need to know when the session progresses well and is productive.
A sample milestone could be coming up with three advertising ideas in the first 15 minutes of the session, running three 5-minute war rooms on each idea, etc.
Milestones will support the agenda and set the context of the scope of the session by informing participants precisely what a successful session should look like.
Share outcomes with the group
People like to be part of things that progress, so a good incentive to keep them participating in future brainstorming sessions is to show them that their ideas matter and are actionable.
Running a brainstorming session
This part of the post was so important that we decided to dedicate a separate yet short section to it.
While we spoke about things to do before and after a brainstorming session, it is essential to know what to do during the session.
Hence, here are some pointers for you to follow and improvise on.
- Quickly introduce participants to each other and allow them to interact with each other for a few minutes so that they are comfortable.
- Inform the participants that there are no drawbacks to bad suggestions or ideas as long as they are relevant to the session.
- Assert that the facilitator controls the session and will have the final say in continued exploration or dropping a line of thought.
- Give each participant a sheet of paper to take notes and jot down their queries to be addressed.
- Ask each participant to write feedback on the session at the end and share it with the facilitator.
- Have one person write minutes and maybe even record the session so that participants don't have to write what they hear in the session constantly.
- Describe the problem to solve and ask a few participants to rephrase the problem in their own words to ensure that they understand it the way it is intended.
- Create a set of questions for the facilitator to encourage participation.
- Shortlist the ideas pitched and communicate them to the participants.
- Plan the possible next steps and share timelines for accountability.
Types of brainstorming techniques
There are several types of brainstorming techniques that you can use to run your session. Here are some of them:
- Mind Mapping
- Disruptive Brainstorming
- Forced Connections
- Group Sketching
- "What if" Brainstorming
- Dependency Mapping
- Elevator Pitch
- Problem Framing
- SWOT Analysis
If you would like us to create a comprehensive post on brainstorming techniques, let us know on Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn.
Brainstorming is a great way to extract creative solutions to complex problems and ideas.
Sometimes a lousy brainstorming session can mean frustrated participants and a series of unproductive meetings, so it is incumbent upon the leader to ensure that these sessions remain productive.
I hope these tips and the processes shared in this post were helpful.
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Thanks for reading.