How do I run a great brainstorming session?

A version of this post appeared on IvyExec.com.

Brainstorming sessions can run long and meander all over the map with very little focus on the subject matter.  This doesn’t have to be the case.  With a little structure, you can make sure you bring the best ideas out of everyone in the session.

4 simple steps to a great brainstorming session

There are a few practical tips that can really help.

  • Assign a facilitator. There should be one person who is specifically designated to facilitate the discussion.  This person sets the agenda, helps guide the discussion, and pays attention to the participants to make sure everyone is contributing – preventing situations where one or two people dominate the discussion and others become disengaged.
  • Prepare the participants.  More so than any other kind of meeting, you will need to prepare the participants so they know what the subject matter is about.  It would be good to have them do a little homework to think about the topic so they would be primed to contribute during the actual session.
  • Set rules of engagement at the beginning. Adhere to them throughout.  For example, one common rule is to say “no ideas are bad ideas”, and lay down the law about not allowing people to put down other people’s ideas.  Instead they can be asked to build on these ideas to turn them into great ideas.
  • Use a whiteboard or an easel to help facilitate the discussion.  Writing down the ideas and leaving them up on the wall is unbelievably effective in helping people think of other ideas as they look around the room at the ideas that they had already created.

Borrowing a page from Improv Theater

On the topic of not putting down other people’s ideas, there is a very powerful concept in improvisation theater that is phenomenally effective in helping people get out of their negative zone and get into a high-energy constructive zone: the concept of “yes, and”.  Dave Morris has a great TED talk titled “The way of improvisation” about this concept – we highly recommend that all teams who have to get together in ideation sessions watch it beforehand, to set expectations for everyone to get into a constructive mindset.

Encouraging participants to think big

If the group participating in the brainstorming session don’t have a lot of experience with open-sky thinking, and have a tendency to come up with well-understood, incremental solutions, there is another video that can help them get out of their comfort zone and think big.  It is James Currier’s “Hit it Hard“. It’s short, funny and very insightful and can help the group take a little bit more risk during the ideation session.

Helping people feel comfortable sharing crazy ideas

For brainstorming to work, the participants have to take a little bit of personal risk.  Everything that one says may not all make sense or is well considered – that is the point.  Some people may hesitate to put forward ideas that are not perfectly formed.  If you know that there are some perfectionists who can become reticent in a blue sky brainstorming session, Brene Brown’s TED talk titled “The power of vulnerability” might be just the thing to help participants relax and embrace not being right all of the time.

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