Running a productive brainstorming session is an art form--it can also be the most productive fun that you'll ever have. However, managers often find that corralling and organizing ideas at a fast pace without a game plan can be like herding cats. Here are a few concepts that will set you up for success when leading a productive brainstorm session.
Never try to brainstorm in your workplace. This is a good rule for two reasons: First, you need to be in a completely relaxed environment to expand your mind into a state of flow. I have generated many more ideas over a pool table than a boardroom table. Second, brainstorming should not be something that your business does on too regular of a basis. Even monthly brainstorming sessions start to feel manufactured rather than organic, and this can destroy creativity.
Start with a central focus for the brainstorming session and keep the focus as benefit-oriented as possible. For example, a productive central focus could be "Products that our market demands" rather than "Next company product." Include value-add aspects to your central focus to keep idea generation focused on benefits rather than features.
Don't be afraid to add constraints! A popular misconception about constraints is that it suffocates creativity, when in reality the exact opposite is true. Nothing is more confusing or frustrating than sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper with every color in your crayon box at your fingertips. Formulate a problem statement to add meaningful constraints to your brainstorming session to provoke creative ideas.
I have found that the most effective way to take notes during a brainstorm session is to use the mind map format. A mind map keeps your eye on the central idea while organizing new ideas in a non-linear fashion that groups ideas by type rather than chronologically. This spatial organization of ideas is much more intuitive than an outline or traditional note taking. The final note taking is easy since you can just pull out a smartphone and snap a photo.
It's important to remember that the purpose of a brainstorming session isn't to create plans or roadmaps--it's to create and challenge ideas. The goal is simply idea generation at a high level and allow the group to challenge the idea in various perspectives. A gray area does exist between challenging ideas and developing an idea. However, with experience will come the sense of when it is time to move on to the next idea.
Blockers and divers can quickly derail a brainstorm session. A blocker is someone who quickly shuts down an idea by deeming it impossible for whatever reason. Ideas need to be realistic, but the participants should challenge themselves to come up with at least one piece of feedback that could challenge or support the idea before shutting it down. Bring a squirt gun to your brainstorm session to playfully shame idea blockers when they appear!
A diver is the opposite of a blocker. This person will progress beyond challenging an idea and start a deep dive into developing the idea further. But this simply isn't the purpose of a brainstorm session. Unless the idea is something that everyone agrees is the solution and is ready for development, it's best to keep the session moving along.
The easiest way to crush a productive brainstorm session is to end a meeting without scheduling some kind of follow-up to one or more ideas. If you don't have time to schedule a next step to develop your ideas further, then you probably shouldn't be brainstorming in the first place.
Brainstorming sessions give you the opportunity to think big and collaborate, but following these few guidelines are essential to the process. How does your company brainstorm? Tell us in the comments.