Some people think that brainstorming is so last year.

After all, brainstorming has become a cliché: a bunch of people sitting around suggesting ideas while someone writes on a flip chart. Or a conference room wall festooned with dozens of Post-It notes.

But while brainstorming has gotten a bad rap, it is still an effective way of bringing people together to generate ideas--as long as you follow best practices. A bad brainstorming session can be as painful as a terrible meeting. And like a meeting, brainstorming requires preparation and active facilitation.

Here are 7 steps to running a successful brainstorming session:


1.   Develop a clear, focused objective  

Write a one-sentence focus statement that defines what you want to accomplish. Be specific: if your focus statement is too general or ambiguous, people won't know where to start.

2.    Select participants

  • Invite a diverse group of people with different perspectives on the subject, including some who are very knowledgeable about the brainstorming topic and some who are not. (People who don't know a thing about your project will bring a fresh perspective.)
  • If you're worried about people feeling stifled, don't invite "heavyweights," senior leaders or other overly influential people who might dominate the session.
  • Don't ask more than 10 people to participate. With a group larger than 10, it becomes difficult to effectively facilitate while giving everyone a chance to participate. If you want more people involved, hold more than one session.

3. Prepare 

  • Once you have selected participants, send them an invitation specifying the session's focus statement (see step 1), and meeting time and date. You may also want to enclose relevant background information to encourage participants to start thinking about the topic--but don't expect everyone to do the "homework."
  • Select a location that's conducive to creative expression; ideally, a place free from interruptions and noise.
  • Set aside a reasonable amount of time, anywhere from two hours to all day. Don't underestimate how much time you'll need--you'll generate better ideas if you give people a chance to warm up and don't rush them.
  • Make sure people aren't hungry or thirsty. Provide snacks and beverages and if you are working midday, order lunch.
  • Collect your tools. You'll need bold marker pens, flip charts and tape or pins to affix the ideas you generate to walls or easels.
  • Consider using some "idea starters" to get the creative juices flowing. Depending on the topic, these may include toys, games, competitors' products, photos of the target audience, etc. Remember that visuals or tangible objects are more stimulating than abstract concepts.
  • Develop an outline for how the session will be structured.  Think about different ways you can foster creative thinking in the group, including asking questions to get the dialogue going.

4. Facilitate 

  • Start by welcoming and introducing the participants and providing an overview of the project, including the focus statement.
  • Use an icebreaker to create energy or start right in by encouraging preliminary ideas from the group. One great way to get started is to ask why: "Why is it important to solve this problem?" "Why are our customers looking for something new?" "Why should we create an upgraded version of this project?"
  • Use flip chart pages to record every idea generated. Often the best ideas are built on other ones. As you fill flip chart pages, attach them to the walls or other surfaces to create a visual record of the session. During the session, refer back to the ones that stimulate thinking or are helping you make progress.
  • To build on concepts that are being suggested, ask questions to take the dialogue deeper. For example, ask "What would make this product idea sell more units?" "How could we take this idea and appeal to a different audience?" "Which of these attributes do you find most compelling?"
  • Bring the discussion back to the focus statement when it wanders too far.
  • Encourage participation from everyone and don't let one person dominate.

5. Boost innovation 

Use these techniques at the beginning of the session, or to get things moving if you experience a lull along the way:

Ask questions that help participants look at and issue from a different perspective.

  •  "If money were no object, how could we solve this problem?"
  •  "What tiny change would make a big difference?"
  • "If we stopped making this product, would anyone notice?  What would customers do?

Try sentence completion. Start a sentence and ask each participant to finish it. Write down each response. For example, you might say:

  • "We should make this year's leadership meeting different by _________."
  • "If I were a teenager, the one new gadget I'd really love to have would be ______."

Play word association. Ask the group what comes to mind when they hear a certain word, e.g., "home," "savings," "fresh," or "teenager."

Act it out. Ask participants to put themselves in the shoes of customers, vendors or fellow employees to try to see things from a new perspective.

Discover new perspectives. Show an object that is related to your topic (a competitor's product, a photo of a typical kitchen, pictures from the latest teenage fashion magazine, etc.).  Ask participants what they like or don't like about the picture or object. Ask them how they would improve upon it. Record their answers on flip chart pages.

Build a metaphor. Ask participants to imagine the situation differently. For example, "How is our department like a Broadway play?" Or, "If our product were an animal, what kind of animal would it be?  How would we promote it?"

6.  Select ideas to act upon. (optional)

If you want participants to work on narrowing down the big group of ideas into a few you can act upon, follow this step. (If, however, you'd like to take all the ideas and study them later, perhaps with a smaller task force, you can close the session at this point.)

Now is the only time when participants are allowed to assess or judge ideasA fast and valuable way to do this is through "multi-voting." Here's how it works:

  • After brainstorming, take the time to review all the ideas and make sure that everyone understands them. Eliminate duplicate ideas.
  • Now ask each participant to multi-vote by walking up to the flip charts and check-marking five ideas (each) that he/she believes are the best, given the objective. You can help participants by providing criteria for judging the ideas.  After everyone has chosen his/her five items, it should be obvious which ideas the group supports.
  • Circle the five items that have the most check marks. If there is not an obvious list of the top five items, you can repeat the process, choosing from the top seven to 10 ideas to narrow the list down to five.
  • Re-write the top five ideas based upon the multi-voting on a new flip chart page and, if time permits, encourage the group to talk about those ideas.

7. Close 

  • Ten to 15 minutes before the end of the session, summarize what was accomplished and assign next steps.
  • Be sure to specify who will do what by when.
  • Finally, follow up with participants to summarize the session and thank them for their contribution.

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