When you hear the phrase "brainstorming session," what do you think of?

For most people, these two words inspire visions of a meeting that looks something like this: A group of people bouncing suggestions and ideas around -- ideas that will then just sit and collect cobwebs immediately after the conclusion of that meeting.

Yes, brainstorming can be effective for encouraging innovation. But, in reality, most people walk away from those sit-downs feeling as if their time was wasted.

Why? Because all too often the ideas that are generated don't ever end up being implemented or utilized.

No more! If you're searching for ways to more effectively brainstorm -- and actually put those suggestions to good use -- take note. These four key tips are sure to take your brainstorming sessions to the next level.

1. Have a Clear Agenda

As you already know, adequate preparation is crucial for being able to have a productive discussion. But, how can your team members prepare if they don't have any idea what's going to be talked about in the meeting?

Before ever bringing everyone into the same room together, sit down and map out a clear agenda for the specific things you'd like to talk about. Then, send it to the group ahead of time.

This gives everyone a chance to do some research, collect their thoughts, and walk into that room with thoughtful, helpful suggestions.

Not only will your meeting's purpose be clear from the get-go, but you'll also cut down on the clutter of those half-baked, unrealistic, and totally improbable ideas that tend to pop up when brainstorming -- because everyone's had some time to themselves to actually think through the logistics of their suggestions.

2. Narrow Your Focus

All too often, we have no idea what we're actually looking for. And, in those moments, it's far too tempting to slap on a label of "brainstorming" to disguise our floundering as productivity.

However, it's important that you walk into every single brainstorming session with a very specific thing you're aiming to accomplish. The more specific you can be, the better the suggestions.

For example, prompting your team with something like, "How can we improve our reputation with our customers?" is far too open-ended -- and will result in sporadic ideas with no cohesive vision.

Instead, you'd be much better going the route of, "We've received quite a few complaints about our customer support. What methods can we use to decrease the amount of time it takes us to respond to support tickets?"

This presents a very specific problem, and will generate targeted and relevant solutions from your team members. Rather than a bunch of unusable ideas, you'll walk away with real answers to address a real issue.

3. Use a Smaller Group

Yes, perhaps two brains are better than one. But, too many brains? Well, too large of crowd will only cause everyone in your meeting to feel overwhelmed and perhaps even a little reserved.

In fact, science tells us that we often withhold ideas in a group setting for fear of being judged by our peers. So, despite popular belief, brainstorming sessions might not be as effective at churning out brilliant suggestions as we all tend to think.

If you'd still like to get a group together to bounce some ideas around, try to keep the number of participants limited to a very select group who are best suited to generate ideas on a specific topic -- meaning they have some expertise in the area.

Including three to five people will ensure that you have some varying viewpoints, without overcomplicating the process.

4. Assign Action Items

One of the biggest grievances about brainstorming sessions is that they're usually a dead end -- they never actually lead to anything tangible.

It's for this reason that you should assign action items at the end of that meeting. Work with your team to choose the idea that works best, and then decide who will be responsible for each piece of the puzzle.

Whether that's completing more research or drafting a timeline, people should walk out of that door with something actionable to do.

Not only will this ensure that you're truly following through on what you set out to accomplish, but it will also confirm to the group that their time wasn't wasted -- it was actually used to put the wheels in motion immediately.

If you've grown used to hearing a collective groan every time you utter the words "brainstorming session", you're not alone. Luckily, implementing these four key tips will transform those meetings from dreadful to productive. Give them a try, and prepare for better results.