Almost anyone you consult on the matter will tell you that brainstorms are the key to creativity. Generally, a brainstorm involves people coming together and spit-balling ideas around a given topic. Participants write or draw each idea on a separate post-it and stick it on a board for everyone to see. The goal is to come up with as many ideas as possible.
While brainstorms encourage teams to be generative, they are only as useful as their aftermath. Too often, teams spend quality time coming up with bold ideas only to return to their desks after the session and forget it ever happened. This is the dark cloud looms over the post-brainstorm frenzy. I call it the brainstorm hangover.
When I first started leading brainstorms, I often faced resistance from participants. A manager once asked me, "Is it just me or are brainstorms a time suck? They are fun in the moment, but we never hear of the ideas again." Brainstorm hangovers made him want to avoid brainstorms altogether. After that conversation, and over the course of hundreds of brainstorms I've led and participated in since then, I've refined and benefited from a Brainstorm Hangover Prevention Plan (BHPP).
The 5-Step Brainstorm Hangover Prevention Plan
1. Cluster similar ideas together
Before the end of the session, spend ten minutes as a group identifying similar ideas and physically moving post-its to bucket them together. Even if one idea is communicated in two different ways, keep both on the board. It is helpful to maintain nuanced differences for more detailed discussions and brainstorms at a later point.
2. Vote on favorites
Now that your ideas are somewhat organized (quick clustering is never perfect), spend the last five minutes of the session having each participant vote on his or her top three favorite ideas or idea clusters. One way to do this is to provide brightly colored pens or stickers and have people place votes on the actual sticky. This enables anyone to glance at your ideas and understand where there's heat.
At this point in the BHPP, participants can be excused. It's now up to the brainstorm facilitator or task force to execute on the next three steps.
3. Document the brainstorm
Within a week of the session, share a summary of the brainstorm with participants and key stakeholders. This provides a tangible artifact of the abstract and free-flowing brainstorm. Ultimately, the way you do this depends on your company's internal tools and culture. I rely on two methods: typing or photographing ideas. In the former, I type out all the ideas in a spreadsheet organized by idea cluster. For ideas that were provided more than once, I indicate the number in parenthesis next to the idea. I bold the top three ideas based on votes. In the latter, I take photos of the clustered ideas and annotate the image to emphasize popular areas.
4. Prioritize Ideas
With a small task force or on your own, cull through top ideas to add structure. Based on your business goals and your initial goal for the brainstorm, prioritize your top ideas. Which one is most important to helping you achieve your goals? How do the rest line up? At this point, it may help to invite key stakeholders to weigh in and build alignment. Take time to understand different points of view. If there is an idea you can't speak to, tap the originator of the idea to re-describe it.
5. Commit to next steps
With a focus on your top priority, clearly establish how you'll proceed. This will depend on the goal of your initial brainstorm. If, for example, it was to choose your next product or marketing initiative, then your top prioritized idea is your answer and the next step is to craft a strategy around execution. On the other hand, if your initial brainstorm was around a product feature, your next step might be to sketch or wireframe prioritized ideas at a slightly higher fidelity in order to gather user feedback. With the broadest brainstorms, the next natural step may be a more focused brainstorm.
Brainstorms are a great way to bring teams together and express creativity in ways that are less appropriate in day-to-day meetings. They enable individuals to share ideas -- or even seeds of ideas -- with the group so that others can build on them or offer their own. While brainstorms are always fun, the most effective ones are the ones that clarify ambiguity and move the team forward. This is only possible when someone takes the lead in creating calm after the storm.