Whether you're an entrepreneur, a part of a creative company, or a part of a decidedly uncreative company, the need for a brainstorm will inevitably surface. Maybe a brainstorm is in order to develop a new advertising angle or improve processes. Being in the publishing industry, my team is often tasked with the difficult job of brainstorming book titles for our authors.

Brainstorming tends to be a love or hate activity, with some employees enjoying the break in their routines to get creative and others dreading such a meeting. Ultimately, there are no right or wrong ways to brainstorm. Whatever helps you and your team bring forward a lot of strong ideas is a win in my book. However, having led many a brainstorm, I have learned a few skills that may help you facilitate your next one.

Set the Stage

Good ideas rarely happen instantaneously. Instead, they tend to emerge when people have a chance to mull a concept over with a clear mind, with flashes of genius sometimes happening on runs or while cooking.

So instead of providing your team with the background information they'll need at the beginning of the meeting, send it out at least a week before. In our title brainstorms, for example, the leader of that meeting sends out a document with sample chapters, target market information, and the genre selection. When people come to the meeting, they are already familiar enough with the content and the goal of the book to get right to work.

Get the Right People Involved

Brainstorm meetings can become unproductive if they have too many or too few people. A brainstorm group is just right with 5-6 people in it. The more people you have, the harder it is for quieter members to speak up and participate. On the other end of that spectrum, a group that is too small may simply run dry on good ideas.

Regardless of the group size ensure that everyone in the room understands the goal of the brainstorm and has the right experience to contribute to a positive outcome. An outsider's perspective can be helpful and creative, but only if they're familiar with the parameters around what you're driving toward. Using our title brainstorm as an example again, if someone doesn't understand the basic anatomy of a book title, they are more likely to contribute unusable (and distracting) ideas.

Keep It Positive

When you have the right people in the room, it's important to fully embrace the idea that "no ideas are bad ideas." The entire team should be on board with that concept. Without it, your team is likely to hold an idea close until they're sure it won't attract criticism, which is certainly not the point. You're all in a room together to iterate on ideas.

So when someone shares an idea, you're likely to hear one of the following responses:

  • "Yes, and..." followed by additional support for the idea.
  • "Yes, or..." followed by a suggested tweak to the idea.
  • "Yes, but..." followed by a criticism.

Taking a cue from the world of improv, encourage the "and" and "or" responses and stay far, far away from the "but" responses. The time for more critical thinking will come later, and chances are that the strongest ideas will rise to the top of the pile even without the negative feedback.

When you inevitably come up against a "yes, but" person, gently remind them that concerns can be addressed later. And by all means serve as a positive example, doling out praise for unique ideas.

Go Low Tech

I encourage people to get away from their laptops for a brainstorm. Did you create and send out a research document ahead of time? Print copies for the meeting. Do you need to check whether the idea is already being done or used elsewhere? Put it in the parking lot until the creative portion is complete.

There are ways that technology can aid a brainstorm meeting, but the risk for distraction outweighs those benefits. Your team should be fully engaged rather than distractedly watching their unread email pile up. Try using whiteboards or, my personal favorite, giant sticky notes that you can post around the room. And never underestimate the power of good old fashioned pen and paper.

Brainstorm meetings don't have to be painful. These basic concepts will help you set the right tone and environment for your meeting, but don't be afraid to get creative yourself. Try incorporating games or activities to keep things interesting. You know your team best, so consider what motivates and excites them and work those activities into the general framework above. The great ideas will start flowing in no time.