Meetings. Brainstorming sessions. They can go well – or be so boring and unproductive!
With these 13 brainstorming techniques, you can ensure your next brainstorming session includes:
- Diverse perspectives
- Balanced input from all attendees
- Freedom from judgment
- Only brainstorming, not analysis/planning
At the beginning of a project, you want to get as many ideas as possible out on the table for discussion. To achieve this goal, you must lead your group firmly through the process.
Use the 13 brainstorming techniques in this article to keep the talkers from talking, the judges from judging, and the tangenters from talking. Make everyone feel valued, heard, and free to offer even the silliest of ideas.
By creating a fun and productive environment in brainstorming meetings, you can rest assured you’ve examined every angle of a project.
1) Look Out for Anchoring
I put this concept first because it applies to all the subsequent steps/techniques.
As a leader, you know everyone on your team has value.
However, in most groups, a few people do all the talking. In brainstorming sessions, people tend to latch onto the first two (or few) ideas presented. Of course, the people who like to speak up in meetings don’t have all the answers – but they get the lion’s share of the attention.
This phenomenon, called anchoring, means groups don’t benefit from a large variety of inputs (the whole purpose of brainstorming meetings, right?).
Worse yet, people can go off on tangents that don’t address the root problem when the first people to talk bring up off-topic concerns.
2) Set a Reasonable Group Size
Remember the “pizza rule” when planning brainstorming meetings.
If you couldn’t share a single pizza among the attendees, you’ve included too many people. Experts say you should limit brainstorming sessions to 2-6 people.
Add more at your peril – and only if you have experience with brainstorming techniques for balancing multiple voices.
3) Invite the Right People
Diversity creates success. Make sure the right people show up to your brainstorming sessions by avoiding the obvious clichés.
At “team meetings,” everyone already knows each other – and may already have created unconscious consensuses about certain topics. Avoid this potential blind spot by including a variety of people from different teams.
However, don’t stretch this idea too far. Include a critical mass of people who will actually work on this project.
For instance, you could create a meeting with three people from your team (with varying skills and statuses) and invite three others from outside departments.
4) Define a Clear Goal
You can keep your brainstorming group on-track by starting out with a simple exercise. Go around the circle and have each person define the problem.
Write down everyone’s ideas on your whiteboard (or have someone take notes).
Next, have people shout out (one-at-a-time) suggestions for defining the problem more clearly. Keep using language to refine your goals until everyone agrees it covers all the bases.
Finally, have your team members suggest ways to say the same thing in as few words as possible.
5) Create Positive Goals
Once you have a clear and concise goal in mind, have your team define it in the most positive terms.
You can even do this for all sub-goals in your discussion.
This method works especially well with the Flower Outline brainstorming technique I describe later in this article.
For example, if your goal is to “reduce global warming,” you could reframe this objective as “provide green energy alternatives.”
Not only does this method help you present your ideas in a more appealing way, it takes you through an essential mental process. It can be easy to identify pain points and what consumers don’t want.
The next step is to define what they do want – your often-elusive USP (Unique Selling Proposition). By turning negative goal statements into positive ones, you’re asking, “What can we do to solve this problem?”
6) Share Ideas in Writing
Many brainstorming groups have untapped potential. Instead of letting a few people do all the talking, have everyone put their ideas in writing.
At the beginning of your meeting, introduce (or define) your goal.
When it’s time to suggest potential solutions and strategies, tell your group to put it in writing – in only 2 minutes. This alone will help people who “think by talking” to organize their thoughts.
By limiting the amount of time people have to write, you can hold back verbose people and give shy people a shot.
Yes, you can simply ask everyone to read out their own ideas.
However, take one more essential step: Have people exchange their papers (or laptops) and reach each other’s statements.
This way, every voice is heard – and people can resist the temptation to accept the ideas of the most compelling speakers.
7) Play Team-Building Games
The key to team-building games is striking the right balance of fun and productivity. For some teams, games lighten the mood in meetings and build trust. For others, they can feel too silly.
If your team is on the serious side, try the All Adrift game; nothing is more serious than survival, right?
If your team likes to have fun, use the Hole Tarp game to keep the adrenaline pumping (and people awake) during long brainstorming meetings.
To facilitate interaction between team members, use the Barter Puzzle game. In this fun activity, your team splits up into small groups and put puzzles together. The trick is, you’ve put a few pieces from each puzzle in the “wrong boxes.” Each small group will need to “barter” with the others to get the pieces it needs to complete its puzzle.
8) Play Brainstorming Games
People love to have fun – and engage their senses. Mood boards (just one of the many brainstorming games out there) add visual stimulus and structure to brainstorming sessions.
Your group can create mood boards online (via Pinterest, etc.).
However, it’s fun to get hands-on.
Have people take pictures of things with their phones (ahead of the meeting). Have a few wireless printers available at your meeting site for real-time cut and paste. Get those images up on your board fast – and with a creative spirit. (Upbeat music makes a great addition to this activity.)
Once you’ve filled up your board, take a moment to sit back and just look at it.
After a few minutes, ask people what they see.
- What colors stand out?
- What themes arise?
- What people, places, and things feel the most compelling?
9) Lead Creativity Exercises
One popular creative exercise involves role playing. Write the names of various celebrities/characters on your white board, and have your team determine how each would solve the problem.
- For example, would Steve Jobs solve a problem differently than Steve Harvey?
- Would Batman take a different approach than Wonder Woman?
- Would Angela Merkel advise you differently than Angela Lansbury?
By imagining how others would deal with an issue, your attendees can set aside assumptions and offer more creative solutions.
10) Create a Simple Flower Outline
With a flower diagram, you can identify many aspects of a project. Leaders use this method to lend structure and balance to meetings – and provide an engaging visual aid.
- Draw a small circle in the middle of your white board (or use a flower diagram printout). Write the core objective of your project in this circle.
- Ask your team to shout out the various aspects of your project. Draw flower petals around the edge of your circle and write your team’s suggestions inside each petal.
- Once your group has thought of 5-10 petals, draw circles for each idea. These circles (which will start new flowers of their own) can take up the rest of the white space surrounding your original flower.
- Label these new circles to match the petals of the original flower.
- Ask your team to brainstorm petals for each of these new circles.
Use this method to keep your group from anchoring on one or two ideas and neglecting other aspects of the project. For example, if the big talkers in your group focus on the technological and manufacturing aspects of this project, solicit input from sales, marketing, and customer service people.
11) Change Your Environment
Remember one of the most effective (but easily overlooked) brainstorming tools: location.
Hold your meeting at a park, in a restaurant, or even on the roof of your building. Expand your team’s horizons – literally.
Get people out of the workplace and into the wild.
Whether you’re meeting on a mountaintop or at a McDonalds, get people into the new situations that stimulate creativity, insight, and vision.
Not only will this help your team brainstorm better solutions, it’ll give them a welcome break from the mundane. (This technique works especially well when people see brainstorming meetings as rewards for hard work.)
12) Be Willing to Walk Away Empty-Handed
Sometimes, your brainstorming sessions just won’t result in any great ideas. Don’t be discouraged. Remember, your group can continue its efforts with any number of online brainstorming tools.
If you’re stuck (and don’t want to settle for half-baked ideas), schedule another meeting.
Try another of the techniques I’ve mentioned in this article.
Set the meeting for another day of the week.
Fail forward, expect the best, and you’ll find the droid (oops, I mean) ideas you’re looking for.
13) Make Brainstorming a Regular Activity
When you learn to do it right, brainstorming will become a popular activity around your office. Your team members will look forward to these breaks from the daily grind.
Make brainstorming a regular part of your workflow.
Of course, you need to get creative at the beginning of projects – but also when you get stuck.
Whenever you run across a stumbling block, give a person (or a small group) the privilege of a short brainstorming session. Use Toggl’s time tracking app to make sure people spend the right amount of time on these tasks.
By creating fun and productive environments in which all employees can be heard, you’ll improve team morale – and dramatically improve your project outcomes!