Brainstorming can be a so much more than a bunch of people getting together to throw out a few ideas.
Done thoughtfully, in a structured way, a quality brainstorming session can produce ideas that transform your organization, and help drive the value you provide to, and enjoy from, your members.
Doing brainstorming right isn’t easy. It takes time, focus, preparation, and co-ordination from everyone involved. With a little bit of prep, a lot of understanding, and a good attitude, you and your team can enjoy lively brainstorming sessions that are not only fun for everyone involved, but are productive.
Here’s how you can organize your brainstorming sessions to create the next big idea for your member-driven organization:
1. Prepare Your Space, Materials, and Participants.
Getting real value out of your brainstorming session requires you and participants to take it seriously.
This means you’ve got to dedicate space, prepare materials, and ensure that participants understand how to contribute to your session.
Without these things, a session is likely to dissolve into a confused, chaotic mess unlikely to produce anything of value.
To get your brainstorming session started, find a team meeting area, and prepare it by writing down the rules of your brainstorming session for all to see (you’ll learn about those rules below). Interrupting your session to verbally remind participants of the rules interrupts the flow/rhythm of idea generation. Having them displayed allows you to protect the momentum of your session by keeping the rules in the forefront of participant awareness.
Whiteboards (or chalkboards), and plenty of dry-erase markers (or chalk) are critical to a productive brainstorming session. They allow you to quickly capture ideas in as they flow from your participants in a way that isn’t restricted to any structure, and are clearly visible to everyone in the room.
When ideas written down on-the-fly, in a way that is visible to everyone, ideas become fuel for more ideas. Someone writes down an idea, which triggers another idea in someone else, who combines it with another idea on the board, making a third idea, and so on!
Brainstorming sessions don’t work unless participants understand and comply with the structure of the session.
When participants understand the rules, and comply with them, they’re prevented from making subtle-but-powerful errors that can have a drastic impact on interrupting the flow of your session.
For example, if participants don’t know that they’re supposed to suspend criticism of even insane ideas (more on this later), brainstorming sessions quickly devolve from idea generation into idea evaluation. Crazy ideas have value to a brainstorming session, so it’s important that participants know to encourage them!
2. Define Your Problem Clearly, and Write It Down
In brainstorming, stating your problem clearly is half the work of solving it.
An active, engaging brainstorming session is only a productive one when a session is directed to solving the right problem.
It might seem like a bit of a chore, but taking 15 minutes to consider how you’re articulating your problem can have a huge impact on the productivity of your session.
Make Your Problem Actionable
When stating the problem you’d like your brainstorming session to solve, it’s important that it be presented as a How or What statement.
Instead of “Why aren’t our members engaging?”, write: “What can we do to make our members engage” or “How can we drive engagement?”.
Why statements have answers, but they are rarely precise, and are often lengthy. ‘How’ and ‘What’ statements, on the other hand, produce ideas that are easy to blurt out as they come to mind.
More importantly, answers to ‘How’ and ‘What’ questions are actionable. ‘Why’ can help you understand your problem, but ‘what’ and ‘how’ will help you determine solutions and produce insights that you and your team can act on.
3. Never Say No
With your session prepped, and problem known, it’s time to get started actually producing ideas!
The best way to do this is with the first, and most important, rule of ideation:
Never say no!
When you and your team are in the process of idea creation, the flow, momentum, and energy of your session is far more important than the actual ideas your team produces.
Even if ideas are zany, crazy, and seemingly useless, it’s important that absolutely none of your participants criticize, analyze, or otherwise evaluate anything you written on the board. Weird ideas can be the seed of extremely useful ones, and help fuel productive, energetic sessions. If participants fall into the habit of saying what should or shouldn’t go on the board, you’ll lose the momentum of your session as self-consciousness makes participants pre-screen their ideas before sharing them.
Even when ideas are weird, they are to be encouraged. Later on in the session, you’ll turn to evaluating them, but before then it’s important to focus on creating as much material as possible to evaluate. 90% of what you produce will likely be ignored, but the 10% where you find value will likely be the result of ideas triggered by the ones you might think are crazy!
4. Wait, Then Evaluate
Once you’ve got a huge selection of ideas on the board, it’s time to turn to the task of evaluating them.
You might feel the urge to start crossing-out some of the crazier ideas on the board. Here, it’s important to remember our first rule:
Never say no!
Instead of eliminating ideas you think are crazy, start evaluating the board through combination and iteration.
On your board, there are a bunch of crazy ideas, and some not-so-crazy ones. Among the not-so-crazy, you’ll likely find that many are compatible. Combine 3-4 of the good ideas on the board, and you might have the foundation for multiple good solutions to your stated problem. See if you can organize the ideas on your board into a few possible solutions, and move onto the next stage of your brainstorming session:
With a few possible solutions roughly outlined, repeat your brainstorming process, but with those solutions as the topic of more ideation sessions! By brainstorming new ideas around your old ones, you can flesh out your solutions and develop more specific ideas about how you might execute them.