In any business setting, there is always a need for creative thinking and new ideas. The question is, what are the best ways to generate these ideas? For many companies, the process involves some sort of formal brainstorming meeting. Unfortunately, many of these discussions turn into ineffective uses of time where everyone leaves the room frustrated and feeling like nothing has been accomplished.
Throughout my career in advertising and marketing, I’ve been invited to participate in my fair share of brainstorms. After witnessing a few brainstorms gone bad, I’ve found that most brainstorming failures can be prevented with a few small adjustments to how the meeting is approached. Today, I’d like to walk through some basics in brainstorming and share observations from the most effective idea sessions I’ve been a part of.
- Identify and set objectives – It seems obvious, but it’s tough to come up with ideas that work if you don’t know exactly what you’re working on. Before going into a brainstorming session, there needs to be a few clearly defined objectives. Identify what needs to be solved and then set specific items to generate ideas around.
- Get the right people in the room – Once the meeting objectives have been solidified, it’s time to carefully think about who to invite to your meeting. A big part of a successful brainstorm is getting the right people in the room. Limit the group to people you can count on to prepare and participate. Also, look for opportunities to include people with varied roles and responsibilities. Different perspectives allow the group to look at a problem from many different angles and to identify new approaches.
- Prep your participants – Inviting the right people is one thing, but are you preparing your group to be able to successfully contribute? Allow them time to think before the meeting and provide them with background information. You might include the latest sales data or some demographic information about your target audience. Instead of just sending out a generic meeting invite that says “brainstorm,” include a list of the meeting objectives and give some context on the problem you would like people to think on.
- Get out of the routine – How often do you hear people say that their best ideas come in the shower, while driving in the car, or in other unexpected places? Sometimes new places can prompt new ways of thinking. Instead of scheduling a brainstorm in the same conference room every time, opt for a new off-site location, put a blanket down in a park, or turn your meeting into a walking meeting. Breaking out of the routine, day-to-day meeting spaces gets the creative juices flowing and helps to improve focus.
- Don’t frame the conversation with limitations – Often times we put up walls that prevent new ideas from forming. Within your industry or organization, there might be rules and regulations that prohibit certain things, but don’t allow those limitations to immediately restrict ideas. Allow out of the box thinking and then look for ways that you might be able to adjust concepts to fit within the rules.
- Timing is key – Rather than spending an entire meeting blurting out new thoughts, break the brainstorm into specific time segments. Start off by reminding everyone what you would like to get out of the meeting and then open the floor for new ideas. For example, in an hour-long meeting set a timer for 25 minutes of open discussion. Spend the next 5 minutes selecting the 2-3 best ideas and then use the last half hour to focus on building out those ideas.
- Write it out – In some cases, there are individuals who tend to take over meetings. Their endless talking can drown out others who aren’t as prone to speak up. In situations like this, it may be worthwhile to try “brainwriting.” Allow everyone in the room time to anonymously write out ideas on small cards or pieces of paper. Then collect the paper, spend a few minutes reviewing all of the ideas with the group, and take a vote to determine which ideas merit further discussion. This allows everyone to participate and to share ideas without the need to interrupt.
- Ideas necessitate action – The best ideas are useless if there are no steps taken to implement them. At the end of a brainstorm, review the new ideas and make a list of what needs to be done to act on them. Assign each list item to a specific individual in the room and set a due date for that item to be completed.
I’m a firm believer in the creative power of a good group discussion. Brainstorms can be a great opportunity to build out ideas and concepts, but the really strong ideas don’t just occur by chance. Behind every good brainstorm there’s a fair amount of planning and preparation. Take the time to carefully think through what you want to accomplish, who needs to be there, and how you’re going to carry out the discussion and then let the creative minds run free!