Just mention that your next meeting is a brainstorming session and you can feel the eye rolls and groans. Myriad studies seem to backup this feeling, for example the 2003 University of Berkeley study finding that, “individuals produce more and better ideas alone rather than in a group.” Brainstorming sessions have become synonymous with outdated, idea-killing, wastes of time that don’t result in any action.
All of this can be true, if you don’t take a few key steps. Empowering a facilitator, planning and communicating before the session, setting the parameters, and follow-up. A couple simple changes to your brainstorming approach, can create an effective session that generates SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely) solutions.
An Empowered Facilitator
Effective brainstorming sessions are a balance of ‘free-flowing ideas’ and guidance by a facilitator. A facilitator acts as a short-term project manager; communicating early and often. They are setting and helping to keep the agenda, and taking notes and managing dialogue. Furthermore, it is important that the facilitator is not a stakeholder and is empowered to lead the session.
Consider inviting stakeholders AND non-stakeholders to a brainstorming session. A group with different levels of investment creates diverse sets of ideas and solutions. Non-stakeholders are more likely to offer unconventional ideas. They are stretching the group’s thinking even if they aren’t put in to play. Additionally, today’s problems are complicated and need ideas sourced from people with a variety of skillsets/expertise. This allows the ability to address all facets of the problem.
It is important that the invitees be diverse only in skillset and investment, not at the org chart level. Mixing leadership and frontline team members puts undue pressure on all invitees. Frontline team members may feel pressure to agree with the ideas of leadership. Or they may keep quiet. Leaders may unconsciously fall in to their standard role of leading the meeting, when they are a participant.
Send invitees an email explaining the purpose of the meeting. Set expectations, agenda, and goals. Explain the problem that needs to be solved and ask each team member to develop a few ideas to bring to the meeting. Furthermore, explain the process that will be employed in the meeting. This sets the stage for the invitees, gives the facilitator a roadmap, and keeps everyone accountable. And asking invitees to bring ideas to the session gives people time to come up with ideas, let’s even the most introverted participate and helps to eliminate dead air moments (when just about any idea sounds like a great idea)
No, agendas are not sexy, they aren’t exciting, and they may even feel stifling. Really, though, the opposite is true. A clearly outlined agenda gives space for participation. It also removes the specter of those unending monologues or worse conversational voids. Also, let’s be honest here, attending a meeting with a clear agenda is better than attending a not-sure-why-I’m-here session. Invitees know what is expected of them, they know what to expect of everyone else and there is a bit of shared control.
The idea tornado
Much like those old school game show money tornado booths, the ideas in a brainstorming session should be fast and furious; within a timeframe. The facilitator should set a timeframe for the idea tornado and just take notes – for example, let the group have 15 minutes to share their ideas including those developed before the session. The ideas should be shared stand-alone; without evaluation, justification or explanation. Write down EVERYTHING (ideally in a prominently displayed place, like a whiteboard).
Now that the tornado has passed, go back to each idea, talk through and allow elaboration on each. Simultaneously, ask the group, ‘are any of the ideas similar, can we consolidate any of the ideas.’ Consolidate ideas as makes sense. Additionally, move unrelated ideas to a parking lot, this simple act will refocus the group energy on the task at hand, while also ensuring you don’t lose valuable eureka moments.
Evaluation, not judgement
The overall goal of any brainstorming session should be to leave with at least a few actionable ideas, which means the list of consolidated ideas needs to be evaluated. Believe or not, this can be done, civilly. The facilitator should outline the set of evaluation questions before any ideas are reviewed. For example, what would be involved to implement this (tools, team members, timeframe, etc.), what is the cost, what existing processes would be impacted, and etc. Using these set evaluation parameters, review each idea, one at a time, not in comparison to any of the other ideas.
After each idea has been evaluated, choose the top two or three for further research and development.
One of the worst feelings is to leave a meeting with no idea of the outcomes. To actually reach the effectiveness goal of a brainstorming session, the last items on the agenda should be summary and assignments. The last 10 minutes of the session should be spent summarizing the work of the session. Furthermore, it should include the goal of the session, the ideas presented, the evaluation of those ideas and any parking lot items generated. Based on the group-determined top two to three ideas, tasks should be assigned for further research and development of these ideas. And finally, a follow-up meeting (and inherent timeframe for those assignments) should be scheduled.
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