Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create.”
– Albert Einstein
Brainstorming seems pretty straightforward, yet we’ve all been in both amazing and extremely disappointing brainstorming sessions. There are many best practices to improve your brainstorming sessions. And, frankly, brainstorming plays an incredibly important role in problem solving. The ability for a group of people to think through issues, bounce ideas off each other, expand both the depth of understanding and the breadth of ideas, and in the end create innovative solutions, is the goal of a great brainstorming session. So, let’s dive into the best practices.
Brainstorming Best Practices
Diversity is key
Get different types of people with different roles in the brainstorming session. If you are attacking problems or opportunities, you want to ensure you have different perspectives to shed light on the issues and create solutions.
Don’t go over 10 people
I’ve had great brainstorming sessions with as little as two people, but once you go over ten people, the flow breaks down. You start to get a few voices that dominate the session.
Change your venue
I’ll bet over 90% of brainstorming sessions happen in a plain and boring conference room. Not the best environment to stimulate creativity. Try changing venues to where the problem or opportunity lies and where there is energy. At Sports Authority, we would often have brainstorming sessions in a store. At Goal Zero, if we were brainstorming product ideas or issues, we would hold the session in the engineering area where there were prototypes and products. If we were brainstorming about warehouse process improvements, we would hold the session in the warehouse. There is something to be said about the power of context and the environment in stimulating creativity and ideas.
Establish a goal
Keep brainstorming focused on a goal. Are you brainstorming new products, issues with customer service, ways to reduce inefficiencies, marketing ideas, or ways to increase morale? Put the goal or problem statement on a whiteboard or flip chart. Keep the conversation focused on the goal and redirected from the inevitable drifting of the conversation to irrelevant topics.
Timebox the session
I typically find the best ideas emerge when there is time pressure. I often break down brainstorming sessions into 5-minute rapid-fire increments. It gets peoples’ brains powered up and flowing. It also forces people to focus on creating ideas and not challenging the ideas.
Let it flow, don’t say no
One of the brainstorming best practices we had at McKinsey was to not say “no” in a brainstorming session. The majority of brainstorming is about building off of ideas, getting people engaged to open up and speak their mind, and there isn’t a quicker way to turn a person’s brain and creativity off than by saying “No, that won’t work…that is not a good idea.” Focus on giving people affirmation with simple phrases like, “let’s build on that idea” or “that is a nice idea, tell us more.” The time to synthesize, prioritize and say no is typically at the end of a brainstorming session.
Invite the introverts to talk
According to the Myers Briggs Foundation, around 50% of people are introverts. So, assume about half of the people in a brainstorming session are introverts, identify them in your mind, and be proactive in asking them their thoughts and ideas. For those that have been quiet for a while, ask them “What are your thoughts?” Or, better yet, at the beginning of idea generation go around and have each person say his or her best two or three ideas.
Have a strong facilitator
Choose the facilitator before or at the beginning of a brainstorming session. The facilitator’s role is to guide the conversation, finish up topics, open up new topics, engage people in participating and sharing their thoughts, synthesize and prioritize the ideas, and to help outline action items and next steps.
Call out action items
Brainstorming typically produces follow-up action items. As you brainstorming, take notes of the potential action items and then turn those into next steps. Assign them to individuals, with an expected finish date, and also schedule the follow-up to the next steps.