How to brainstorm effectively in six ways

Too many brainstorms are wasteful. They’re wasteful of attendees time. Wasteful of their insights and skills. Wasteful of the opportunity to create and develop fantastic ideas.

This is how a bad brainstorm works… I know because I’ve run many useless ones.

Lots of people are invited from all over the place under the agenda of  ‘let’s brainstorm what we can do next year around <insert product, programme, service or event>’.  The intention is to broaden the thinking and get the teams to buy into the plans for the next year, with the aspiration that the whole team will acquiesce around a killer concept.

Because everyone’s time is precious, the meeting is booked for 90 minutes, instead of the two to four hours it really needs to work. Quite a few of the busier types drop out last minute as more urgent things turn up, there’s now no one from the design team in the room. Almost everyone turns up late, thinking it won’t matter with so much time to play with. A few people apologise that they’ll have to leave early, whilst a few are constantly checking mails throughout the session.

You explain that you’re trying to work out what to do next year and want to open up to all ideas. This isn’t strictly true, as there are a number of limitations on the budget, the audiences you’re focusing on and the resources to deliver the ideas. You also have technical, political and legal restrictions on what’s possible. Anyhow, you open up the floor, saying any idea is valid. The biggest talker in the room then brings up their pet idea, which they’ve thought through in a lot of detail, because they mention it all the time. You try to move on and a couple of other ideas come up, some are really good, but you know they won’t really help you meet your aims.

There’s lots of discussion around the ideas and related topics, which you try to work up solutions for immediately. Some negative voices spend a long time explaining why certain things are not technically viable or exclaim, “we tried it before and it didn’t work”.

Bad brainstorm main points

Many factors can come together to cause a bad brainstorm.

You’ve now used up most of the time, so have to quickly and autocratically group ideas together, then ask people to rank the groupings into the best ideas. Even though the brainstorm group is unrepresentative of the organisation, let alone the target audience (who rarely get mentioned in the session) you now have a list of ranked ideas. You thank everyone for their time and say you’ll get back to them at some point, when the ideas have been worked up.

You get back to your desk, cherry pick one idea you like, irrespective of the rankings. By and large you stick to the plan that you had in your head before the brainstorm.

What a load of wasteful and insincere nonsense.

So how do you run an effective brainstorm?

  1. Use structure as a creative device
  2. Be clear and honest about the output
  3. Invite the right mix for the right amount of time and prep them
  4. Create enough time and allocate most on the development part
  5. Focus on research and personas to stimulate ideas
  6. Visualise and illustrate ideas

1 – Use structure as a creative device

Rio de Janiero - O Cristo Redentor with scaffolding

Even the most amazing inventive sparks need structure to inflame. Photo: Damon Salvador

It may sound a bit oxymoronic, but you need to structure a brainstorm carefully to make it useful. Boundaries and limitations are the best ways to generate new ideas; they’re anchors to bob around and walls to bounce off. Boundaries are also good to make sure that anything coming out of a brainstorm can actually be used. It’s worth remembering that the brain uses networks of associations to remember and create, so you’ll get more out of people by presenting them a discrete challenge, rather than putting a blank piece of paper in front of them.
An example of a discrete challenge is ‘how could we translate the features of this site for a mobile phone user?’ It has enough scope to be worth having a brainstorm, but is not too wide to generate unusable ideas. It is also something you genuinely want to do and action.

Equally, important is a defined set of selection criteria for the ideas. What’s a good idea and a bad idea? There isn’t really a definition for that, but there are criteria to determine if the idea is going to meet your project’s aims. Is your project about exciting existing users about new features with a limited budget or is it about reaching a new market with an existing product? Is it a programme idea around a particular topic to reach a younger audience? It doesn’t matter what the aims are, you will need to define what criteria must be met to make it right for your project.

A checklist to help you define your criteria:
Who’s it for and who’s it not for?

When’s it needed?

What’s the budget range?

What medium(s) is it in?

What can’t it be like?

What feature must it have?

What legal, design or technical guidelines must it follow?

I hope this doesn’t sound like a method of closing down open thinking. You should encourage people to think bold and wide at the start of the brainstorm and defer judgement. So only introduce the criteria following the initial idea gathering by posing the challenge ‘how could these be achieved within the criteria?’ You may decide that one of the criteria will need to be challenged, but don’t fool people into thinking everything will be delivered if you’ve got strict rules.

2 – Be clear and honest about the output

If you don’t set expectations about how something will be used, the brainstorm will feel like an academic exercise and will not be a priority to attend. If attendees know what they’re contributing will actually be used to shape something real, their energy levels and engagement will be higher. Even if you won’t immediately use all the output, showing the role it plays or the next steps maintains expectations. An example, “we will take the top three ideas from this session and test them with a sample audience to see if they’re worth taking further”.

Dont't be insincere about the brainstorm.

Be honest about what the boundaries of the brainstorm are and how the output will be used.

Likewise if you didn’t use anything from previous brainstorms, you may get a reputation as a timewaster; so turnout and engagement will be low next time. Every brainstorm needs to be followed up with thanks, photos of the sketched ideas and next steps. A place to discuss and feedback is important too.

Once you are carrying the ideas through the project cycle you should report back to attendees, even if all ideas were dropped. Explain what is being done and why, that way people’s time and effort is acknowledged and seen as being of value. In turn, participants will be encouraged to participate in the future.

3 – Invite the right mix of people for the right amount of time and prep them

The danger of having long meetings, which a brainstorm will be, is that you can’t get the people you need to attend for the full amount of time. So when you’re sending out invites, do so early (ideally one month in advance, possibly longer if people are travelling) and insist that if someone drops out that a delegate must come instead. Being early increases the chances of getting in many peoples’ schedules, insistence on delegation means that you have the person’s area represented, so it’s not just all design or UX.

Jim Henson and the Muppets

The right mix of people is vital for a creative ideas session.

The mix of people is vital to have a productive ideas session. If we look at the Renaissance, profound and influential ideas came from cross-pollination and the mixing of different ways of thinking as the Mediterranean traders swapped goods. So work off this rule, by getting a diverse mix or technical, design, creative, editorial and outsiders into the room. This does not mean a scatter-gun invitation, be thoughtful about the type of people you want and don’t worry about offending anyone. It is about quality not quantity.

You will also do well to prepare people for the session. Don’t just say ‘turn up’, be explicit about the discrete challenge, the format of the meeting and give the invitees something to ponder – maybe a one page summary of a surprising audience behaviour or an analogy about a successful invention. This way people have began thinking before the session and have a frame of reference to play with.

Another vital task prior to the meeting, sometimes prior to the invite, is to warm attendees up in person. Discuss face to face, what you are hoping to get out of the session, especially with the ones who may be wavering over attending or are likely to have a large say in the project. Talk to them about their concerns and reactions, listen and respond to these. If they really won’t attend, get commitment that one of their team will and understand their initial thoughts, so you can take them in with you into the session.

4 – Create enough time and allocate most on the development part

In order to get people in the participatory mood and to allow ideas to be built on, you need to make sure enough time is allocated to the brainstorm. Rushed brainstorms don’t get the most out of people nor allow themes to be explored properly. You’ll be left with a random list. So a productive brainstorm requires enough time to be available to:

  1. Generate a list of ideasAn illustration of the brainstorm phases
  2. Group ideas
  3. Filter ideas
  4. Build up ideas that stick
  5. Summarise

Add to this the multiplier of having many people all needing time to discuss and interact, then there’s no way this will fit into the conventional hour meeting or even the elongated 90 minute one. Once you go over a duration of 1 hour, you’ll need to factor in breaks too, so you’re looking at least three hours to do an effective brainstorm.

Even with three hours, time can run away with you. It is vital that you timebox each part of the session. The best ideas sessions I’ve facilitated and attended have allocated more time to developing the raised ideas, so allocate more of the session to that.

Ways to avoid the drag

Apart from general meeting good practice of varying voices (don’t just lecture), creating activities to participate in and providing visual stimulus, here are some specific practices that will help the brainstorm keep high paced and engaging.

* The ideas list part can drag on, so try getting people to put them on post-its at the same time. Participants can then group the post-its themselves as others post theirs on the board.

* The filtering part can also be quickened, by putting up the criteria that each idea will be assessed against, asking those posting up ideas to mark on them the criteria that their idea meets best.

* Voting for the most fitting ideas can be done after a discussion of a fixed duration, using gold stars or grades from everyone in the room to decide the final three. This then focuses more time for people to build up ideas.

Maybe split the room into three and assign one idea to each team, it then creates parallel working and a bit of gentle competition.

*Ask each team to present developed ideas to the room within 5 minutes.

* Gather useful questions and comments to review after the session for each idea, then close the session by explaining the next steps.

* There is an appetite to carry on the discussion, but your time’s up, set up an email group or discussion area on an intranet where it can continue.

5 – Focus on research and personas to stimulate ideas

In order to focus people in the room on ideas that are right for the audience and the purpose you seek, start the session with an overview of who you are aiming for and what their habits are. A set of personas should be put up on the wall, to reiterate the question ‘why would this person want it?’; ‘where would they like it?’; ‘when would they like it?’ and ‘how would they like it?’. Without these personas participants in the session will move towards whether they like it, not whether the target audience would.

If you don’t have developed personas, you could start the session by creating an empathy map. This is referenced in Russ Unger and Carolyn Chandler’s excellent A Project Guide to UX Design as a quick way to work up a target user’s view of the world using shared insights and assumptions of those in the room.

Alternatively, if you do not have a new audience and are brainstorming around extending an existing product to an existing audience, you may want to do a trend storm (as described in Jurgen Wolff’s Creativity Now). This involves collating trends that are being reported in the press and industry sources and outlining how they impact your product and how your product could adapt to meet that trend. Keep these trends pinned up around the room as you continue the ideas development.

6– Visualise and illustrate ideas

Storyboarding example from UX publication Johnny Holland

Storyboarding scenarios and ideas (without getting too detailed) can bring an idea to life.

Not only do ideas come to life when they’re illustrated, they are more fun to do. Ideo, the international innovation firm, are big on this too.

Encourage teams to draw the ideas with storyboards, marketing propositions and user flows once the filtering has happened. It is easier to develop and react to an idea when it is drawn out, rather than appearing as a term. Get each member of the team to contribute to a part of the illustration too; this could be a specific part of the process, analysing it as one of the personas or one of the ways that the idea will be illustrated.

Once illustrated these ideas can be shared and built on by the group, following the presentation back. This focus also gives you a more tangible record of the ideas, rather than an abstract list. 

Moving from winging it

There’s a lot to balance and structure when running effective brainstorms, each one is unique based on the context of the challenge and the mix of people. These are steps I aim to follow and don’t always, due to time or context pressures. However, even if you just apply one of them, it will improve on the ‘default’ brainstorm’s outcomes.

I’ve now changed brainstorms from things I winged and hoped for the best with, into creative, fulfilling activities that truly excite me. I know something great can happen when people are given a chance to open up, share and invent. There are a set of methods to encourage this, but please suggest any other techniques that work for you.

Further Reading

Eight Tips for Better Brainstorming by Robert Sutton in Business Week

Seven Steps To Better Brainstorming by  Kevin P. Coyne and Shawn T. Coyne in McKinsey Quarterly

Six Great Ways To Ruin A Brainstorm by Paul Sloan on Life Hack

Brainstorming: Generating Many Radical, Creative Ideas on Mind Tools

2 thoughts on “How to brainstorm effectively in six ways

  1. The typical scenario you outlined at the beginning (nice touch) certainly is oh-so-familiar. All of your recommendations to improve the process are solid. Kudos. I’ll be sure to adopt them in future.

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