How to facilitate a successful brainstorming session [workbook]

This post will help you facilitate a great brainstorming session. Use it in conjunction with the Brainstorming Workbook as a basic plan for conducting an effective session lasting two hours to a full day for up to 25 people.

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Brainstorming is a commonly used approach to creative problem-solving. The key belief is that if you get as many ideas as possible, you increase the likelihood that of putting together the best possible solution. Through collaborating as a group and getting input, you gain increased buy-in and commitment to the solution. Research also shows that giving employees a voice and involving them in decision-making increases motivation and overall engagement.

However, brainstorming has also received criticism. Several studies have pointed out that brainstorming does not produce more ideas than a group of individuals coming up with ideas on their own. There are definitely best practices you want to follow for a successful brainstorming meeting.

If you’re looking for a quick and easy template for a brainstorming session, download the Brainstorming Workbook below. If you’d like a deeper understanding of the theory and research that the workbook is built on, read on.

Background on brainstorming

Brainstorming is a technique for finding the best solution to a known problem or challenge. The core belief of brainstorming is that getting as many solutions as possible increases the chances of finding the best solution.

To begin, ideas are shared in an environment where criticism and debate are suspended. There are two reasons behind this. Firstly, brainstorming advocates believe that seeing or hearing others’ ideas, will prompt new ideas. Secondly, suspending criticism and debate makes it safe to share and prevents self-editing or withholding of ideas. In this stage, encourage wild ideas to add new perspectives to the pool of ideas.

The next stage is a process of combining and improving on ideas. It’s at this stage that criticism or debate should be introduced. For example: is it a feasible idea to implement? It’s likely that the discussion will create new ideas or combine ideas. It’s the introduction of constraints at this stage that may produce additional creativity and result in coming up with a better quality idea that everyone has buy-in for. Most of the criticism of brainstorming misses this key stage as an important part of the process. It’s here that the real value of brainstorming is realized.

Finally, don’t forget the last (and crucial step) of making a decision: assigning accountability to fully evaluate the implementation of the idea and the timelines for accomplishing it. The group may need to come together for additional meetings to work through new constraints that are identified. It’s obvious, but worth stating that you don’t have innovation unless your idea actually gets implemented.

Summary of basic brainstorming technique

  1. Come up with as many ideas as possible
  2. To accomplish this, withhold criticism and welcome wild ideas
  3. Only when this is complete should you start combining and improving ideas
  4. Make a decision, assign accountability and an expectation to fully evaluate and report back to the group

Brainstorming criticisms 

1) Brainstorming in group produces fewer ideas than individuals ideating on their own

There’s a good deal of research demonstrating that groups do not produce more ideas than having the same number of individuals ideating on their own. There’s a good article in the New Yorker by Jonah Lehrer titled “Group Think – The Brainstorming Myth”, which is a pretty comprehensive review of the criticisms of brainstorming.

Why is this? Understanding the following challenges are key to leveraging brainstorming effectively.

  • Blocking: Since only one person can contribute at a time, some people may forget their idea while they’re listening to someone else explain their idea or listening to the discussion that follows.
  • Collaborative Fixation: It’s a collaborative exercise so the tendency is for ideas to follow a similar pattern. The first idea generates further similar ideas and therefore people are influenced by the ideas that preceded theirs.
  • Evaluation Apprehension: Some people may not contribute as effectively because they fear judgment or they may want to think further on their idea before contributing, which is counter to the spirit of brainstorming.
  • Free Riding / Accountability: When someone believes their idea will be judged individually, it was demonstrated that they worked harder on coming up with ideas than when they were told it would be pooled into a group of ideas and then evaluated. So if an individual feels like there’s a good amount of ideas coming from the group, they may feel like they’re less accountable for contributing.
  • Personality Characteristics: Extroverts outperform introverts in group sessions and this is where group think can become a big part of the issue. The loudest person dominates the conversation and others don’t feel comfortable asserting their own ideas.
  • Social Matching: Some people may alter their output to match that of others in the group.

A big part of your organisation will undoubtedly be introverted. If you’re looking at Myers-Briggs as a way to look at this, then 50.7% of the population is introverted. Another interesting finding is that within the highest IQ groups, a significant percentage of people score as introverted (more so than in the general population). Some of the most creative people have been or are known to be introverts. If you consider that group settings will prevent some introverts from contributing input and idea generation, then your organisation is very likely missing out on ideas from some of your brightest people.

2) Debate does not inhibit creativity, it increases it

Not criticizing or debating ideas is considered one of the most important elements for good brainstorming. However, studies have shown that debate and criticism don’t inhibit ideas, it actually increases creativity. There’s some wisdom in the cliche that ingenuity is born out of necessity and that constraint is what produces break-out creativity. As an example, cash-strapped and resource poor, startups need to find innovative ways to create value, get work done and take their offerings to market.

3) People aren't very good at free association 

Another criticism of brainstorming is that people aren’t actually very good at free-association. Meaning, people do best when they build on ideas vs. having to come up with new novel ideas on their own. We’re all highly susceptible to suggestion and context. Something covered at length in the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.

So brainstorming is likely to produce more original ideas with context and other conflicting viewpoints than open, non-critical free-association, which may yield predictable responses.

Brainstorming in the real world

If brainstorming doesn’t produce more ideas or more original ideas, is it worth it? It is.

For one, it’s not necessarily true to say that brainstorming doesn’t produce more ideas or more original ideas. As we’ll cover in the section on how to facilitate brainstorming, a properly facilitated session leveraging the right best practices will produce many more ideas and far better solutions than other forms of group work.

Another issue with drawing conclusions from some of the studies referenced in criticisms is that they isolate one variable and focus on that. They don’t capture how creativity actually happens in the work environment. Sutton and Hargadon (1996) critiqued brainstorming research because, in large part, it used participants who:

  • Had no past or future task interdependence
  • Had no past or future social relationships
  • Didn’t use the ideas generated
  • Lacked pertinent technical expertise
  • Lacked skills that complement other participants
  • Lacked expertise in doing brainstorming
  • Lacked expertise in leading brainstorming sessions.

In an actual work environment, people are intrinsically motivated to solve the problem, tend to know each other, and are knowledgeable about the problem and potential solutions. Furthermore, the trajectory for several decades is towards more creative work being done in teams vs. individuals. So, it’s also a necessity to work on the optimal way to do it.

Finally, as we articulate below, there is another extremely compelling reason to solve problems in groups. Group collaboration has been shown to increase commitment to the solution and increase overall employee happiness and engagement. Let’s not forget the last final step of problem-solving is to implement the solution. In today’s work environment, execution almost always requires group work and often requires cross-functional group work. People simply respond better and are more motivated to collaborate when they’re a part of solving the problem versus just being told what to do.

Rather than viewing research as a condemnation of brainstorming, it provides good insights into some of the pitfalls and the knowledge to avoid them.

When you should brainstorm

Most teams leverage brainstorming as a way to get lots of creative solutions to a problem in the hope of finding the best solution. And this is definitely one of the benefits of a well-facilitated brainstorming effort.

However, there’s another even more significant benefit to brainstorming: increased commitment to the solution from everyone involved. For example, if you’re organising a national roadshow for your company, it might be faster to limit the number of people planning it. However, by including stakeholders from sales, you’ll get more commitment from them when it comes time to start inviting clients.

Furthermore, including a team in problem-solving on a regular basis develops problem-solving muscle and increases overall engagement. In his book, “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg talks of a manufacturing plant in Ohio that increased productivity by 20% in two months simply by giving assembly line workers the ability to chose their shifts and the uniform they wore.

Every attempt to give your team a voice and include them in the decision-making or problem-solving process is a step to increasing engagement and motivation. Finding ways to engage people in this manner consistently is an extremely powerful way to build a highly productive team.

Giving employees a voice builds problem-solving muscle, trust between managers and employees, and increases motivation. Doing it consistently ensures this is baked into your team’s culture.

Two best practices to get the most out of your brainstorming

1) Invest the time and effort to find the right question and paint a clear picture of the objective

This is easier said than done, but time and again evidence shows that asking the right question(s) gets much better answers.

How do you come up with the right question? One approach comes from an HBR article by Kevin Coyne, Patricia Gorman Clifford and Renée Dye, “Breakthrough Thinking From Inside the Box”. It points to the importance of leveraging the right context and not being too open ended or too defined. One method they suggest for doing this is to reverse engineer similar innovations and ask yourself, “What question would have caused me to see this opportunity first?” and then using that question (or series of questions) for your brainstorming activity.

Another way to think about this is to think about breaking out a question into multiple objectives. There’s a good academic paper written by Ralph L. Keeney titled “Value-Focused Brainstorming”. In it, he uses IDEO (a renowned design and innovation consulting firm) as an example of how to break down a brainstorming exercise into key objectives. David Kelley, the founder of IDEO, wanted to design a product that would enable cyclists to transport and drink coffee while they were riding. A couple of ways to describe what he wanted to design: “spill-proof coffee cup lids,” or “bicycle cup holders.” But a much better description is the following objective: “helping bike commuters to drink coffee without spilling it or burning their tongues.” Keeney likes this statement because it clearly lays out IDEO’s objectives, to help bike commuters 1) drink coffee, 2) avoid spills, 3) not burn their tongues. He even contributes a few objectives of his own: avoid distractions while biking, don’t contribute to accidents, keep the coffee hot and minimize costs. Going into that much detail before brainstorming about ways to design the cup holder makes IDEO much more likely to succeed.

The last idea on how to accomplish this is by leveraging the questioning brainstorming technique described below. Where the first exercise isn’t jumping into problem-solving mode, but problem discovery mode.

Net: Einstein was reported to have said, “If I were given an hour in which to do a problem upon which my life depended, I would spend 40 minutes studying it, 15 minutes reviewing it and 5 minutes solving it.” Make sure you do the same for your brainstorming initiative. The up-front effort will result in far better ideas.

2) Facilitate your brainstorming session

Facilitate your brainstorming session to allow for individual ideation time between time set aside for sharing and discussing ideas. Also, a facilitator should provide prompts to help get past predictable responses.

Research is clear. When it comes to getting quantities of ideas, ideating on your own is better. So provide an opportunity for this in your brainstorming efforts. Save the group activity for discussion of ideas that will lead to further improvements, combining of ideas, etc. But this discussion is important and the reason that brainstorming can be such a powerful technique for ideation. Andrew Hargadon’s “How Breakthroughs Happen” shows that creativity occurs when people find ways to build on existing ideas. The power of group brainstorming comes from creating a safe place where people with different ideas can share, blend, and extend their diverse knowledge.

Another key characteristic of problem-solving is that it works best when people have time to think about the problem. In “Where Do Good Ideas Come From”, Steven Johnson researches the common patterns for environments for generating good ideas. One of the key observations is what he calls the slow hunch. Most great ideas never come in a Eureka moment, but important ideas can take a long time to evolve and are the result often of combining hunches or ideas.

The process of having time to ideate individually, come together as a group and discuss and then have time for individual reflection is what will lead to the best ideas. Ultimately, repeating the process several times is the way most organisations will find their best innovations.

One of the other criticism of brainstorming is that humans are not all that good at free association. At first, ideas are often quite predictable. To help get past the first set of more predictable responses, it helps to provide people with a different way to look at the problem. Here are a few prompts you can provide throughout the brainstorming session to help group members consider the problem from a new perspective.

Individual brainstorming

These processes or methods are useful when working on coming up with ideas as an individual. They are also useful in group brainstorming as a facilitator to help group members find angles to come up with new, novel ideas.

  • Map out the process – You know your starting point and what solving the problem looks like. Writing out the various steps involved in getting from point a to point b may open up new, more specific areas for focus ideation on.
  • Changing Your Attributes – You can try to imagine yourself as someone else and how they might solve the problem, or give yourself different characteristics that might help you solve the problem. How would I solve this if I was the owner of the company? How would I solve this if I was the customer?
  • Mind Mapping – Starting with the main goal or objective in the middle, connect ideas to this main objective and then look to the next level. If you look at those ideas what connections can you draw out from there?
  • Medici Effect Storming – The Medici Effect describes how ideas might not be obviously related, but if you can identify parallels, you may find things that are useful. One good example of this is Blue Ocean Strategy, where looking at similar, but not directly related industries, may offer ideas for business strategy that differentiates yourself from the competition.
  • Blind Writing – This is an attempt to let your mind wander to come up with ideas. The rule is to start and continue writing or doodling for a defined time (10 min or so). You must continue writing, even if it’s to say you have no ideas.
  • Reverse Storming – This approach takes the opposite stance to solving your problem. Instead of trying to come up with ideas to solve the problem, work on identifying ideas that would prevent you from solving the problem. Coming up with and understanding these ideas may help you figure out more original ways to solve your problem.
  • Question Brainstorming – This process involves brainstorming questions and not answers. Finding answers to the questions could be the work of future or subsequent sessions.

Group brainstorming

These techniques are intended to help with pulling out better ideas via a collaborative process. By building on each other’s ideas, reviewing and voting, the end goal is to find a better idea. The other benefit is that group ideation helps build buy-in for later execution that will require participation. If people feel like they played a role in defining the problem and coming up with ideas, they’re more likely to feel invested in the ultimate solution.

  • Nominal Group Technique – Brainstorming members write down their ideas anonymously. The facilitator collects the ideas and then everyone votes on the ideas. The top ideas (most voted on) may go back to the group or subgroups for further ideation and then ultimately present it back to the group.
  • Group Passing Technique – Here someone contributes an idea and then passes it to the next person in the group who adds their thoughts to the idea and then passes it to the next member of the group. Each person adds their thought to the original idea. Once this is complete the next person submits their individual idea and that is passed around for further thought. Once everyone has submitted an idea and everyone has provided a thought to each of these, you have a thorough list of ideas that have been elaborated on.
  • Team Idea Mapping Method – Similar to the nominal technique, brainstorming members write down their ideas. What differs is the process for evaluating ideas. Instead of voting, ideas are grouped into themes. This facilitates the group getting to a better shared understand of the problem and potential approaches. New ideas may also arise through association. Once all the ideas are mapped out, evaluation and voting of ideas can begin.
  • Directed Brainstorming – Similar to the group passing technique, this process start with someone writing down a single idea. That idea is passed onto the next individual. Instead of adding a thought to the idea, the request is to improve the idea. This technique is effective when the evaluation criteria for evaluating ideas are known in advance (ie cost, time, the impact to resources, desired outcome).

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