HBR: “Your Team Is Brainstorming All Wrong,”

Fountainhead: “Nope, We’ve Been Doing It Correctly With Great Results”


Trash talking “brainstorming” seems to be quite the thing these days. And we get it. We’ve suffered through endless brainstorm sessions where the moderator didn’t adhere to best practices, so all that resulted was a list of mediocre thoughts and demoralized participants.


That’s why we practice what we preach. If you want a productive brainstorming session, please follow these principles.


1. Craft your attendee list well

Be sure that it represents introverts and extroverts. Linear thinkers and non-linear thinkers. People that know the subject matter well and people that don’t. This will lessen the risk of attendee bias, where only like-minded people are asked to participate.


2. Define the problem to be solved

Be as precise as possible regarding the task at hand. It is not enough to say, “We need to come up with an idea for a new event.” Go deeper to articulate the objective of the event, asserting any parameters the event must adhere to, such as max number of attendees or time of year it must occur and much more. Knowing what success looks like at the end of the day is also very important. Do you need to walk out with consensus around one answer/idea or is it OK if there are 15 ideas still in play? Be sure to get sign-off from key stakeholders on these issues before the session commences.


3. Develop your agenda and exercises well ahead of time

The death knell of a brainstorming session often comes when a moderator thinks they can “wing it.” Preparation is key to ensuring there are a range of exercises that tap into varied parts of the brain and varied ways of thinking. Mix up individual and group activities, direct and indirect exercises, and written and visual exercises to get the best out of everyone. Identify strategic areas ahead of time that you want to be sure to explore so you can push for a range of ideas.


Also, supplies such as crayons, construction paper, glue, etc. may be very helpful to bring an idea to life or if the team is to embark on some fast-adapt prototyping.


Be sure to add rough timeframes to your agenda so you can keep the discussion moving and stay on time. This will also allow you to adapt on the fly if one exercise is running long and you need to shuffle tasks around to accommodate this.


4. Start your session by establishing the objective, the process and the ground rules

People are much more confident when they know what’s ahead of them. Be sure to get consensus on the day’s objective at the onset of your meeting. Also, give a brief overview of what’s to come. Identify that there will be time dedicated to ideation and there will be time dedicated to critique, evaluation and culling ideas. During the work session, be sure to identify which mode the team should be in—ideation or critique


5. Make sure there are ideas people are uncomfortable with

If there aren’t, you likely haven’t pushed far enough. If your group is playing it too safe, shake things up. Ban the phrases “we’ve tried that before” and “that won’t work” to ensure range is achieved. Consider throwing in an activity based on “what would be the totally wrong thing to do” (they’ll likely have lots of thoughts on that) and force the team to then turn those wrong ideas into some feasible elements. Another possible exercise to push the boundaries is the “addition/subtraction.” In this exercise, assert something that must be eliminated or added to an idea or to a product, package, etc. For example, if the team is working on new line extensions, mandate that attendees come up with ideas that eliminate the need for packaging. Assume you’ll face some resistance, which is OK: it means you’re pushing the boundaries.


6. Find polite ways to curb the grandstanders

Most meetings will include a person or two that will try to dominate the discussion. Find your own method for managing that. A tried-and-true technique our team uses is the old, “Oh, please hold that thought. I want to be sure we hear from XYZ person, since they haven’t contributed for a bit.”


7. Don’t let groupthink cloud the evaluation

When you’re at the evaluation stage, ask each person to write down the three or four ideas that are really resonating with them. Then collect them and share them with the group without identifying who chose each one. This keeps it from being a power play and allows people to hold to their point of view. Again, keep a “wild idea” or two in contention for as long as possible—it might just provide inspiration for some breakthrough.


If you have been struggling with an issue for a while and could use a little inspiration, we’d be happy to discuss how our well-honed brainstorming methods can help your team.