Follow these guidelines to make your brainstorming sessions more engaging and impactful
Everyone knows the term ‘brainstorming.’ The premise is fairly simple: You gather stakeholders and conduct a meeting where everyone shares their ideas. But in practice, group brainstorming sessions can have the same problems as traditional meetings.
If only the loudest people in the room are heard, or people uncomfortable with the circumstances don’t participate, your best ideas may be lost. Similarly, we humans have an innate social desire to conform to the group, as has been starkly illustrated by the Asch experiments.
So, how can you facilitate a brainstorming process that encourages original thinking and fosters broad participation?
In his book, Applied Imagination (first published in 1953), Alex Osborn discusses the circumstances, processes, and pitfalls associated with group brainstorming sessions:
First, he recommends that group brainstorming sessions are complementary or supplemental to individual brainstorming. This avoids groupthink by effectively removing group conformity as a possibility.
Next, you must establish an environment of psychological safety within to maximize your results. You must challenge each team member to pitch any idea they might have, without self-editing.
Whether you're a facilitator for a formal group brainstorm, or just looking for tips to conduct an informal brainstorming session, here are our 5 rules for better brainstorming.
5 ground rules for effective brainstorming
1. Use an asynchronous or private component
As a means to avoid group conformity, group brainstorming sessions should either involve individual preparation or private contributions to a project at the outset. If you know your topic and stakeholders, you can give everyone time before the meeting to brainstorm individually, and then bring their suggestions to the wider group for discussion and refinement.
This group brainstorming template is structured so you can generate creative ideas privately on your own, then come together again to share, discuss, and sort through everyone's ideas. It even includes some helpful rules for brainstorming to introduce at the beginning of the session.
Alternatively, if you don’t have the luxury of pre-work, you can use a platform like Mural to collect ideas in real time while avoiding groupthink through Private Mode. This allows each person in the brainstorming session to think independently and not be influenced by other ideas from the group, but stay within the context of the individual session.
2. Don't criticize other collaborators' ideas
Brainstorming is impossible without mutual respect—teams need to be comfortable speaking their minds and taking risks. As we’ve noted in our article on psychological safety, just like trust, “psychological safety is fragile: it builds slowly, but breaks down very quickly.” Be sure to remind your brainstorming collaborators that there are no bad ideas.
Being intentional about establishing an environment where everyone feels comfortable contributing and that their voice is heard is key. But how can you create such an environment?
When thinking about the circumstances of your brainstorming session, consider these elements:
If your brainstorming session is synchronous, make sure that you schedule it at a time that fits all your stakeholders’ working hours. If there is no way to avoid a difficult time for some team members, reach out and ask if that is acceptable before scheduling the meeting.
If you’re meeting with a large number of people, that alone can be intimidating, especially in a virtual setting where people may not know one another. In these cases, breaking down into smaller discussion groups can foster better participation.
Defer judgment and ask for clarification of a teammate’s ideas before challenging them in front of the group.
Remind everyone that disagreement is fine, so long as it is respectful. (Chances are, if everyone completely agrees, it hasn’t been a very productive session.)
3. Try to generate as many new ideas as possible
At this stage, you may not even know what ‘quality’ means for your topic, so collect as many ideas as you can. Getting past the desire to self-edit is essential in brainstorming — sometimes what you might think is the most outlandish suggestion will lead to the best possible solution. Give your ideas a chance to shine, and ensure that everyone contributes to the session.
Some things to consider:
Use a common turn-taking approach to make sure everyone has a chance to speak. This can be something predetermined or flexible, like ‘pass the ball.’
Record every idea so that none of your work is lost — what may not seem as compelling at the outset might become the idea that is central to your work later on, so don’t lose it.
Giving your team visual tools to express themselves expands everyone’s ability to generate lots of ideas, levels the playing field, and helps foster understanding.
During your brainstorming session, you’ll likely encounter ideas that fall under consistent themes — using a visual platform or an online whiteboard helps you quickly and easily organize and categorize ideas, making the path forward clear.
It also removes the ‘loudest person in the room’ problem because everyone’s ideas are represented in the same way.
5. Make the brainstorm collaborative and fun
While it’s easy to give over to worries about groupthink impeding ideation, let’s not forget that the primary goal of group brainstorming is to collaborate and create something together.
These valuable sessions are opportunities to build on one another’s ideas and create a shared vision for next steps. With the right preparation, mindset, and environment (as well as the right tools), brainstorming should be fun. It’s a way to not only collectively solve hard problems, but also get to know one another better and appreciate the unique value that each teammate brings to the table.
Use these tips for better brainstorming
Brainstorming is something that is commonly known but less commonly understood. It’s important to have an intentional approach to every part of your brainstorming session so that you can encourage creative thinking, set your team up for success, and get the results you need to create actionable next steps.
To run your most effective (and enjoyable) brainstorming session yet, follow these guidelines:
Use asynchronous (or pre-work) or private work to allow for individual brainstorming and avoid groupthink
Create an environment based on psychological safety so that you can maximize contributions and engagement
Focus on quantity, not quality
Make it visual
Make it collaborative (and fun)
Bonus tip: run a warm-up or ice breaker to get your team in a creative mood and get their creative juices flowing.
More resources for successful brainstorming sessions
Whether you’re looking to gather ideas asynchronously from your distributed team, or working in real-time to collaboratively craft solutions for your company, Mural makes it easy to capture and organize your ideas so that you can create concrete next steps. Every mural is a record of your brainstorming that can be referenced later, and tools like tags for sticky notes and color coding make it easy to categorize ideas based on themes.