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.
Not all brainstorming sessions will need a set of ground rules to be successful, it can make the brainstorming process easier. Having a set of ground rules can help set expectations, improve team building, and help participants feel more comfortable.
You may want to implement different rules based on specific group needs or go without rules brainstorming altogether. However, the suggested rules outlined in this article provide some helpful guidelines that facilitate a more effective brainstorming experience.
Why you should establish rules for a brainstorming session
While a brainstorming session can be successful without setting up rules or a code of conduct, establishing a set of norms can help make the session go more smoothly. Here are some added benefits of using rules during a brainstorming activity:
By setting some rules of brainstorming, you help participants know how the session will be run and which customs are allowed. How are ideas collected and prioritized? Are all ideas welcome? What boundaries, if any, should exist? Setting some expectations will help inform participants about what norms should be followed throughout the workshop.
Prevent conflict and improve team building
Is it okay to evaluate ideas right away, or should comments be held until the end of ideation? Set some guidelines around how ideas will be evaluated so participants don’t accidentally end up feeling shut down or hurt during the brainstorming phase.
Setting up a few norms for the brainstorming session will help participants focus on building upon each other’s ideas instead of competing to have the “best” idea.
Help participants feel comfortable
Sharing ideas can feel very personal, so it’s important you establish an environment of psychological safety to help more ideas flow freely. Treating ideas with respect can go a long way in making participants feel like they can share all their ideas, not just the ones that will be received better in the group.
Whether you're a facilitator for a formal group brainstorm, or just looking for tips to conduct an informal brainstorming session, here are our 7 recommended rules for better brainstorming.
7 rules for effective brainstorming
1. Accept all the creative and wild ideas
Brainstorming is all about new idea generation. If your participants are only comfortable with providing safe answers, the ideas at the end of the session will likely be more generic. Encouraging wild ideas will help engage creative problem-solving and enable participants to think outside the box.
Need some inspiration? Try asking these 25 questions for effective brainstorming.
2. Build on other participants’ ideas
Encourage participants to put a spin on or build upon the ideas from other participants. This may not only reduce the pressure on participants to have a fully-developed idea, but also helps encourage collaboration among the brainstorming group.
One way to integrate this concept into your brainstorming and ideation session is to use the round robin exercise. This brainstorming technique is run by dividing your team into small groups, and having each person pass their ideas along to the following teammate, who then offers counterpoints or further suggestions, helping identify potential weaknesses or spurring innovation within the session.
3. 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.
4. 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.)
5. Aim for quantity over quality
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.
Protip: Using a shared digital space like Mural helps facilitate group engagement and provides a single source of truth for later analysis once your brainstorming session is over.
6. Make the brainstorming session visual
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.
Using a visual tool during ideation also removes the ‘loudest person in the room’ problem because everyone’s ideas are represented in the same way. This helps level the playing field so one person doesn’t end up contributing more than the next. Additionally, participants can easily add new ideas to the digital canvas when they have them.
Note: We also recommend using a visual tool during any virtual brainstorming activity.
7. 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.
Related: 7 brainstorming techniques for developing new ideas
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:
- Accept all the wild and creative ideas
- Use asynchronous (or pre-work) or private work to allow for individual brainstorming and avoid groupthink
- Build on other team member's ideas
- Don't criticize others' ideas
- Focus on quantity, not quality
- Make it visual
- Make it collaborative (and fun)
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.
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