9 Keys to a Successful Brainstorm

Productive idea generation is about a lot more than getting a group of colleagues together; try these tips for your best brainstorm yet.

Collaboration, Meetings, Brainstorm, Innovation, Company Culture

A productive brainstorm is good for business. In an ideal session, you develop ideas, solve problems and find ways to do what you do, better.

Bringing together a diverse group of people with different strengths and communication styles is key for optimal creativity, but it can also make the logistics challenging. By keeping these tips in mind, you can overcome roadblocks and achieve a successful brainstorm.

1. Set a clear goal.

Make sure you actually have a reason to brainstorm, and that every member of the group knows exactly what you want to accomplish. You should have a particular problem to solve or a specific question to answer that will benefit from a diverse perspective. An unfocused brainstorm won’t yield useful insights and can demoralize your team.

2. Choose a facilitator carefully.

Skilled facilitators ask the right questions, keep the conversation moving and get everyone involved, even the quieter folks. They know when to dive in deeper on an idea and when to change direction. When selecting a facilitator, choose them based on their ability to both spark ideas and steer the discussion.

3. Select an inspiring space.

If you can, don’t have the brainstorm in the same conference room where you have all your other meetings. A change in scenery can stoke the creative juices. Provide whiteboards and sticky notes for doodling for people who process ideas that way. Coffee and snacks will keep everyone energized.

4. Provide a variety of ways to contribute.

In a large group, or a group of introverts and extroverts, consider ways people can chime in other than speaking up. One method, 6-3-5 brainwriting, works like this: Six people each write down three ideas in five minutes and then pass their list of ideas to the next person to add new ideas or expand on existing ideas.

5. Dedicate the time.

Rushed, urgent brainstorming can be a creativity killer and alienate people who like to take more time to think and respond. If possible, set aside a half day or longer, and split the session into idea generation and then idea refinement. When the ideas dry up and the awkward silences hit, resist the urge to move on. Stay with it — your brain is working on new solutions.

6. Encourage respect for all ideas.

For brainstorming to be effective, people have to be comfortable suggesting “bad” ideas. Set the standard for the group by treating all ideas as worthy, and remember that everyone’s equal in the brainstorm room. If there’s a manager or senior leader in the room, it’s especially important that he or she model this openness.

7. Deploy a brainstorming exercise.

Try proposing a thought exercise to get the creative juices flowing. A good one is to eliminate assumed constraints: What would you do if there was no limit on time, budget or people? Remember: It’s OK to suggest outlandish things.

8. Capture everything.

Designate a note-taker to write down everything proposed in the brainstorm session (and don’t forget the ideas written on paper or the whiteboard). Choose someone who is attentive and focused so you don’t miss anything, then organize the notes and send them out after the meeting.

9. Follow up.

To build on the momentum of a successful brainstorm, invite people to email you more ideas for a designated amount of time — say, 24 hours — or leave the whiteboard up so they can add to it. Some personality types come up with their best ideas after taking time to mull over the possibilities. Finally, make sure participants know what you did with the ideas, so they feel their time spent brainstorming was worthwhile.