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Brainstorming is a type of applied imagination.

Don’t discount brainstorming just because you’ve attended ineffective brainstorming sessions in the past.

It can be fun to break away from normal tasks to gather for the express purpose of coming up with novel ideas for solving problems. At the same time, however, nobody wants to waste their time on ineffective brainstorming sessions or sessions that never produce action related to the ideas.

Randomly putting people in a room with whiteboards, springing the pressing problem on them, and then expecting them to come up with good ideas for solving it is rarely effective. While brainstorming is free form, it also benefits from certain constraints, like time constraints and topic constraints.

Leaders can facilitate effective brainstorming by knowing what to do and knowing what not to do. Perhaps the most important thing leaders can do to promote great ideas and innovation, however, happens after brainstorming is over. That critical step is actually pursuing one or two of the best ideas. Brainstorming as a tool can quickly fizzle out if people believe the company will never use any of the ideas they generate.

What You Need for Effective Team Brainstorming

Team brainstorming starts with a problem that needs to be solved. For example, maybe the company is approaching a hiring push and desperately needs a better onboarding process for new employees. When people approach a brainstorming session knowing the problem in search of a solution, they can orient their thinking beforehand.

Effective brainstorming sessions require the right participants. Six to 10 people are about right, and you should choose as diverse a group as possible. For the onboarding example stated above, for example, you may want someone from HR, a few people from departments with recent hires, and perhaps someone who has just been through the onboarding process. You want to get multiple perspectives.

Time constraints are also good, and half an hour is a good sweet spot for brainstorming sessions. Open-ended sessions can be slow to get started and can drag on for too long after ideas stop coming. Having a facilitator is valuable too because, without some direction, one or two garrulous participants can monopolize the time. A facilitator can ensure everyone’s ideas are heard.

What to Avoid

Lack of flow and takeover by talkative participants can leave good ideas out in the cold. 

One common risk with brainstorming is that of everyone clinging to the first decent idea that comes up. This type of “anchoring” can prevent your team from exploring more novel ideas. Listen to the less conventional and more off-the-wall ideas. Creativity often feeds on outlandish ideas, potentially leading to seriously innovative ones.

Also, avoid trying to fill up short periods of silence with needless talk. Occasional silences help people mentally catch their breath, and they offer prime opportunities for some of your more introverted participants to speak up.

Tips for Making the Best Use of Everyone’s time

Hold brainstorming sessions in different settings. This could be at an off-site café, at a conference room in another building, or even outdoors at a picnic table. A different environment can often stimulate a different way of thinking about a problem.

Include someone who can act as the designated note-taker. With a dedicated note-taker, the flow of ideas isn’t always starting and stopping while someone writes them down. Others can take notes or make sketches, but your dedicated note-taker is there to document everything and keep things moving.

Make the goal of the brainstorming session known to participants at least a couple of days in advance. Clear goals that focus on specifics can be great targets for brainstorming. For example, you’ll get more relevant ideas if the goal is “reducing product packaging waste” than if it’s “improving sustainability.”

The reason people sometimes roll their eyes at the concept of brainstorming sessions is usually a bad experience with them in the past. And to be fair, why would anyone look forward to brainstorming when their experience has been a rambling, unfocused meeting that wasted everyone’s time to produce ideas that nobody ever followed up on?

Ultimately, the long-term key to making brainstorming effective is actually following up and implementing innovative ideas. When people see employee-generated ideas in action, they’re likelier to come up with their own and more willingly participate in brainstorming.

Leaders who know how to use brainstorming effectively can not only benefit from great ideas and innovations, they can help their teams be more cohesive and collaborative. If you’re interested in learning more about leadership, I encourage you to check out my books. 

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