• Top 10 rules for running effective brainstorming meetings

Our favourite brainstorming tools, ideas, activities and exercises.

While Brainstorm meetings are a commonly used technique to solve creative problems, there are many factors which affect their usefulness. It’s not uncommon to walk away from one of these sessions feeling like your team did an amazing job only for nothing to come of it. Hoopla believes that Brainstorming is an amazingly useful technique for addressing a brief but only if it’s executed in the right way.

Effective brainstorms are improvisational by nature. Individuals bring ideas to the meeting which are then played around with, built on and used a springboard for further ideas. Improvisation also allows our team to get into the habit of emergent thinking. This essentially means we build our ideas from the ground up, in an environment that is fundamentally democratic. This does away with a hierarchical structure during this building process and instead focuses on an open communication system. The following brainstorming tools, exercises, activities and ideas will show you how to get to this point and why they are vital for an effective session.

1. Define the problem

Whatever problem the brainstorm will be solving needs to be clearly outlined beforehand. While seemingly obvious, this is the first hurdle that brainstorming meetings fall at. Using a brief that is too wide will produce a brainstorm that has vague applications and at worst will end up as a waste of time and effort.

Treat this problem defining stage as its own process. Use this time to gain insights through research and analysis which will allow you to pinpoint a clear creative brief brief for your brainstorm session. If you don’t, chances are you’ll be putting your time and energy into solving the wrong problem.

While defining your problem you might consider using the ‘5 Whys’ exercise. After identifying an obstacle or an area that needs improvement, often you end up with a symptom rather than isolating the actual root cause of a problem. By iteratively asking “Why is this the case?” (classically 5 times but it can be more or less) you can explore the problem on a deeper level. By finding a root cause to solve, you will increase the overall impact of the whole brainstorm process.

2. Build on previous ideas

While coming up with a diverse array of ideas in a brainstorm is one of its key objectives, we also want to give depth to any ideas that inspire us. By doing so, we approach the end of the session with a greater number of developed concepts.

For this we can use the brainstorming tool of ‘yes and’. We accept the ideas that are inspiring us without judgement (‘yes’) and add to them to flesh them out (‘and’). By applying ‘yes and’ to existing ideas, we build an environment of collaboration that removes the feeling of individual ownership of ideas. Putting too much emphasis on Individual ownership can often lead to a lack of wanting to change the idea and it can become that person’s sacred cow. However by opening up ideas that are working to everyone, we can take great ideas and take them in new directions that the originator wouldn’t have been able to see as a possibility on their own.

‘Yes and’ also removes the pressure of wanting to continuously ‘think outside of the box’. It allows us to work with the ideas in front of us and keeps our focus in the room, rather than going continuously racking our brains for new concepts.

3. Encourage and cultivate an energetic environment

Sitting around a large board table and being crammed in with your co-workers isn’t the most stimulating of environments. It quickly becomes uncomfortable and everyone’s energy will plummet. To avoid this scenario, consider getting your team’s blood flowing by trying out some of these brainstorming ideas:

  • Keep people alert and high energy by having participants on their feet.
  • Allow opportunities for mingling to get people to work with others that they are less familiar with. This is a great idea for those wanting to get their teams out of their regular work habits.
  • Make things as visual as possible. Flip charts, post it notes and any excuse to use your hands will not only keep participants much more engaged it will also be easier for everyone to digest the ideas being developed.
  • Split the team into separate groups. This will allow opportunities for the separate groups to come up with their own ideas that they can pitch back to the room.
  • Allow the opportunity to create stripped back and simplified prototypes of ideas. This is a great brainstorming exercise to serve as an early testing ground for promising concepts and avoids the group coming up with a list of grandiose ideas that go nowhere.
  • Do a team building warm up to get creative juices flowing, we have loads listed on our resource page.

4. Volume leads to originality

While not every idea that gets shared during a brainstorm meeting will be amazing or workable, generating a large volume of ideas will lead to a higher amount of originality from the group. If this seems counterintuitive, consider the story below from Art and Fear.

A ceramics teacher divided his class into two groups. He told the first group that the work that they produce would be graded on the quantity and the second group that they would be graded on quality. When the grading day came, the ceramics teacher found that it was the quantity group that produced the best and most original results.

In producing a high volume of work, the iterative process of learning through mistakes and actively testing their concepts lead to discoveries that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. On the other hand, the group that had focused on quality had a single uninspired piece of work. They had focused on grandiose theories and finding the one ‘correct’ answer. One ‘correct’ answer doesn’t exist when we’re trying to solve a creative brief, it requires exploration and learning from our previous attempts.

In a brainstorm session, the first ideas that the group produces will rarely be the best ones. But through continuously coming up with new ideas as well as building and learning from what’s come before, you improve the chances of coming up with that killer creative idea.

5. Write down every idea that gets said

A barrier to producing a large volume of ideas during brainstorm meeting is the belief held by the participants that ideas will be immediately judged and torn apart. You can address this by writing down every idea that gets said, regardless of the initial perceived quality of the idea. When brainstorming we looking for the diamonds in the rough, which means we have to sift through a lot of debris to get there. As said in the previous point, our first ideas are rarely the ideas that we go with, so we play the percentages by giving ourselves lots of options to work with.

Let everyone know that ‘mistakes’ are a huge part of this process. Ultimately there will be considerably more duds then successful ideas. In fact, by the end of the process there will only be one or maybe a couple of ideas that will be taken forward. We raise our chances of finding this successful idea by giving ourselves lots of possibilities. Once people understand that all ideas are accepted at this stage, it will open them up to generating more ideas without fear of judgement.

Writing everything down is also a very practical tip to make sure that good ideas don’t slip through the cracks, which can be a big pitfall in an improvisational process.

6. Shuffle the scribes

Have the person who is writing down the ideas from the session be swapped for someone else at timed intervals. Set periods of time such as every 5 or 10 minutes work well for this. Have a system in place to reduce ‘faff time’ in the changeover, whether through a random draw or get the scribe to pick the next person.

Swapping roles helps negate splitting the focus of the scribe and will allow them to add to the discussion without multitasking. This is also a brainstorming tool to help remove any bias from the process, eliminating any selective hearing that workplace status and personal relationships bring. It also reduces wrist strain which the scribes will thank you for.

7. Let individuals come up with ideas first before bringing it to the group

While having a cohesive group coming up with ideas together sounds like an ideal situation to be in, it can increase the risk of what is known as ‘groupthink’. In looking to create harmony within the group, members will steer clear of breaking consensus or raising any controversial topics. In the worst case scenario, members will gang up on and actively oppose any new ideas for going against the grain which will make it impossible to innovate and create new concepts.

Instead, prior to the brainstorm meeting have your team come up with their own ideas first. By giving them the opportunity to develop these ideas as individuals there will be a wider diversity of proposals without them being impacted by ‘groupthink’. By combining strands of these more diverse suggestions, you can end up with a fuller idea that would have not been possible in a room that is talking with a singular voice.

8. Have a ‘Bad Ideas Round’

This is a fantastic brainstorming exercise to do during any periods of ‘idea blocks’, when contributions are running dry. Have a five minute period in which only ‘bad’ ideas are to be shared by the participants. This will raise the energy in the room, getting people’s brains back into a contributing mode and reinforces the idea that anything that gets said gets written down.

This may be met with initial resistance, so have some of the more senior leaders in the group lead the charge with their bad ideas. This will allow the team to feel that they have permission to join in. It will also help to level out the status in the room, removing biases in taking ideas more seriously from those higher up on the company ladder.

As well as improving the atmosphere in the room, surprising results can surface by approaching the problem from this radical perspective. Often seemingly useless contributions can be tweaked to find the beginnings of a workable idea.

9. Limit the number of distractions

While you might not have total control of the environment for your brainstorm session, there are many small things that you can do to create optimum working conditions.

Limiting the use of tech in the room is a great way to keep a team focused. A person taking a call or sending an email is not only a distraction for the rest of the group but the person also sends the message that what they’re doing is more important than the matter at hand.

Some companies have even taken to passing around a basket for participants to place their phones and laptops in before meetings. This removes any temptation of reading the shiny new notification that’s popped up. While this may not be an option for anyone who’s waiting on a vital call, it may be the case that this person is better off sitting out of the session this time around.

There are many other small elements you can influence, such as being careful not to place the session just before or just after lunch. Going just before will have most people obsessing over their stomach and just after will leave you with a very sluggish room. Consider other factors such as keeping your room at a decent temperature, convenient placement of resources and being aware of any potential noise pollution. Do what you can to get your room to Goldilocks conditions!

10. Pick the most successful ideas

After generating a large volume of diverse ideas, we can now shift to a convergent thinking mindset to pick the ideas that we think will be the most successful.

It is important to remain democratic at this stage or else risk continuing to fall into old thinking habits and give in to ‘groupthink’ or the old-fashioned hierarchical structure. Have a voting system in which everyone who contributed gets a chance to vote for what they believe the most successful idea will be.

A more refined version of this is to have the participants vote with their hands, five fingers for an idea they think will be very successful, one finger for an idea they don’t think will work and everything in between. To stop people from following the crowd, have a short countdown after which everyone needs to immediately show their result. Any results that split the room dramatically (with a majority of 1s and 5s) may require further discussion to find further insights into why they believe each idea will work or not work.

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