Better Brainstorming – A Framework for Success

Better Brainstorming – A Framework for Success

I know, we’ve all been in a “brainstorming” session which devolves into either a pointless series of discussions that never goes anywhere, or which are code for “let the executives speak, and follow their lead.”  The simple fact is that most people aren’t trained to work in a true brainstorming fashion, and that most businesses don’t invest in the right kind of thoughtful facilitation that’s necessary to have effective brainstorming sessions.

But that’s not to say that it can’t be done, and that there aren’t proven and reliable ways to create an engaging and productive brainstorming session.  Through my work as a Product Manager and Product Owner, I’ve worked with teams who fully embraced the principles of Agile development — and, surprisingly enough, there’s a lot of commonality to be found in empowering a team to be self-directed and working with stakeholders to brainstorm new ideas.  To wit, I provide you with the following framework for effective and productive brainstorming sessions.

There are proven and reliable ways to create an engaging and productive brainstorming session.

Before the Meeting – What’s the goal?
The single most important thing that you can do in setting up a successful brainstorming session is to stop and think critically about it before you even start sending out invitations.  Brainstorming is a powerful tool, but is has to be directed.  Just setting up a meeting to “brainstorm new directions for the company” is likely to be just as productive as “brainstorm solutions for colonizing Jupiter.”  What is the ultimate goal that you want to draw from the meeting?  What kinds of ideas are you looking for?  If you’re looking for ideas about expanding into new markets, that’s good.  If you’re looking for ideas about how to reduce the overall cost structure of the organization, that’s good. You want to be less general but more specific – there’s a balance to be had here, and thinking through what the goal of the meeting is and clearly articulating it will help tremendously to manage expectations and set things up for success.  Ideally, there should be one high-level theme that’s to be covered in the meeting; two is feasible, but more than that and things will start spiraling out of control.

Invitations, Agendas, and Ground Rules
Once you think you’ve nailed the overall goal and theme of the meeting, the next thing to do is send out invitations.  And no, I don’t mean go down to Papyrus and peruse the custom paperwork books, I just mean good old fashioned meeting requests.  But, ensure that you’re (1) properly stating your theme and goals for the meeting, (2) provide an explicit agenda, and (3) set out the ground rules in advance.

I’ll be honest, I love agendas – I use them for any meeting that I set up.  They let people know what’s going to be covered, in what order, and if particularly important, for how long.  For a brainstorming session, they help to clarify that (1) some time will be spent in setting up, (2) some time will be spent in winding down, and (3) the majority of the time will be spent in discussion.  You’re trying to prime the pump with people, and ensure that they understand that the goal here is discussion, not just a wholesale dumping of information.  Lastly, they set a start time and an end time — stick to these as much as possible.  Nothing will derail a meeting faster than having people step out around the end to go to something else that they decide is “more important”.

Nothing will derail a meeting faster than having people step out around the end to go to something else they feel is “more important.”

As for the ground rules, I think everyone has probably seen these, but you need to include them in every email invitation as well has have them prominently posted in the meeting itself.  It sounds silly, especially since these are (as my last workplace called them) “Kindergarten Rules”, but you’d be amazed how just having these rules stated in advance can get things going in the right direction from minute one of the meeting.  Here are my rules:

  1. You’re here, you’re committed.
  2. There are no “bad” ideas.
  3. Everyone in the room is an equal.
  4. No finger-pointing or blaming.
  5. One person speaks at a time.

Like I said, they’re basic grade-school rules, but I’m sure if you think about it you can come up with times when you’ve seen each of these rules broken in business meetings.  The most important one is Rule #1 – You’re here, you’re committed.  Brainstorming sessions only work when everyone is committed to the meeting.  This means that the CEO doesn’t “step out” to take a call, or the VP of Services doesn’t spend their time on their laptop “fighting fires”.  If you’re not committed, go ahead and leave the room – and sacrifice your seat at the table.

If you’re not committed, go ahead and leave the room — and sacrifice your seat at the table.

Establish a Facilitator
Someone has to run the meeting.  One person.  And, that person is not also a participant in the meeting.  Their sole jobs are to ensure that the meeting moves forward, and that there are actionable outcomes at the end of the meeting.  Facilitation is truly an art – but I believe that most people can be effective if they focus on the process and the ground rules.  They also need to be somewhat fearless and entirely empowered while in this meeting — that means that they have to be able to, while in this meeting, tell the CEO to let someone else talk, or ask the VP of Sales to not point fingers.  It’s a position that is due respect by its nature, and one that provides respect in return.

Where’s the Beef?
If you’ve stuck with me this far, I’m sure you’re wondering where the process is, where’s the important stuff.  To this, I’d say I already covered 90% of what you need to be successful, and the rest is just fluff.  If you have a strong facilitator and people respect the ground rules, it may not matter much how you proceed.  But, since you’re looking for it, here’s my process:

You’ll need the following supplies for this process:

  • A room with at least one wall clear for posting sticky-notes to; a large whiteboard works well.
  • A pad of sticky-notes (Post-Its or the like) for each person, uniform in color (use different colors for different topics, if there are any).  Over-sized notes are preferred to the standard 3×3 notes, so people can write larger.
  • 10 “dot” stickers for each person, also uniform in color (contrasting with the sticky-notes, and one set per topic).
  • One medium-point Sharpie marker for each person (and a few to spare).
  • A flip-chart (Post-It charts are awesome for this, since you can remove the page and stick it to the wall).

Before anyone comes into the room, make sure that you have the layout already configured and supplies available to each person.  This minimizes the chaos during the first few minutes of the meeting, and starts the meeting off on a structured, organized foot.  Each person should have the following available to them:

  • 1 sticky-note pad color-coded for each topic.
  • 1 Sharpie marker or a similar medium-point permanent marker.
  • A set number (5-10) of “dot” stickers color-coded for each topic.

Before you leap into the fray, take some time to review the goals of the meeting, the ground rules, and to walk the team through what’s about to happen at a high level.  Ask for and answer any procedural questions before you jump into the brainstorming process.

Now you get to the fun part.  After you pose the question that you’re trying to answer, you invite the team to start writing down ideas — any ideas — related to the topic on the sticky-notes in front of them.  One idea per note, written as clearly as possible.  You should keep an eye on people to make sure that everyone is participating, and prompt people who seem to be lagging.  The goal will be to get all of the sticky-notes up on the board, and there are a few ways to do this.  The best will depend on the team and your assessment of whether there’s a risk of undue influence:

  1. You can have everyone hold their notes until the end of the session, then everyone takes them up at once.  The chaos here covers for the risk that people will identify stickies with individual people.
  2. You can have people walk up and post each note to the board as they complete them.  Less chaos, but more risk that people will be able to connect specific posts to specific people.
  3. You can walk around the room and collect sticky-notes from people as they complete them.  Less engagement with the team, but minimal risk that people will connect posts to people.

I usually give this process anywhere from 10-15 minutes, depending on the topic.  It’s important to have a hard stop, and to remind people as that stop approaches.  Also, if you see people beginning to stop writing, you can make the executive decision to cut the time early – what you don’t want is for conversations unrelated to the brainstorming to start eating away at the team’s commitment.  Once all the notes are up on the board, you move to the next step, voting.

Okay, maybe this is really the fun part.  Once all of the stickies are posted, you as the facilitator walk through each one and read them aloud.  The team may ask clarifying questions about the sticky, and it’s your job as the facilitator to make any clarifications without outing the author of the note.  Once each item is clear (and duplicate or very similar items are combined), then you invite the team members up to “vote” for the ideas that they want to discuss in greater detail by attaching their “dot” stickers to the sticky (or somewhere reasonably near it).  Set a time limit for this – maybe 5-10 minutes at most, and remind people at intervals how much time is remaining.  Once all votes are cast, have the team take a break while you review the votes and pick the top-voted items for discussion.

This is the meat of the process, and the key to making the brainstorming session valuable.  After you’ve filtered the list of ideas down to the top 5/10/15 (whatever you think you reasonably have time for), it’s time for the team to discuss each one and ideally create an action or responsibility out of them.  Plan for 5-10 minutes per sticky, and start conservatively with a smaller number (the stickies and their votes are still there, you can always pull in the next-highest item if you’ve got time).

This is where your flip-chart comes into play.  Affix the sticky to the top left of the flip-chart page, and take diligent notes on the page about the discussion.  Start general – get feelings, thoughts, clarifications.  Take everything down, and look for patterns and consistencies among the discussion.  As the discussion continues, drive the team toward assigning a specific responsibility and/or action that will be taken on this topic.  Ideally, someone in the room should walk away with both responsibility for follow-up and a specific deliverable (including a timeframe) on each topic that is discussed.

It’s also possible that a topic gets discussed and dismissed – that’s fine, and it’s better to “fail fast” on an idea than waste time talking about it.  If it sounds like an idea’s getting dismissed, confirm it with a majority of the team, and then table it and move to the next one.

It’s better to “fail fast” on an idea than to waste time talking about it.

The hard part here lies on the facilitator — it’s your job to move the discussion forward, and it’s your job to make sure everyone is heard.  Keep an eye for quiet people, and keep an eye on those who are talking too much.  Try to maintain a balance, and ensure that everyone has a say and that nobody is monopolizing the discussion.  Often, that’s as simple as saying, “Joe, what do you think about this?” or “Joe, do you agree with Kim on that?”

Once you’ve reviewed all of the highly-voted stickies, it’s time to recap.  Make sure that you’ve got a good 15 minutes or so for this, since there can be some questions and clarifications involved.  Now, go through each sticky and flip-chart set, and make sure that the team is clear on who is responsible for follow-up, what the follow-up action is, and when it should be delivered.  Also, do a quick review of any remaining stickies that the team feels need additional follow-up later.

Following Up
Perhaps the biggest mistake in any brainstorming session is not following up on the topics discussed and the deliverables assigned.  Shortly after the meeting is concluded, write up an overview of what was discussed, include all efforts assigned, and send out meeting notes to everyone who attended.  Make it as concise and clear as possible, while still covering the key points.  Then, schedule a follow-up session within a few weeks, to review the discussion points, the expected deliverables, and the follow-up that was assigned out.

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