How to run a successful brainstorming session and avoid the traps that cause brainstorming to fail

This step-by-step guide will help you navigate the creative process and provide some structure to brainstorming. Brainstorming is part of the ideation phase in creative problem solving or design thinking, as shown in the diagram below.


Creativity at Work Protocol for managing the creative process

CAW design-innovation-protocol2019.jpg

This process is best done with a group to capture a diversity of perspectives, and over several days in one-two hour segments, (especially in a virtual environment) not at one sitting.

  1. Discover your opportunity by learning what you can about your customers’ pain points, needs and desires. Gather data you have about your market, including analytics, the economy, trends, and technology.
  2. Define your opportunity: Share stories about what you have learned, and look for patterns, themes, and insights. It helps to post these on a wall, using sticky notes so you move items into patterns and themes. Write a list of clear opportunity statements, and identify the problems to be solved. Eg: Our customer needs a better way to ___ BECAUSE ___. . Re-frame problem areas into opportunities, by writing another list of questions starting with “HOW MIGHT WE…? Choose a project scope that feels actionable. For example: “HOW MIGHT WE…help people make healthy food choices.” A broader scope would be, “Help people improve their health,” and narrower, “Help people plan healthy meals online.”
  3. Incubate: Disconnect from all your devices. Go for a walk to refresh your brain and let it process all the new information you have given it, so new ideas and insights can bubble up. You can also meditate, and/or take a nap. See also The Secret to Finding Creative Solutions from Legendary Designers
  4. Ideate: Generate multiple solutions (See brainstorming tips below). Provide everyone with a summary and encourage them to build on the ideas from your previous session. Provide a space online for adding and sharing ideas — I like to use Jamboard by Google because it is dead simple and it’s free. When this is done, decide when to meet next to debate and evaluate your ideas.
  5. Evaluate: Evaluate your ideas from a variety of angles, starting with your target — Does it have wow power? Is it easy to implement? and how likely will it succeed? Challenge your assumptions. Choose the ideas that best meet all your criteria, and pick 1-3 for further development, depending on the complexity of your solutions
  6. Prototype. Combine, expand, and refine ideas in the form of models or sketches. Present a selection of ideas to the client, get feedback, revise and make a decision about what to implement. Michael Schrage, research fellow at MIT, says, “Effective prototyping may be the most valuable core competence an innovative organization can have.” Reactions to your prototype, inform your innovation. “Innovation is about good new ideas that customers will pay a premium to adopt and use!”
  7. Test: Validate your ideas and your conclusions with your target group. This is the best way to mitigate risk. What questions do you need to ask? Be sure to listen to feedback without getting defensive, and look for ways to make your idea better.
  8. Refine your ideas. Depending on the outcome of your test, you may have to repeat steps 1-6 before you find a winning solution.
  9. Deliver: Turn your ideas into action. Formulate an action plan to launch your innovation. Who is going to do what and by when? How will you measure success?
  10. Iterate. Look for ways you can improve, innovate and scale up.

Four ground rules of group brainstorming

Alex F Osborn, an advertising executive (and the O in BBDO) invented brainstorming in the 40s. He devised four basic rules intended to reduce social inhibitions among group members, stimulate idea generation, and increase the overall creativity of the group:

  1. Focus on quantity: The greater the number of ideas generated, the greater the chance of producing a radical and effective solution.
  2. Withhold criticism: By suspending judgment until after the idea generation phase, participants will feel free to generate unusual ideas. Withholding criticism only applies to the ideation phase of brainstorming. Criticism is crucial in the evaluation phase following idea generation.
  3. Encourage wild ideas: Wild ideas make people laugh, and laughter stimulates creative thinking.
  4. Combine and improve ideas: Good ideas may be combined to create better ideas.

These four rules are a good start, but brainstorming is only one small part of the innovation process. Brainstorming will fail if you don’t provide structure and focus. Brainstorming DOES work if you create structure and context for creative thinking. You also need a good facilitator to create an idea-friendly atmosphere and bring out the best in your group.

Avoid these brainstorming traps

  • Lack of preparation. You can’t just call a meeting and ask people to brainstorm on the spot.
  • Lack of focus. Proceeding with a poorly defined topic.
  • Judging every idea as it is put forward.
  • Letting a few participants dominate the discussion.
  • Lack of structure. Creativity without structure produces a formless mess.
  • Fear of being wrong or stupid
  • No follow-through. Brainstorming is a waste of time if no action is taken.

If the same people who work with the same problems every day meet and discuss these problems using the same language and procedures the outcome is always predictable. Sameness breeds more sameness. Seeing the world with old eyes only helps produce old ideas.
—Arthur VanGundy, PhD

Four guidelines to make brainstorming more effective

  1. Ideation begins before you even have a brainstorming session. Creativity comes from a blend of individual and group idea generation. Give people time to think about the challenge at least a week before your brainstorming session, so they have time to incubate ideas on their own. (Give them time to reflect on ideas and improve on them, after brainstorming as well.)
    • Host your brainstorming session using a skilled facilitator and play by Osborn’s rules.
    • Encourage a mindset of questioning, and challenging assumptions. Brainstorm as many ideas as possible to serve the identified needs of your end-users. Ask questions like “What if…?” “What else…?” and “In what ways can we…?” Record all ideas put forward by the group and make them visible.
    • Embrace the principles of improvisational theatre: Refrain from sarcasm and pre-judging others. Build on the ideas of others, think in terms of ‘yes and’ rather than ‘yes but;’ make your partners look good, listen as well as talk, play team-win, let go of the need to control a situation, lead through a common vision, and celebrate small wins. This will help you establish an atmosphere of fun, humour, spontaneity, and playfulness. If your culture is one of fear, brainstorming won’t work, so make it safe for people to generate ideas, without the worry of being ridiculed.
    • Research background information and gather data on customers, the marketplace, and competition. Identify the needs and motivations of your end-users. Collect stories about what works, and what drives people crazy.
    • Choose the right people for your project. Break out of silos, and include people from diverse backgrounds, as well as your customers (internal and external) to generate ideas from multiple disciplines and perspectives.
  2. Define the objective/challenge, and determine what will make the project successful. Hint: Focus on what would add value for your customer. Draw up a specific problem or opportunity statement, which describes what you are trying to achieve.
  3. Frame opportunity areas. Don’t just focus on problems. Focus on the outcome you want to achieve. As David Cooperrider, one of the originators of Appreciative Inquiry (AI), states, “The seeds of change are planted in the very first questions we ask.
  4. Use a variety of ideation techniques —not just brainstorming — to spark ideas, Try sketching your ideas, semantic intuition, question storming and brainwriting to appeal to the diverse thinking styles of your participants. The goal of idea generation is to come up with some good options to choose from. Allow between 10 and 20 minutes for each technique, depending on the discussion and the energy of the group.

Build on ideas using idea boosters:

  • Tell me more…
  • Yes, what if…
  • What I like about this is…
  • Let’s play with this…
  • Let’s explore this some more…

Watch out for ideas busters:

  • Yes, but…
  • Are you serious?…
  • We’ve never done it that way…
  • It’s not in the budget…
  • It’ll never work…

When you respond to ideas this way, you block the flow of brainstorming. Who wants to suggest ideas if they keep getting shot down? The time to challenge ideas is during the evaluation phase (step 5) not the ideation phase.

Continue on to the step 5  of the Creativity at Work Protocol above