How to Run a Good Brainstorming Session

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Last week I was invited to run a Design thinking experiential workshop for the STC conference in Bangalore. We had about 70 people in the room. All of them experienced technical content writers.

As I always believe, learning happens best when people have a lot of fun while learning. We then retain a lot of what we learn in that setting.  I am getting beside the point.

I am sure that everyone of us, me included, have at one point or other, been invited to join  in a brainstorm to come up with ideas to solve a given problem. As a design thinking coach, I end up facilitating a lot of such brainstorms as it is one of the core steps in the problem solving approach.

Irrespective of the cohort that I am working with, there are a few questions that typically come up every time I facilitate a brainstorming session. They came up last week in the workshop as well.

I will try and share my insights and answers to these most commonly asked questions  on brainstorming sessions.

Generate as many ideas as possible

The first instruction I give to participants is to come up with as many ideas as possible. I might even suggest an insanely high number of ideas that i would expect them to come up with.  The reason behind this is two fold:

Novelty:

Typically, when we ask someone to come up with ideas, there are some common ideas that everyone will come up with. These are the typical ideas, that almost anyone who is asked to come up and typically lack any novelty or creativity.

In order to reach the creative and novel ideas, we need to push through our comfort level of coming with the easiest & the simplest idea.

Ideas come in waves:

If you notice closely, we get ideas in waves. Once you are able to come up with some creative idea, it is much easier to modify, add/subtract something to/from that idea and come up with a lot more ideas. By asking people to go for quantity, we are trying to get them to experience as many such waves of ideas as possible.

Every wave that you experience beyond the 2nd or 3rd wave, you will see that you are moving beyond the typical solutions into the realm of truly unique, creative & novel ideas.

Crazy ideas

Why do we need crazy ideas? I believe that it is easier to make crazy ideas interesting, actionable and a little more sensible than to make a boring regular idea interesting. Think about it. Even better would be for you to try this.

Take a crazy idea to solve any given problem and try to make it more practical. Then take a boring average idea and try to make it interesting and creative.

You will realise that it is much easier to make a crazy idea practical and still retain a large dose of craziness (creative spirit).

Delay judgements

Why do we need to delay judgements? According to me, brainstorming is a two step process:  Generate Ideas, Select ideas and it is important to keep them as two separate steps in the process to get good results.

The most  important reason, why I always recommend that we need to defer judgements, is because it kills creativity faster than you can say “No”.  The moment someone starts judging ideas as good or bad, our minds start applying filters to our creative thinking (no one likes being rejected or ridiculed in front of others, even if it is only perceived and not real). This means, that nothing truly creative can come out of the brainstorm where ideas are judged right at the idea generation part of the discussion. 

Equal Opportunity & Diversity

How can we ensure that everyone gets a chance to share their ideas? As I have indicated above, ideation is a two step process. The first step is to generate ideas. I always suggest to do this in three distinct steps:

Brain Dump:

The first step is to ask every individual to come up with ideas individually. I ask them to come up with as many ideas as possible as individuals, without discussion or sharing their ideas.

Share It:

The second step is to ask every to share their ideas with the team. Others who have the same or similar ideas can cluster their ideas around the idea first proposed. Everyone shares their ideas one-after the other until all ideas are shared.

Build upon it:

The last step in this process is for people to come up with newer ideas (combining, editing, replacing or subtracting from the ideas that have already been shared by someone in the team. This is again done individually first and shared with the team later. The team can then discuss among itself to explore if they can come up with more creative ideas as a team, building upon the ideas that they already have.

Prioritize:

While there are many ways to prioritise ideas once you have a set of them, I prefer to use a simple framework. If I am doing the brainstorming as part of a design thinking workshop, I prefer to pick ideas which are at the intersection of Desirablity, Feasibility and viability and in that order.

We could also use the red dots framework (each person on the team get 10 red dots and they can decide to use all of them in a single idea or spread them out on various ideas).

If brainstorm was a standalone one, which someone called for to solve a specific problem that they are trying to solve, i leave it up to this person to decide which of the ideas he/she would like to explore further.

In conclusion:

Brainstorming is an important activity that has the potential to help stimulate our creativity and solve some of the most pressing challenges. However, if not taken seriously and done rigorously, it is also a great waste of time as nothing of value ever comes out of it. Now, the question we need to ask ourselves is which side of the coin do we want to see.

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