Tips for Structuring Better Brainstorming Sessions

Tips for Structuring Better Brainstorming Sessions

Brainstorming is widely used by teams as a method to generate ideas and solve problems. However, many brainstorming activities are flawed and can end up hurting creativity rather than helping spur ideas. It has been well documented that traditional brainstorming, where groups come together and toss out ideas one by one, is often a flawed process. Issues with brainstorming include:

  • Lack of preparation: If participants in a brainstorming session don’t understand the goals of the session in advance, they will come to the session unprepared and significant time will need to be spent ensuring all participants understand the problem before any ideation can take place.
  • Limited creativity: Many brainstorming activities focus on generating unique ideas or unconnected solutions to a problem. Creativity, however, is often achieved by elaborating on individual ideas by taking them apart and improving or changing one part at a time.
  • Group-think: It’s easy for groups to fixate on the first dominant idea that is expressed, reducing the production of additional ideas.
  • Unequal contributions: Traditional brainstorming tends to favor outgoing, extroverted personalities. Without effective facilitation, the group may end up deferring to the most outspoken and animated participants while other participants contribute less to the discussion.
  • Fear of judgement: Even with the guidance that “all ideas are valid”, participants may feel the need to “perform” and only contribute ideas that they feel will be well perceived. The fear of contributing “bad ideas” can result in a counterproductive session. Studies have shown that critique and conflict can result in better and more imaginative ideas.
  • Confusing next steps: Often, teams will come up with many ideas during a brainstorming session, but struggle with what to do with those ideas.

However, brainstorming doesn’t have to be flawed. It’s possible to structure brainstorming activities to maximize the value that you can get from both individual and group thinking. The following 5 step process can help you conduct better brainstorming sessions:

  1. Define Goals & State the Problem
  2. Stimulate Creativity
  3. Ideate Individually
  4. Share, Expand, and Critique
  5. Categorize and Synthesize

1. Define Goals & State the Problem

1 - Define Goals & State the ProblemPrior to the brainstorming session (preferably 24 hours in advance), send participants a clear, succinct statement that explains the purpose of the session. State the problem that you’re trying to solve. Be cautious not to make this problem statement too specific as this can limit the amount of creative solutions to the problem. A wider, more abstract problem statement allows participants to challenge assumptions, generate new perspectives, and uncover new approaches to the problem.

Provide background materials that will help participants understand the context of the problem. Summarize these materials in a scannable format to increase the likelihood that participants will read them and at least consider the highlights. By giving participants both a summary of the background material and links to the full material, you can help them feel in control over their ability to prepare for the session without feeling overwhelmed.

While it’s important to set the expectation that participants need to prepare for the session in advance, briefly re-emphasize the goals and problem statement at the beginning of the brainstorming session to ensure all participants are in alignment and to allow for any outstanding questions to be answered.

2. Stimulate Creativity

2 - Stimulate CreativityMany brainstorming sessions ask participants to jump straight from a problem statement to solutions. Many participants may not know where to start, and will often struggle with coming up with ideas without any further direction. Use “thought triggers” to help participants think about the problem in unique ways. Here are some suggestions to draw from:

  • Psychology: Create a list of psychological concepts from Stephen Anderson’s Mental Notes to guide participants to think about how psychology could be applied to the given problem.
  • Perspectives: Have participants consider the problem from multiple perspectives, whether that be from your target user groups/personas or from outside perspectives.
  • Parallel Worlds: Create a list of parallel worlds to help participants imagine comparisons, similarities, and differences between your problem and worlds outside of your given domain. For example, draw solutions that are inspired from fashion, television, space, the travel industry, or the construction industry.
  • Highlights from research & strategy: Select a few key quotes, statistics, or findings from previous research studies or strategy documents to help participants recall inputs that may impact the given problem statement.

3. Ideate Individually 

3 - Ideate IndividuallyEach participant in a brainstorming session should have an equal chance to contribute their ideas. Instead of having participants immediately shout out ideas in a group setting, allow them to generate ideas individually for a fixed amount of time. This allows you to gather everyone’s opinions and generate more ideas in a shorter amount of time.

One way to ensure you gather a diverse set of ideas and opinions is to invite a diverse group of people to the brainstorming session. While sessions shouldn’t include every single person who could have an opinion, don’t limit participation to only the design team. You can get great ideas from developers, product managers, customer service reps, etc.

Provide each participant with a stack of sticky notes or note cards and instruct them to write a single idea on each note. Aim to generate as many ideas as possible within a ~10-15 minute timeframe. The exact time you choose is dependent on the complexity of the problem you’re trying to solve. Each note could have a word, phrase, or drawing to help the participants express their ideas.

Encourage participants to not over-analyze their ideas at this stage, and to generate as many individual ideas as possible. Explain that even half-baked ideas can help the team build upon the concept.

4. Share, Expand, and Critique

4 - Share, Expand, and Critique

Share

Once individual ideas have been generated, have each person read off their ideas one-by-one. Initially, let everyone express their ideas without discussion or critique. As each idea is read, put the idea up on a wall. You could also document ideas digitally in the form of a diagram or mind map, which could be particularly useful if you’re working with anyone remotely. If similar ideas are expressed, you can group them together, but don’t focus too much on grouping concepts until all ideas are read. This will allow you to get all ideas in front of the team so that you can more effectively discuss the ideas as a whole.

Expand

Once all ideas have been shared, begin discussing how you can build upon the existing ideas. Instead of critiquing the ideas, look to clarify them and expand upon them in order to generate additional concepts. There are a few ways in which you can facilitate this process:

  • SCAMPER – Discuss how you could substitute, combine, adapt, modify, put to another use, eliminate and/or reverse an idea in order to build off the original idea and create new ideas. 
  • Dissect the idea – Take an idea, and see if you can take it apart and improve or change one part of it at a time. Think about if there are any parts that make up the whole that might be able to stand on their own.
  • Ask “why?” – If any assumptions come up regarding either the original problem statement or generated ideas, ask “why?” several times to help spur further discussion.

Critique

While some may argue brainstorming sessions shouldn’t include critique (initially, at least), critique is a natural extension of the idea generation activity and needs to be done in order to act upon the ideas. Once all of the ideas are up on the wall, begin critiquing the ideas. Without proper facilitation, this process can quickly become unwieldy. It’s important to structure the conversation so that each idea is thoughtfully considered and so that the group can freely add ideas and build-upon existing ideas. There are several techniques you can use to manage this process:

  • Six Thinking Hats – Discuss each idea from different perspectives: just the facts (white hat), the positive aspects (yellow hat), the problems or negative aspects (black hat), emotional reactions (red hat), and alternatives building upon the initial idea (green hat). Facilitate this process (blue hat) so that you can get through the ideas quickly and don’t spend too much time on any one idea.
  • Round Robin – Have each person in a group give one piece of feedback about an idea, or react to feedback from another person. Continue so that everyone has the chance to contribute their feedback.

If you want more information about critique, Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry have put together some great information about the Art of Critique.

5. Categorize and Synthesize

5 - Categorize and SynthesizeAfter you have discussed and evaluated the group’s ideas, work to combine the ideas into categories. Aim to identify themes that connect the various concepts. You may find that you have multiple levels of groups. For example, several ideas may relate to a desired capability, and several capabilities may relate to an overarching theme. At this point, you may also remove ideas from consideration if the group agrees that they do not meet the needs of the problem.

Once you have identified these groupings, you can have further discussion over how well the generated ideas and their associated categories meet the needs of the original problem. This step is critical to making sure that you move forward with the ideas that you generate. Provide participants with evaluation criteria that help you identify how well the ideas meet the overall goals. These criteria may or may not need to be weighted depending on your particular problem and goals. Have the group rate the remaining ideas and categories against these criteria. This can be done in a few ways including:

  • Rating matrix – Rank ideas on a scale (e.g. 1-5) for each of the defined evaluation criteria.
  • Dot voting - Have participants select which ideas are highest priority or best meet the evaluation criteria, and vote on those ideas using a limited number of dots (with stickers, or simply checkmarks on the board of ideas).

Once your ideas and categories have been synthesized, they can be shared with your broader team and explored in terms of their feasibility and overall impact.

This method of structuring brainstorming sessions takes more time and effort than the more informal method of getting together to generate ideas as a group. However, by following a more structured method, you’re more likely to generate a larger number of ideas and a higher quality resulting set of ideas. The exact method you follow may be modified based on your team’s individual needs. If you have any other suggestions for structuring brainstorming sessions, please share them in the comments.

Catriona Cornett

I am a User Experience Designer with a passion for making people’s lives better through design. I have helped over a dozen organizations obtain a competitive advantage by delivering great user experiences across desktop, mobile, tablet and other channels.

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