Make It Rain! Here’s How to Set Up Better Brainstorms

Coming up with ideas on the spot can be challenging, but you can ease the path with these techniques that get you thinking and collaborating in new ways.

Brainstorms have enormous potential to bring the zany into the realm of the actionable, nourished with group input. But they can also be big flops, with participants afraid to open the floodgates—or getting so off track that they leave the session exhilarated but without any actual ideas.

Before diving into a brainstorming session, have a plan to help you design brainstorms that will spark fresh yet sensible ideas. Consider these techniques to create better brainstorming sessions.

Maximize Efficiency With “Note and Vote”

You may find that your brainstorming sessions tend to veer quickly into off-topic discussions or tangents that don’t contribute to the session’s objective. One method can help with that: note and vote.

A common practice at Google, this method of brainstorming involves participants generating ideas on their own, then sharing them with the group. Start by writing down your own list of ideas, choosing your favorites, and sharing those with the group. All ideas shared with the group are then written on a whiteboard, and from there each member of the group votes for their favorite. The idea that gets the most votes is the one you run with.

The note-and-vote strategy is designed to help groups generate ideas quickly and find a consensus. It’s particularly useful when your team feels stuck, and since it’s a democratic process, it eliminates concerns that just a few voices are always dominating the conversation. This method is conducive to in-person collaboration (done with actual notes and a whiteboard), but it can easily be done remotely with virtual whiteboards and screen sharing.

Use Anonymity to Think Outside the Box

Coming up with new ideas on the spot in front of a group can be intimidating. You may be feeling creativity anxiety, which can stop creative thinking in its tracks. One way to help all participants work around these feelings is to make brainstorming an anonymous activity, where people aren’t fettered by the fear that they’ll be judged for a bad or kooky idea. Without names attached, people will also be more willing to think outside the box, as one study found, concluding that anonymous brainstorming leads to a greater diversity of ideas.

In person, this could be as simple as having participants write down ideas on slips of paper (no names, of course!) and give them to a facilitator, who shuffles them. From there, the facilitator hands each participant a random paper, and the participant offers comments, questions, or critiques. You can repeat this until all participants have weighed in on each idea. If you’re using a virtual whiteboard, each participant could create a throwaway account or use an alias when joining the session to keep things anonymous.

Experiment With Boundaries

Brainstorming may seem like it should be without any rules or limits—throw off the shackles of constraints and let everyone’s creative spirit soar! But perhaps counterintuitively, creative limitations can be helpful. Of course, too many constraints is a problem in itself, but a brainstorming prompt that’s too broad can paralyze participants with too many possible avenues to go down.

In your next brainstorm, maybe your participants have to express their ideas in a specific format or medium, as Susan Riley, the founder of the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM, does with her “take-away” strategy. The approach involves coming up with ideas, narrowing them down to fit into a 140-character tweet, then transforming that tweet into some kind of art. This particular method may not apply to the kind of ideas you want to generate, but the key here is to come up with ways to get participants out of their comfort zones and shape their ideas into something they wouldn’t have otherwise.

(erhui1979/DigitalVision Vectors)

Michael Hickey

By Michael Hickey

Michael Hickey is a contributor to Associations Now. MORE

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