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8 golden rules for running brilliant brainstorms

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We’ve all been there; that awkward moment in a brainstorm when the facilitator expects the room to spontaneously burst with creativity and fresh, brilliant new ideas. Cue: tumbleweed.

Brainstorming is an essential tool, both at home and work. Whether it’s a 30-second stand-up with the family to thrash out what to have for dinner, or a boardroom collective to devise a strategy for halting falling profits, generating ideas is the key to solving problems big and small.

And yet effective brainstorming is a rarely-taught skill and the critical role of the facilitator is one that’s at best misunderstood, and, at worst performed in such a way that undermines the sole function of effective brainstorm sessions – to generate ideas which will solve a problem.

No surprise then that in our recent webinar – Running A Brainstorm – only 6% of delegates polled said that their past attempts at running brainstorms were completely successful. Furthermore, only one fifth feel entirely comfortable in the facilitator role, with 78% admitting to a combination of apprehension, needing a co-facilitator to give them confidence or simply lacking the skills required to lead a session. Most of us, it seems, need a little help in this department, and everywoman associate and webinar trainer Sara Parsons has some key advice we should adhere to if we want our brainstorm sessions to be creative triumphs.

 

Brainstorming, done well, is an incredibly effective tool, but it isn’t the only one - and not always the right one. As the US psychologist Abraham Maslow said: ‘If the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, you’ll treat everything like it’s a nail.’

There could be historical obstacles which threaten to derail your session; maybe a previous brainstorm didn’t go well and the result is anxiety or negativity within the group; perhaps a previous session went brilliantly but the facilitator neglected to follow through on the ideas collected – a sure-fire way to instil mistrust in your team. Think carefully about the problem you’re trying to solve and be really honest with yourself: is brainstorming the best way forward?

 

So you’ve decided brainstorming is the way forward for your project. Now take some time to think about what brainstorming really means. Yes, generating ideas is an obvious and important component in the process, but preparation is also key, as is building in time to thoroughly evaluate the ideas generated.

When you’re planning your brainstorm, think about each of these elements: preparation (laying the groundwork); idea-generation (the session itself); evaluation (which idea or ideas should be put into action?).

 

Clearly, running a brainstorm is more difficult than it looks, but there are some clear dos and don’ts, which the facilitator must be mindful of. Listening is absolutely critical; listen proactively, taking care not to interrupt. Manage your tone, ensuring not to imply negativity (asking questions like ‘Does anybody else agree with that idea?’ will create the impression you disagree and the originator and anybody who supports his or her idea will undoubtedly feel it).

Body language and non-verbals are equally important. Understand the ‘power of the pen’; if you don’t agree with an idea that’s been thrown into the mix, it’s very easy to simply not write it down. Be very aware of recording every point that’s made: ‘every idea has equal credence’ should be your start point. Asking the right questions is another key skill to hone.

Questions can be broad (‘What’s the origin of the problem we’re trying to solve here?’) or focused (‘Do we have enough ideas to move forward?’) but must be open enough to inspire dialogue. Finally, focus on building a rapport with the room. As facilitator you set the tone for the session; connect with each member individually (remember names!); make it clear that you’re looking forward to the session and appreciate everyone’s attendance and input.

 

There’s much to be said for large team brainstorms where ideas can be shared in great volumes. If you’re new to facilitation, however, you can start smaller to practise your art.

Brainstorms don’t have to last two days or even two hours – quick two-minute stand-ups in mini clusters can produce results as well as building your confidence and credibility as a facilitator. Take time to think: where are there opportunities for you to quickly gather small groups to focus on ways you can help your business grow and succeed?

 

Creating the right environment for your brainstorm is critical. That doesn’t mean you have to hire in coloured beanbags or decamp to a loft room with views of the skyline; it simple means creating an environment that will allow people to relax and feel comfortable sharing. Avoid ‘exam style’ table/chair set-ups. Likewise, a boardroom layout will often mean delegates automatically look to the head of the table for answers. Try to arrange the room in a way that implies every attendee has equal say.

Think about using stimulus you can pin up on walls or leave on tabletops, or, if appropriate, bring in background music. It’s worth engaging each of the senses – sight, sound, taste, touch, smell. We’re all inspired differently; how can you cater for as many thinking styles as possible? Equally important is the mental environment you create. People need to feel safe in the knowledge their ideas won’t be laughed at.

Be clear upfront that there are no bad ideas and that key strategies can and do often emerge from even the wackiest contributions. If you have pre-conceived ideas about attendees and their creative or other abilities, work hard to leave them outside the room. As facilitator, being all-inclusive and exuding confidence in every member is essential.

 

These words, penned by author Peter Block, offer a stern warning to the brainstorm facilitator. Avoid taking over and trying to solve problems for others. Don’t ‘translate’ the ideas they’ve shared into your own words. Recognise that everyone in the room has their own unique thinking style.

An extrovert may think out loud while an introvert needs time to reflect, taking time to mull over a point before they’re ready to share. If you recognise you have introverts in the room, breaking the larger group down into pairs or smaller groups can ensure everyone feels comfortable taking part.

If your brainstorm session includes remote workers dialling-in, you’ll need to work extra hard to create inclusion. If possible send them something to think about in advance. Introduce them to those physically present and take care to bring them into the conversation if the bodies in the room become dominant.

 

A brainstorm can die a sudden death if an idea is immediately dismissed. Be clear upfront that all ideas are welcome and avoid dissecting them as they come up.

That said, a healthy debate on the idea that looks set to be an emerging winner will engage the wider group and – if it’s ultimately chosen as the one that solves the problem – will lend it credibility.

 

So you’ve successfully engaged a roomful of colleagues in inspiring creative solutions and you’re armed with dozens of post-it notes. Congratulations! Problem solved, right? Well, not exactly. Your credibility will go down the pan if all those ideas are transferred from flipchart to bottom drawer, never to see the light of day. Not only will your team lose faith in the process; the problem you were originally trying to solve will remain.

The follow-up then, is the final and often neglected stage in the process. It begins at the end of your idea session, when you make a commitment to the room to take their ideas forward. This commitment might involve getting them to vote on the best idea to put into action. If the problem you’re trying to solve is more complex, it might involve weekly status updates on how the ideas generated are being implemented.

 

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Workbook: Brainstorming. This popular addition to the everywomanNetwork will give you more practical tools for ensuring your idea-sessions go off with a bang.