Creativity + Structure: 5 Ways to Host Better Brainstorming Sessions

by: Richard Lepsinger


Brainstorming meetings are a great way to encourage your team to exercise creativity and grow as innovative thinkers. The problem is, creativity is hard to drum up on the spot, and free-flow exploration without structure can lead to more kumbaya sessions than strategic ideas.

Here are five ways to rethink brainstorming sessions, combining both creativity and structure.

  1. Stop TalkingWhen you think about brainstorming, you likely visualize a group of people calling out ideas while sitting around a table together. These vocalized ideas are supposed to infuse the rest of the group with inspiration and original thoughts, leading to a high-quality list of ideas. It turns out, that isn’t usually the case and the out-loud brainstorming method has been proven to be largely ineffective.Instead, try “brainwriting” where everyone brainstorms independently, silently writing down their ideas, and then shares them aloud, once all of the initial idea generation has already taken place.
  2. Take it AnalogWith all of the productivity and project management tools at our fingertips, using white boards and sticky notes might seem downright archaic, but some things really are better the old-fashioned way.

    Sure, having one person type out all of the ideas and notes in a single, neat document has the allure of efficiency, but many people process ideas both physically and cerebrally. Writing ideas down, drawing connectors, crossing concepts out, and literally moving ideas around can provide new perspectives and help people process their thoughts.

  3. Tighten Up the TimeframeBrainstorming discussions are most effective as a series of sprints, not a meandering marathon. First, provide the group with a set window for the initial brainwriting exercise. Then “timebox,” or allocate the discussion portion to the shortest amount of time you can cover everyone’s ideas and do an initial round of feedback. This rapid-fire approach encourages quick, instinctual thinking and straightforward feedback, while minimizing lengthy expository monologues and wishy-washy commentary.

    You can then break for a few hours, or even days, to give people time to reflect and let ideas “marinate” and then reconvene for another timeboxed session to narrow down your list of ideas and come up with implementation plans.

  4. Don’t Choose an IdeaSelecting the single best idea can be both excruciating and limiting. Instead, choose a few ideas and push those into beta. Pressure testing multiple ideas in parallel will help identify holes and quickly refine each solution so you can pinpoint what works better on paper than in reality and determine if it’s possible to combine the best aspects of each individual solution.

    The outcomes of each beta test can then be discussed in another timeboxed session.

  5. Solicit the NaysayersIf you’re the creative team, does finance always come in at the end and crush all of your innovative-though admittedly not affordable-solutions? Or, if you’re a sales team, does the operations department always reject your ideas for new products because they don’t believe they have the infrastructure to execute them?

    These “opposing” groups are the people you should invite to your brainstorming meetings. It may not be productive to get them involved in the first session, but bring them on board once you’ve narrowed down the list to some of your best ideas. They can help set realistic selection criteria early on to prevent any Don Quixote expeditions.

With all of this sprinting and testing, brainstorming can be exhausting work, but we’ve seen firsthand the positive business outcomes it produces.

About the Author

Richard Lepsinger is President of OnPoint Consulting and has a twenty-five year track record of success as a human resource consultant and executive. The focus of Rick’s work has been on helping organizations close the gap between strategy and execution, work effectively in a matrix organization and lead and collaborate in a virtual environment.

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