How to be better at brainstorming


A meeting invite pops up for a brainstorming session a week down the line and you accept. You know about the topic, project or problem, so not too much prep is involved before you enter it. A week later, you walk in and sit for an hour with your colleagues to generate ideas. Some of your louder co-workers come up with big ideas and you think they’re pretty great. Maybe you’re the one with great ideas. Others tack on their ‘yes, ands…’ and the hour or so is up.

Now it’s up to leadership to pick the best ideas from that session that are most likely to succeed.

But did your team really get everything they could have out of that brainstorming session? The answer is unequivocally no.

Brainstorming is a phenomenal way to get ideas out and let them grow. For many, though, the process is broken and needs some fine-tuning in order to truly be efficient. While the brainstorming process fits into each company’s idea creation and problem solving strategy a little differently, but there are some major pieces that align for almost everyone: people, time and resolution.

Here are some ways you can improve those areas during your next brainstorming session:

Limit the size of the brainstorming session


When we think of brainstorming, we immediately think of a group coming together. Rarely is brainstorming thought of as an individual activity. Even when the idea of brainstorming was invented by Alex Osborne more than 70 years ago, “Osborn described, for instance, how the technique inspired a group of ten admen to come up with eighty-seven ideas for a new drugstore in ninety minutes, or nearly an idea per minute. The brainstorm had turned his employees into imagination machines.”

Fast forward to 2016. Studies now show that large groups participating in a brainstorming session may not be as effective as they once were. In fact, a meta-analysis of 241 case studies show that for complex tasks such as creativity, having too many people involved can actually hinder the process.

That study goes on to conclude “the presence of others impairs complex performance accuracy and slightly facilitates simple performance accuracy” showing that the more people around for brainstorming sessions could reduce performance for complex tasks such as creativity, while more people around for simpler tasks would increase the performance.

By limiting the size of the brainstorming session, you’re bound to get more out of people in a concentrated amount of time since they feel more responsible to perform well versus allowing others to pick up the slack while they go unnoticed.

Provide structure


Creativity is messy, unstructured and all over the place, right? No.

However, typical brainstorming sessions are unstructured outside of knowing the topic that you’ll be discussing in order to let creativity be what we once thought it was. Turns out, creativity does best when structured and given boundaries.

The structure you put in place may be a little different based on your company’s culture and the problem you’re trying to solve. However, try incorporating these key points into each of your brainstorming sessions for better results:

1.) Use a room or space where you can very plainly put the mission of the brainstorming session on the wall as a focal point. This will help you keep on topic, and you’ll be less likely to stray when the statement is staring right back at you.

2.) Gather individual ideas before you open it up to the group. We’ll talk about a great way to do that in the next section.

3.) Have a leader assigned to facilitate the brainstorming session. This person should stay neutral and be there to keep the structure while ensuring no one individual is taking over the group brainstorm.

4.) Vote on the best ideas at the end of the brainstorming session. This helps stop the issue of leadership picking less-creative ideas that are easier to execute, versus highly creative ideas that could be innovative and change your company for the better. The power of everyone voting means that individuals get to think through how they can contribute to that idea and if it’s feasible right there and then. Oppositely, this also helps to stop the choosing of an idea that may be hard to execute, but those who chose it were not tuned into the intricacies of it at the time that you may uncover as a group.

Start with some quiet time


Brainstorming sessions are about talking, but that doesn’t have to happen right away. This piece of advice may seem a little counter-intuitive, but it’ll help you get more out of the people you’ve invited to the session.

Start your brainstorming session by handing out index cards or Post-It Notes to participants. Present the problem and ask them to write down two to three of their best ideas no matter how big or small. Give them 10 minutes to do so. Once they’re done, they should turn their writing in to whoever has been dubbed the leader of the session.

You’ll then read these ideas aloud so everyone has a chance to be heard. This exercise helps play into the idea that individuals are great at creating ideas, and groups are best for judging their ability to be executed. From there, you can begin brainstorming with those ideas as a foundation, versus a traditional brainstorming session where the first one or two ideas thrown out will play the lead for a majority of the time.

This will help people who normally do not speak up have a say. Plus, it’ll give everyone time to think of their own ideas without listening to just two or three big ideas and adding onto that. Speaking of that, let’s talk about what happens when we focus on the first few ideas thrown out there.

Beware of anchor ideas


Anchor ideas are the ideas that are first thrown out by the more active or louder participants in the session when you don’t use an idea-capturing method like we described above. These tend to be ideas everyone can wrap their heads around and add to. Often times, if these ideas are shouted out at the beginning of the session, the group will begin to add around those ideas versus ever thinking up more of their own. They’re dangerous because they shut down an ‘outside the box’ mentality.

This can create a block of other equally as good, if not better ideas, leaving you with a brainstorming session that only developed one to two good thoughts. Has this ever happened to you or your team?

Going back to our last tip of starting with a ‘silent’ brainstorming session should help limit the hold of anchor ideas. Do not allow people to do any ‘yes, and..’ activities until all written ideas have been read. At that point, you can then begin to choose which ideas you’d like to flesh out more.

This way, everyone gets a say and no initial idea goes unheard just because another participant was louder.

Be comfortable with awkward silence at the end


It’s okay to let people feel a bit awkward at the end once the flow of ideas slowly trickles to a drip. This is when the best thinking may occur because people start to tune back into their own thoughts, versus contributing to the group’s.

Neil Pavitt, a creativity and innovation consultant, presses on this in a recent FastCompany article, stating, “There are lots of problems with brainstorms, but the main one is they don’t go on for long enough. They usually stop when people have run out of ideas and you get those embarrassing silences. But those embarrassing silences are when your unconscious starts engaging on the problem and is a vital part to coming up with great ideas.”