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Creativity needs structure: How to make brainstorming sessions a whole lot more effective

We’ve all experienced brainstorming sessions: a group of people put together often for political reason sits passively listening to a moderator tasking you to “Get creative!” or “Think outside the box!” and cheerfully reminds you that “There are no bad ideas!”

Idea in brief: The key to a successful brainstorming session is putting structure, process in place and have a strong facilitator to manage it all.

What happens? Some attendees remain stone-faced throughout the day, others contribute sporadically, and a few loudly dominate the session with their pet ideas. Ideas pop up randomly - some intriguing, many preposterous - but because the session has no structure, little momentum builds around any of them. At session’s end, the group trundles off with a hazy idea of what, if anything, will happen next. “Now we can get back to real work,” some whisper.

It doesn’t have to be like this.  By undertaking better preparation and providing structure throughout a brainstorming session, organisations can greatly enhance their chances of generating better ideas that will be implemented.

1. Know your boundaries

One reason good ideas evolving from corporate brainstorming sessions is that they are beyond the scope of what the organization would ever be willing to consider or to implement. “Think outside the box!” is unhelpful if external circumstances or company policies create boxes that the organization truly must live within. So there is no point in spending hours coming up with ideas based on AI technology if the budget precludes huge investment in this area for now.

2. Choose broadly but choose the right people

Entrepreneur and author Margaret Heffernan says that involving diverse people in decision making and ideas generation nearly always delivers a better solution than relying on a group of very clever but homogenous people. In addition, you need to involve people who can answer the questions you’re asking of them. Our own research shows that over 87% of front line staff would like to be engaged in change and yet how often are they invited to sessions which discuss just this area of the business?

3. Cater for reflectors

Some people need more time than others to think about issues and feel uncomfortable about coming up with a range of ideas on the spot. There are a couple of ways around this.

Firstly, make sure you brief people before they come about the focus of the brainstorming session. For instance, “customer service”. It doesn’t have to be too specific. Secondly, build in quiet time throughout the session for those individuals who require reflection time.

4. Use subgroups

To ensure more focused discussions, conduct multiple, discrete, highly focused idea generation sessions among subgroups. Each subgroup should comprise 3 to 5 people as the social norm in groups of this size is to speak up. This will encourage those individuals who are reluctant to speak up in a larger setting.

Tell participants that if anyone thinks of a “silver bullet” solution that’s outside the scope of discussion, they should write it down and share it later.

Also, whenever possible, share “signpost examples” before the start of each session - real questions previous groups used, along with success stories, to motivate participants and show them how a question-based approach can help.

5. Follow up quickly

The odds that concrete action will result from an idea generation exercise tend to decline quickly as time passes and momentum fades. Follow through quickly with participants informing them of what actions have been taken as a result of the session. And remember to thank them for their contribution.

Idea worth implementing: For the very next ideas generation session, take time to plan it and nominate an external facilitator (outside the group) to manage the session.