10 Steps to Leading a Brainstorming Session that Works

Brainstorming sessions are breeding ground for idea generation. Invented in the 1930s by advertising executive Alex Osborn, brainstorming was initially coined “thinking up.” In encouraging unhampered, spur-of-the-moment thoughts, Osborn hoped to break the conventional meeting mold that he believed stunted creative freedom and collaboration. While a staple of startup culture, the effectiveness of group brainstorming is highly debated. But fine-tuned ideas are not the intended outcome. As Osborn stated,

Forget quality…you’re loosening up your unfettered imagination—making your mind deliver.

Considered in this light, group brainstorming succeeds at producing a high quantity of ideas to fuel the final solution.

In merging the brainpower and creativity of many, brainstorming meetings can quickly become distracted and off-topic. We’ve all been in a brainstorming session where nothing really got done. The meeting started off well but got sidetracked somewhere between an off-topic interjection and a long-winded monologue. They take tactful moderation and planning to execute. During my startup career, these ten principles have helped me to run brainstorming sessions that work:[bctt tweet="10 Strategies for Leading a Brainstorming Session that Works, by @cvwarner"]

Handpick the participants.

Be strategic about who you invite to the brainstorm. If your goal is to generate high-level ideas, getting many brains involved may be best. When aiming to arrive at in-depth solutions, don’t overcrowd the session. Too many participants can lead to filtered and disjointed ideas without a concrete result. Beyond the number of participants, consider the role and personality of each person. Would it be better to include people who are immersed in the material or outsiders with fresh, unbiased perspectives? Avoid inviting naysayers, attention mongers, and apathetic wallflowers to keep the conversation lively and productive. [bctt tweet="For high-level ideas, get many brains involved. For in-depth solutions, don't overcrowd - @cvwarner"]

Share the background.

Beforehand, provide background information about the subject matter to the participants to give ample context. This ensures that you don’t waste time explaining the material, allows participants to grasp the purpose, and prepares them to ask relevant questions before or at the beginning of the session. Pre-brainstorm information sharing also caters to the different types of minds involved. Some people can spew ideas on the spot while others need more time to ruminate the problem to present a solution. And regardless of ideation styles, it gives everyone a sense of what they’re headed into. An agenda can also help, but avoid structuring the session too much to allow ideas to flow freely.

Assign prep work.

When conducting an in-depth brainstorming session, assign some prep work. It could be as simple as reviewing a few project-based materials or as involved as fleshing out a few concepts to workshop during the brainstorm. At least, ask everyone to review the background information and come prepared with a handful of ideas to share. This lets you benefit from the advantages of both individual and group brainstorming. If everyone starts to ideate on the spot, the session can easily become unfocused.[bctt tweet="Brainstorm prep assignments allow you to benefit from individual + group thinking, says @cvwarner"]

Motivate with sweets.

A little indulgence goes a long way to incentivize people to attend meetings. Tempt participants with the promise of a treat—pastries, cookies, candy, or anything sweet. Sugar increases energy levels, albeit temporarily, to improve the quality of contributions. Try not to schedule brainstorming sessions during lunch hours when people are more focused on chowing down than ideating.

Begin with the objective.

To kick off the brainstorm, remind participants of the purpose, background, and ideal outcome: “After this brainstorming session, we should have accomplished x, y, and z.” Resurface the objective as needed at intervals throughout the brainstorm to keep it at the forefront of the participants’ minds and focus the mulling.[bctt tweet="Keep ideation objectives top-of-mind during brainstorming, says @cvwarner"]

Appoint a scribe.

With many ideas pouring out, sometimes rapidly and sometimes gradually, you need to be able to capture them before they disappear into the idea-sharing abyss. You don’t want to leave the meeting thinking, “Jack had a great idea. What was it, again?” Designate a fast-typing scribe to record everything—the great, good, average, and bad ideas—to regurgitate mid-session and review afterwards.

Visualize the ideas.

Beyond scribing the session, use a medium to expose the ideas. Whiteboards, large pads of paper, and projecting the scribe’s notes are all great options. The ability to review the ideas in real-time will let you easily build off them to make connections. This is particularly useful for brainstorms that involve word associations or mapping processes. It can also be useful to use multiple visuals. For example, you can use a whiteboard to outline the key background points and objective for the session and a projector to showcase the ideas as noted by the scribe.

Engage everyone.

Since you strategically selected each brainstormer, keep the conversation dynamic to ensure each person contributes. Don’t let the exuberant participants dominate the discussion, interrupt when necessary to prompt the more contemplative to chime in. Read the room and stay in-tune with the vibes to know when to interject. You can start off by sharing pre-brainstorming ideas. Management professor at the Kellogg School Leigh Thompson's studies have found that in most meetings with traditional brainstorming, a few people do 60-75% of the talking. By simply having everyone voice his or her initial ideas, the conversation will start off on an equal playing ground.[bctt tweet="In meetings, few ppl will do 60-75% of talking. Find ways to create balance. - @cvwarner"]

Control the tangents.

As the moderator, it’s your role to control the conversation. Let the conversation take its course, but bring it back to the purpose when it goes too far off course. Some tangents are productive, surfacing new solutions while others can sidetrack the session and waste time. Of course, let it be a genial gathering and don’t impose a classroom-esque atmosphere with rules and oversight.

Send a recap.

After the session, distribute a recap to the attendees not only to express thanks, but also to prompt lingering ideas. Share the scribe’s notes and request any final input. If you plan to hold a follow-up session, summarizing the takeaways will also help you reference the first session’s materials and topics to continue the ideation process.

When facilitated using these group brainstorming techniques, brainstorming can launch your startup projects through its open and unfettered approach to ideation. Individual thinking allows ideal solutions to materialize, but group thinking sets the groundwork. As Steve Jobs said,

Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.

Does this combat the value of collective brainstorming? No. It simply affirms its context. To refine a solution, think by yourself. To produce many ideas, think in groups.[bctt tweet="To refine a solution, think by yourself. To produce many ideas, think in groups. - @cvwarner"]