Valarie Griep, MBA, PMP - June 2012

Brainstorming is a technique to generate a large number of ideas in a short amount of time. The benefits of using this technique are that old ways of thinking are shaken up so new options can be discovered, creative solutions are identified, final decisions or choices will have better buy-in from the participants, and outdated or poor assumptions can be discarded. Plus it can be an empowering team activity!

There are many opportunities in the average work day to use this highly effective technique. You may have a problem to solve or need to formulate a course of action. It is important to keep the purpose of your brainstorming clear so that you are sure that brainstorming can help in that situation. Examples of appropriate uses of this technique are to develop ideas for

  • The job description for a new position resulting from your project
  • Cost savings possibilities
  • Next year’s product promotion campaigns
  • The theme of your company’s holiday party
  • Ways to improve cooperation between the engineering and manufacturing functions

Brainstorming is a powerful, yet simple and extremely effective technique to get people on a creative roll when the goal is to identify lots of ideas (i.e. storm a topic). However, brainstorming is not the right tool if alternatives have already been formulated. An effective brainstorming session requires good planning and facilitation. There are four main areas you need to consider when planning a brainstorming session.

The Environment

The location of the brainstorming session is important to ensure the stage is set for productivity. Ideally, the room should be at least a little removed from the daily routine so that distractions are minimized. There must be enough space for participants to move around, sit comfortably and have some workspace.

Be sure to select a time when the participants won’t be tired, preoccupied, or anxious. Monday mornings, Friday afternoons and prior to a holiday are probably not the best times for a brainstorming session! And try to keep the session to no more than an hour to keep the energy levels high. When idea generation slows significantly, let everyone take a 10-minute break to refresh. If necessary, plan on two sessions with some time between for ideas to percolate.

The People

Invite a variety of people who are willing to participate and have differing perspectives, knowledge and experiences. Be careful when inviting the “boss”. Make sure they understand that their role is similar to all the other participants in the session. Try to steer them away from sitting at the head of the table because if they play too dominant a part, their subordinates present may be more concerned about looking good than generating ideas.

Try to enlist both a facilitator and a scribe. If one person tries to perform both, they could easily become a bottleneck. The facilitator’s job is to keep the session on track and keep the ideas flowing. The scribe must accurately and completely capture the free-flowing ideas as they come up. Both roles are so important to the session’s success that having them separate is critical.

The Goals

Make the purpose of the brainstorming session clear and give sufficient notice prior to the meeting so that people can prepare. You want to encourage everyone to contribute so let them know that you want maximum creativity. All ideas, no matter how silly or unrealistic, are wanted. The facilitator may even set a numeric goal of new ideas for the session and challenge the group to meet it.

The Process

The substance of the brainstorming session is generating the ideas but this can be difficult for people to start. Consider starting the session out with an icebreaker—a simpler problem to brainstorm about so people can get used to the techniques and loosen up. A problem like “What new features could we add to improve a motorcycle?” Take only 15 minutes or less for the exercise then jump into the real problem you are meeting about.

Organizational support

Support comes in two flavors—philosophical (emotional buy-in) and tangible (cash, capital, people). We need both for our project to achieve results. When the organization's politics, culture, or "the way we've always done it" mentality get in the way of stakeholder support everything gets more difficult. Work takes longer, decisions require more effort and take more time, approvals get delayed, and access to resources dry up. If your project is one that will require extensive stakeholder support, build into your project plan the work necessary to obtain support. Ask your Project Sponsor for their help in garnering support. Nurture the relationship with your sponsor by educating and engaging her/him on topics likely to be controversial to stakeholders. Make sure you and your Project Sponsor are a united front.

During the session, you’ll see periods of intense activity and periods of silence. Quiet can be a time of thinking and connecting the dots for some people but don’t let it go for too long. To get the ideas flowing again, the facilitator can use some methods to fire people back up:

  • Read aloud every third idea captured so far
  • Pick one idea at random and ask for its’ opposite
  • Ask if you had a million dollars to fix this problem, what would you do?
  • Throw out a couple crazy ideas of their own that haven’t been mentioned yet

To wrap up the brainstorming session go through the ideas and combine and group similar ones. Be sure to thank the session participants for their help and share the list and final decision with them.

Check out these resources for ideas:

Relevant Quotes:

    A moment’s insight is sometimes worth a life’s experience. (Oliver Wendell Holmes)
    If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it. (Albert Einstein)
    Minds are like parachutes, they only function when they are open. (Sir James Dewar)
    All great truths begin as blasphemies. (George Bernard Shaw)

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