Where is your business headed? Better yet, where do you want to drive it? And how do you create the appropriate road map to get there? It can be tough to focus on these questions, let alone answer them, when mired in the usual deluge of daily urgent topics and other squeaky wheels. And when you do make time for them, how do you ensure you have the appropriate perspectives to provide input towards forming the important answers? Challenges abound, and one tool to address them is not a new one – brainstorming. Brainstorming can be a productive tactic to address complex issues when performed effectively. Here are 6 tips for productive brainstorming sessions you may want to consider.
1. Set a focused topic:
Free-for-all, meandering discussions do not yield productive brainstorming. It can be easy to think of brainstorming as unstructured, “anything goes” discussion. This is misguided. A productive brainstorming session is structured around a particular challenge, problem to be solved, or need for improvement in your business. The participants are informed about the topic in advance and are provided adequate time to prepare. And the session is scheduled. This doesn’t mean that “out of the box” thinking and collaborating are not encouraged – the brainstorming session should of course be fun. However, a clearly focused topic and scheduled time will help to make the most out of the energy and effort the participants put into the meeting.
2. Set a time frame and stick to it
Just as important as having a focus for the session is making a scheduled time for it. This means scheduling the session in advance and defining a clear start and stop time for the meeting. When people come to the session prepared, they will be able to contribute from the beginning — there will be little time spent inefficiently on bringing people “up to speed” on the challenge to be discussed. When a clear time limit is communicated, participants will be able to focus on the issue at hand and put thought and energy into their contributions with less distraction.
3. Leave hierarchies at the door (you can pick them back up as you exit)
When the boss is in the room, it is often natural for people to tense up and look to her or him for “the answers”. This may be the most challenging aspect of a productive brainstorming session to achieve. But it can also be the key factor to success. Do as much as you can to help participants feel free of the titles and hierarchies of the organization in the brainstorming session. It should be encouraged to challenge notions and preconceptions of others in the group, regardless of their “rank” in the organization. Contributors with lower positions on the org chart may often bring fresh insights to a business challenge when provided a safe venue to share their thoughts.
4. Consider inviting an outside perspective
Invite outsiders to a brainstorming meeting if possible. This can mean bringing in a member of a different department. For example, a sales person could provide different perspectives to brainstorming about an operational or logistics challenge. An accountant may think about a marketing problem in a different way than the members of the marketing department. Even consider bringing in someone from outside your organization completely. This could be a consultant in your industry, or an advisor from a completely different line of business. An outside perspective can often help to generate ideas that people close to the department or organization may not. Sometimes an outside perspective can help us to see the forest despite all those trees.
5. Consider inviting an external facilitator
This tip is an outgrowth of tips 1 – 4 above. There are external resources who can come in to help facilitate and structure the brainstorming session. This helps all participants stay on topic (#1), keep track of time (#2), and mitigate the effects of having the boss in the room (#3). Additionally, an external facilitator may also be able to participate and offer different insights (#4). While not necessary for productive brainstorming, it can sometimes be very useful to include a facilitator from outside the organization.
6. Determine next steps
You’ve focused on a particular challenge, involved various perspectives, checked your title at the door, and had a fun time collaborating in the brainstorming session. Now what? Don’t let those notes just dry on the whiteboard. Pick up the titles, functional roles, and hierarchies and make sure that the next steps for all participants are clear. Set deadlines for what needs to be done next. Determine and communicate the appropriate actions for those items you decided to “park” in the brainstorming session. Get things done from the brainstorming meeting to address the challenge you and your team put your time and energy into discussing. Now is the time to execute.
Brainstorming sometimes gets a bad rap. Just getting some people in a room on a Friday afternoon to chat about random ideas for the business is not effective brainstorming. Productive brainstorming requires planning, discipline, multiple perspectives, and follow through. Instituting these tips in your future brainstorming sessions may just help you to make the time more productive.
What tips do you have? Please share them in a comment to this article or contact me directly.