How to help other people have ideas

No one has said anything for about 30 seconds. Not since the guy next to you spluttered out his thoughts, all hedges and apologies. He looks relieved. Job done. The rest of the room is shuffling awkwardly, heads bowed looking for inspiration from their shoes, the carpet, or maybe just praying for it. 5 bright post-its cling to the vast white wall, unhelpful scrawls across them. One of them peels slowly from the wall, flutters to the floor. “Come on guys,” comes a voice, “you must have some ideas.”

Having ideas is hard.

Having good ideas is even harder.

And while almost everyone agrees that collaboration is a good thing, cross-functional ideation workshops (brainstorms for the less jargon-minded) can still cause an involuntary groan when your invite lands in a teammates’ inbox.

But, run effectively, these sessions can be some of the most productive, energising and inspiring hours you’ll ever spend at work. This is your time to go big, to spark the next evolution of your company, your product, your marketing or any other topic you feed into the fray.

These tips will help you draw out ideas from a wide range of people, so your idea generation sessions are the most effective, productive and positive experiences they can be.

I feel bad for starting with such an obvious one. It has to be mentioned, but I won’t labour it.

You’re trying to solve a problem or come up with ideas, so it helps to get as many different perspectives as possible. Invite people from sales, marketing, customer support, delivery. If you have a physical presence, invite staff from your stores. Each will have a unique view on the problem.

Saying ‘yes’ accepts the idea. Saying ‘and’ builds on it.

Explain the rules

Creativity from constraints is a whole other topic, but a few well chosen rules can really make the difference in a group session. Set them out at the start of the workshop and get verbal agreement, or better yet, get the participants to come up with some themselves. Here are some of my favourites, variations on the ‘no such thing as a bad idea in a brainstorm’ rule, but more actionable:

Build on every idea (‘yes and…’)
After someone contributes an idea, the next person’s to speak should begin, ‘yes and…’. It’s an old improv comedy technique and it really helps in idea generation as it really creates a mentality shift in the room.

(You can also use the ‘yes and…’ game as a warm up before the session to really bring it home for people. See this:

Saying ‘yes’ accepts the idea. Saying ‘and’ builds on it. You only want to hear ‘yes and’, never ‘yes but’ and never ever, ‘no’. Which leads nicely to…

Don’t edit in the room
This is especially neccessary in cross-functional workshops where, for every idea a marketing guy has, there’s a delivery girl who can see 10 different problems with it. Just capture the idea, put it up, build on it, and move on.

All ideas are equal
Sometimes, people turn up to a workshop with what they think is the answer in their minds. It might be a pet idea or just something they’ve been thinking about for a while, but that person can make it their mission to steer the group towards their idea.

In my sessions, all ideas are equal. You get that person’s idea on the wall, you build on it, you move on. Sure, it might be the answer, and you might come back to it after the session and decide that’s the one to pursue. But the whole point of bringing these people together is to push past our initial ideas, get new perspectives and come up with a ton of ideas.

The ideas belong to everyone
Putting ideas out into a room full of people is a scary thing. Ideas are personal, and if someone doesn’t like our idea, we can take it hard. Establishing up front that the ideas belong to everyone takes the ego out of the equation, it stops people getting defensive about their ideas and it makes others more likely to build on them and make them the best ideas they can be.

As a facilitator, your role is more than just capturing the ideas and making sure everyone gets a chance to speak. You are responsible for setting the bar for which the rest of the group is aiming. If you put out ideas which are incremental improvements, the group will follow suit. If you suggest huge, ground breaking, borderline unthinkably future facing ideas, your team will know that’s what they’re shooting for and will hit it.

You are responsible for setting the bar for which the rest of the group is aiming.

Wondering where the right level is? Bigger than that. In brainstorms, it’s your job as a facilitator to keep on pushing the ideas until they’re as big as they can be. ‘Yes and… Yes and… Yes and…” You can always make them more realistic later, outside of the session.

“OK, we need ideas on how to grow our market share with young mothers. Go!”

If a group of people stand in a room with nothing but the problem in front of them, the session can quickly falter. Creating something from nothing is incredibly difficult to do, so you need to prepare for the session with lots of material to stimulate ideas.

What have other companies done? What insights do we have on our target market? How would Google tackle this problem? How would we solve this if we were Google? How would we solve this if we only had £1,000 budget? How will this problem be solved in 100 years time?

Having a bank of pre-prepared questions, stimulus and exercises can keep a brainstorm moving. Gamestorming is an excellent resource for idea generation exercises. The more material you feed in, the more ideas you will get out. And these sessions are about generating lots of ideas.

Be prepared for participants to follow up the session with even better ideas than those they contributed in the session. In the classic ‘A Technique For Producing Ideas’, James W. Young recommends researching a subject thoroughly, completely immersing yourself in it and then going and doing something completely different. While you focus on another task, your subconcious digests the material and ideas begin to form. It can be days later, in the shower or cleaning the car, when inspiration rears its head. You have to be open to receiving ideas outside of the targeted session.

While James W. Young’s method for having ideas will work for some people, it won’t work for everyone. Some people talk themselves into an idea. Some people stay very quiet, and chip it in at the last moment. Some people are idea machines, churning out 10 ideas a minute, while others want to form an idea more carefully before sharing. With your diverse group, you have to allow for all these different personalities to get the most out of everyone in the room.

Break up the session with solo work or introduce drawing to change the pace and control the energy in the room

Break the group into smaller groups and pitch ideas back. Work solo for a while. Introduce drawing. Ask people to only combine ideas. There are a load of different ways to control the energy and the pace and make sure that everyone can be effective in the session.

Changing up the style isn’t just a way to include everyone, it can also be a good way of unblocking a stuttering session. As a facilitator, it’s important to make the group feel like they’re moving forward, not in circles. While it’s fine to spend some time eeking out the last few ideas from a discussion, coming up against a wall can kill the energy and the flow of ideas.

Sometimes getting even the first ideas out can be hard, particularly for more introverted team members. A good solution is to spend the first 5 minutes with everyone writing their ideas on post-its, then talking through them on the wall to break the reluctance to be the first person to put themselves out there.

Having ideas is hard and having good ideas is harder. Hopefully these tips will encourage you to get your team together to tackle hard problems and help you to unlock their ideas. The more ideas you generate in a session, the more likely you are to get good ideas out of it. Then your only problem is choosing which to pursue. But that is a much better problem to have.

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I help companies build the right product for their customers at Market Gravity and run cross-functional, creative ideation workshops week-in, week-out for the biggest companies in the UK.

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I help companies build the right products for their customers. I also run.

I help companies build the right products for their customers. I also run.