We Need to Talk about Brainstorming

It works, but only if you let it.

One of the most rewarding moments of my career thus far came halfway into a brainstorming meeting at an early stage startup. The room was made up largely of analysts and sales people who seemed to cringe when I kicked off the day with guided breathing and almost squirmed out of their seats when the art supplies came out.

When we came to a sharing exercise I finally heard it. The familiar phrase seemed to preface every pitch:

“I’m not a creative person, but…”

The tension in the air wasn’t about the meeting at all. It came from years of my teammates thinking and being told they weren’t “creative” (whatever the hell that means).

From then on I changed my tactics to be less about squeezing ideas out of the room and more focused on creating an environment where anyone could free to say whatever they wanted. I hope something here helps you in your next brainstorming endeavor.

Do your homework

You’re about to take hours upon hours from your coworkers’ calendars. That’s a pretty huge ask, no matter what size company you’re in. Respect it. Make sure you’re prepared before the meeting.

Have an agenda

Leading a brainstorming meeting is a bit of a tight rope walk. You need to ensure the conversation stays on track, while also creating space for people to get a little into the weeds. I’ve found simply assigning time limits to exercises is often enough to keep things moving.

Consider starting out with some sort of exercise. This can be as simple as a few seconds of guided breathing or as complex as a design brief (e.g. “design a logo for a phony food truck”). Do something that gets people thinking a little differently and, more importantly, gets their minds off whatever is happening outside of the room.

Have some house rules

Nothing can kill any meeting faster than the metallic rattling of email notifications. There seems to be something triggered deep in our psyche when another human picks up their phone which can only be cured by opening our own. Avoid it all with a “no screens” policy. You’ll be amazed at the increased focus.

Some of the rules I typically use in brainstorming meetings

Have a clearly stated goal

In my opinion the biggest reason brainstorming fails as an idea generation tactic is a lack of focus. I’m not very good at darts, but I’m significantly better when I can at least see the bullseye. Don’t waste your team’s time. Make sure you’re focused on the right thing.

Start from a single problem

“What should we work on next?” will never be the precursor to a successful brainstorm. It’s vague and unfocused.

Try to start from a problem instead.

“Enterprise users feel our app doesn’t offer value outside of the office”
“20something tourists want to explore new cities like locals, but don’t know where to look.”

Good problems both focus and inspire a team.

Make it the focal point

Start the meeting by reading the goal out loud. Print it out. Paint it on the wall. Do whatever you have to do to keep this top-of-mind.

The problem should be the filter which holds the entire room accountable. Set this precedent at the onset and use it to gauge whether the conversation is staying on topic.

Moderate like a boss

Leading a brainstorming session can be a bit counterintuitive, especially when you’re used to being the idea person.

Don’t stop momentum

Every idea is a springboard for another. This is why it’s so important to create a space where people feel free to vocalize their half baked hypotheses. Keep it moving by building off of their ideas rather than presenting too many of your own.

There’s a pretty simple rule of thumb here: contribute far more questions than you do ideas.

Reward stupidity

Understand not everyone will feel comfortable at first with the idea of freely shouting out crazy ideas. Make an effort to recognize when someone goes out on a limb.

A simple “I love that” can go a long way.

Go-to maneuvers

Silence can be scary, but it isn’t always a bad thing. Here are a few things to keep in your back pocket:

Revisit earlier ideas. Having a hard time keeping up momentum? Go back to an earlier idea. This is a great way for you as a moderator to nudge the conversation in a favored direction without killing the flow.

Turn the problem on its head. So simple. So effective.

Let’s say your team is focused on creating an amazing e-commerce experience. Ask “what’s the worst online shopping experience you’ve ever had?” Coming at the problem from this new and more relatable point of view will change the way you think about the solution.

Play with Constraints. Nothing forces creativity like censorship.

What if we only had a $100 budget? 
What if we had no budget? 
What if we launched Android first?
What if we only had one month?
What if everyone attending the event was gluten free?

Approaching the problem from a different perspective can yield some astounding results

Keaton Price is a product designer and creative director. He also leads a product design team at WeWork.