How to facilitate better brainstorms

5 mistakes you’re probably making and how to correct them

You round up your brightest, most creative colleagues. Find a mutual time everyone is available. Book the meeting room with the best whiteboard. Nice, we’re golden!

But when meeting time comes around, you have a room full of people staring at each other. Or their phones. You spend most of your time reeling people in from their far off tangents.

An hour, sometimes more, taken out of everyone’s day, only to end up exactly where you started.

Whether it be a brainstorm, a meeting, a focus group session — you name it. We’ve all experienced the dreaded unproductive meeting.

Let’s combat this with some self-awareness. Are you making any of the following common mistakes?

Mistake #1: Starting as a group activity

It’s common to think of brainstorms as a group activity. The problem with that is groupthink. The more vocal or dominant people in the room share their ideas and everyone latches on. The more passive and shy individuals often don’t end up sharing their ideas at all. The discussion is limited, and ideas are carried simply because they were brought up first or by a good talker.

Try this:

  • First, start your brainstorms with a quick individual exercise where everyone generates ideas on their own. Then give everyone a chance to contribute the ideas they just came up with.
  • Afterwards, continue to build on each other’s ideas. Then, converge.

Mistake #2: No agenda

Time is valuable. If you’re hosting a meeting, make sure you outline what’s going on. It’s a little inconsiderate to ask for someone’s time and then waste it by not planning accordingly. Or by going way over the set time. Lack of agenda often leads to lack of flow.

Try this:

  • Before the meeting, send your attendees an outline of all the discussion topics.
  • Pre-estimate how long you believe each topic will take. It’ll give you a good idea of how long you can stay on a topic and when you should start moving discussion to the next agenda item.
  • If you calculate and find out there’s not enough time, that’s your cue to either ditch some agenda items or extend the time of your booking.

Mistake #3: Not establishing roles and objectives

The worst is when you’re in a meeting and have no idea why. It’s also not fun when everyone in the room doesn’t know what you’re all trying to accomplish together. It can get chaotic when everyone is trying to facilitate the meeting together.

Try this:

  • Either in the email invite or at the beginning of the meeting, complete this sentence “We want to walk out of this meeting with ____.” Make sure it’s realistic.
  • At the beginning of the meeting, go through each person in the room and let them know why they’ve been invited. What skills, background, insight, or experience do they bring? This encourages everyone to contribute because you’ve made their input valuable and unique.
  • Can’t think of a reason for one of your attendees? Well, they probably shouldn’t be there in the first place.
  • Don’t forget to include yourself. Stand up and introduce yourself as facilitating the meeting. That way people won’t feel like you’re being bossy when you’re trying to move conversations along or interjecting tangents to get everyone back on track.

Mistake #4: No exercises to generate ideas

You can’t just put people in a room and expect them to do wonders. They need a guide on how to approach whatever it is you’re trying to achieve. Ahem, your meeting objectives. People need to be inspired or provoked to get their brains going.

Try this:

  • Remember doing worksheets in school? These helped to exercise your brain or put your lessons into practice. If you’re running a brainstorm, create a worksheet with creative questions to get everyone thinking outside of the box.

Some of my favourites are:

  • Alien Exercise: Pretend an alien has landed. They’re asking you a bunch of questions about (topic). How you would describe it to them?
  • Sensory Branding: Describe (topic) through your 5 senses

Mistake #5: Not doing your homework

What you put in is what you’ll get out. Avoid wasting valuable time during your meeting getting organized and gathering information. A lot of preparation and research can be done beforehand.

Try this:

  • In the invite email, let your attendees know what information or knowledge you want them to come with to the meeting.
  • Then you can just do a quick overview at the beginning to get everyone on the same page. That time saved can be spent on more useful discussions.
  • It also helps avoid the frequently used “I’ll find out and get back to you”. Instead of prolonging the process, give them a chance to come to the meeting with the answers prepared by communicating the questions that’ll be covered beforehand.

Hopefully by realizing where you might be going wrong, it will help you facilitate more productive meetings. Please share ideas that work well from your experience in the comments below. Thanks for reading!