How to Conduct an Effective Brainstorming Meeting
Brainstorming is an essential part of moving a team or an organization forward. It helps teams solve problems and create visions together, rather than having a single person dictating an approach. Brainstorming leads to more robust solutions and a more motivated team. The lack of brainstorming meetings can lead to a continuation of the status quo, which in turn can lead to a decrease in morale.
I worked in a corporate environment for eight years and was a manager for five years. In that time I have been a part of brainstorming meetings that were productive and produced valuable next steps. I have also been involved in meetings in which the conversations were one sided, boring and disengaged.
In that corporate environment, I worked on a software development team. The brainstorming topics were diverse: product vision, team vision, organizational structure, software design, project management techniques, problem solving, etc. What I learned is that the preparation involved in creating a conducive brainstorming meeting is the same, even if the topics vary wildly from one meeting to the next.
Before the meeting
The battle for a great brainstorming session starts days or even weeks before the meeting begins. The people I wanted to include in my meetings were busy thinking about the dozen or so tactical items that were on their plates. They didn't have time to think about the strategic changes I wanted to brainstorm about. The worst brainstorming meetings occur when the people involved show up without having given any thought to the topic. Unfortunately, this occurs more often than not.
Bad brainstorming meetings usually take one of two paths. The first path is the uncaring audience. This is a meeting where no one, except for the organizer, cares about the topic or the meeting. The people involved will wait until the organizer describes the solution that they have been thinking about and then will either unobtrusively agree or shoot it down in any way possible with high level negative assumptions. The second path is the idea barrage. In these meetings, people throw out high level solutions and ideas that are not thought through. Though on the surface this may seem like an engaged session, it usually does not lead to followup and action.
The battle for a great brainstorming session starts days or even weeks before the meeting begins.
To avoid unconducive meetings, the organizer must put in effort to get brainstorming participants to think about the topic before the meeting occurs. I have seen this done in many ways and have also tried a few tactics myself. The first step the organizer must take is to set up the meeting and inform the participants of what the topic and goals of the brainstorming session will be. Though, this can be done through an email, it is best done in person when you have people's full attention.
Once the parameters of the discussion are disseminated, hopefully people will think about it on their own. Wrong! If at all, most people will wait until the last possible moment to think about the topic. A simple and effective way to get people to think about the topic beforehand is to discuss it with them one on one. I have accomplished this by discussing the topic in regularly scheduled one on one meetings with my team and also through casual coffee breaks away from my desk.
Wait a minute! Isn't the point of a brainstorming meeting to discuss the topic? Why talk about it beforehand? The goal of a brainstorming meeting is to have discourse on a subject that participants have already formulated opinions about, with the goal of working through issues and merging ideas into a common path forward. Early discussion helps to get people thinking. Questions can be asked to reveal depth within the topic. Early solution ideas can be shared, giving participants a base to compare their own ideas against, evaluate merits, and find issues. By the time the brainstorming meeting comes around, the participants may agree with an idea they have already heard and throw their weight behind it or may have an idea of their own that they think is a better fit.
Getting people to think about the topic before a meeting can also help avoid pack mentality, where people who have not thought about something for very long throw their weight behind the first good idea they hear.
The goal of a brainstorming meeting is to have discourse on a subject that participants have already formulated opinions about, with the goal of working through issues and merging ideas into a common path forward.
In the meeting
Successful brainstorming meetings are like the card game “War”. The game of “War” is predetermined once the cards are shuffled and dealt. The game itself is an exercise in revealing predestined outcomes. If a brainstorming meeting goes well, then it too can be thought of as just revealing predestined outcomes. People will be coming into the meeting fully loaded with ideas and having thought of pitfalls and problems. They will abandon their ideas or amend them based on direct comparisons to other people’s ideas.
To keep the meeting productive, I have found that it is best to start by reiterating the topic, problems, and goals that the group is focusing on. Then, before starting to discuss everyone's ideas, I like to go through an exercise of discussing and agreeing on the criteria with which we will measure an idea. For example, if we are discussing ways to enhance how we manage projects, we may agree that we can measure a proposed solution by how it improves communication and quickens time to market. This will allow different ideas to be compared easily, which will reduce arbitrary back and forth, especially if one idea clearly fits the goals better than another.
When participants are sharing ideas, it is important to discuss them thoroughly, comparing the idea directly against the goals and hearing each participant's opinion before moving on. Ideas should also be compared to the current favorite idea. This will allow the group to pick a best idea after each is shared so that there is only one considered at a time rather than having many possible solutions in mind, which can confuse the conversation.
After the meeting
A brainstorming meeting should end with an idea that can be actioned and tested. It is important that a single person takes ultimate responsibility for the actioning of the idea. That action should also have an agreed upon timeframe and a follow up date to review whether it is achieving its goals. I have seen great brainstorming meetings fail because no one takes away the responsibility of implementing the idea.
Successful brainstorming requires a lot of work and preparation. It is difficult because it requires participants to take themselves out of their daily work and think critically about the future. However, it is worth the effort. I have seen it transform the way an organization is run and the products that it produces. Without progress and change a group will inevitably become antiquated.
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