14 Ways to Brainstorm More Effectively

To help you ensure a productive creative session we consulted brainstorming facilitators Jim Ferry of Boston Innovation Group (B.I.G.) in Weston, MA, and Brody Hartman of Hartman Communications in San Francisco. The offered 14 tips for how to juice-up your next idea meeting:

Do your homework. Sometimes brainstorming sessions will be spontaneous, 15-minute spurts, where your group will churn out many ideas in a small amount of time. But when you’re going to be involved in more formal brainstorming situations, collect research and information ahead of time so you can have it at your fingertips during the session. Be like the proverbial Boy Scout—come prepared.

Construct a safe, creative environment. The brainstorming setting should be a place where people are comfortable speaking their minds.

Create a level playing field. Enable brainstormers to leave their other tasks behind. Consider beginning with breathing exercises or stretching. This physical activity separates what’s happening in the brainstorming room from what was going on when the team members left their offices.

Focus. Brainstorming is not just a process of “coming up with some wild ideas.” The group’s target must be well-defined. “When you have a task to develop a new food, you may get blank stares from the room,” Ferry explains. “Refine that task to developing a new snack food, and people start to generate ideas. If you narrow the task even further to a new snack food for kids, the room starts to buzz with talk of dinosaurs and interesting shapes. You’d never get to dinosaurs unless you limited the task to a well-focused, manageable target.” While the discussion wanders, keep an eye (and ear) on its direction, so you can control where it’s heading.

Have the right people in the room. Invite staff members who aren’t too close to the problem being discussed. Make sure someone represents the client—either employees of the client company or someone from your team who is tuned into the client’s needs and desires. Remember, the room shouldn’t just be packed with creative types. Throw some noncreatives into the mix, too. Sometimes a firm’s accountants or administrators are closet creatives who might blossom in an environment where they can exhibit their latent creativity.

Listen to what people say. Remember that your brainstorming members aren’t simply designers or project directors or administrators; they’re also pianists and painters and parents and travelers and readers. Draw on the group’s richness; tap into their nonwork world. Great ideas can spring from topics of interest to them.

Watch the quiet people. Often they’re the ones jotting down notes on paper. Their ideas might be great, but their reserved personalities might prevent them from speaking up.

Remain objective. When you’re running the session, you can’t be involved in the outcome. You’ll get nowhere if you keep tripping over your own ego or personal agenda.

Eliminate negative thinking. Welcome all ideas and extinguish any attempt to brand an idea as “bad.” Brainstormers need to feel like they can share whatever idea comes to mind without having to defend it or fear it will immediately be shot down. Don’t let members get too judgmental too fast. Squelch responses like “We can’t do that” or “We tried that eight years ago and it failed.” Those comments stymie creativity. Record all ideas and move on. Don’t allow too much “airtime” for any person on the team.

Actively manage the group. Members should remain present for the entire session (no coming and going) and be mutually committed to maintaining group energy.

Offer creative distractions. Incorporate a variety of exercises that promote creative thinking. Stimulate the brainstormers with magazines, books and visual aids relevant to the task at hand.

Consider a change of location. Off-site meetings can liberate people’s minds, eliminating their persistent thoughts of email and voicemail messages piling up. Keep in mind, however, that the most important element in the room is energy. A poor location can be overcome if the energy level in the room is maintained.

Remember the task at hand. The objective of a brainstorming session is to get ideas to the surface. Productive sessions usually result in the raw material that must later be molded and crafted into shape. Rarely do final ideas come from the brainstorming session.

Review the results at a later date. For ideas to work, they must survive more than one brainstorming session. An idea that sounds brilliant one day might appear trite the next. Allow time for the soak-in process, when members can consider an idea from a fresh perspective in a more removed environment.

HOW June 1999