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How to Facilitate a Brainstorming Session that Gets Great Results

A team having a productive brainstorming session
The Robin Team
Published on

If you’re in charge of coming up with the next big idea, these tips on how to facilitate a brainstorming session will make your life a bit easier. Here are strategies for a brainstorming meeting to get the creative results you’re after.

Without careful planning, brainstorming sessions run the risk of wasting everyone’s time if they’re not well managed. Put these tactics to work for you and you’ll leave the meeting room with actionable, innovative ideas.

Before the meeting begins, get people thinking

“A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.”- John le Carré

This novelist with a prior career at the British MI6 is right. You'll stifle creativity if you limit it to the everyday work space. A change of setting can inspire thinking in new ways. Encourage people to come up with ideas before the brainstorming session and give them space to spend some time outside the office. Or, if you have breakout spaces, they might find inspiration there.

See what meeting rooms look like, so you can actually find breakout spaces.

If people are apprehensive because they believe only artists and writers are creative, they might get some courage by watching Emily Gilbert's TED talk.

Creativity can hit anywhere -- in the midst of a Netflix binge, while cutting an onion, crossing the street, or at the very bottom of a bag of tortilla chips. So give people’s ideas a chance to appear at unexpected times and places.Instead of trying to force creativity with a surprise brainstorming session, plant the seed and allow some time before your team meets. Give people enough information with your invite so they can bring ideas to the meeting instead of starting from scratch. This will get the ball rolling and boost productivity.

When sending the meeting invite, choose carefully

Quantity matters in brainstorming. Who you have in the room to generate those ideas matters, too. It makes sense to invite people directly involved with the brainstorming subject. Don’t stop there. Also invite “outsiders.”Fresh input is an important ingredient. The more ideas you have to work with, the better. Add diversity to the room by including people from different groups whether by gender or generation, level of introversion/extroversion or nationality. A wide perspective of people generating ideas will net you a larger variety of results.

When you set up the room, a circle beats a square

A circle beats a square for brainstorming tables

Round tables are notorious for eliminating hierarchy (think King Arthur) and encouraging equal discussion. In a successful brainstorming session, everyone’s ideas matter. Set up your room with a round table or position tables in a circle. You’ll send an instant signal that you want to hear from everyone.

Your room arrangement can stifle creativity, or keep the creative juices flowing. Cut the corners and go with a circle to feed the brainstorming buzz. When you do, you’ll not only do away with a seating hierarchy, you’ll set the stage for more efficient communication. Sharing outside-of-the-box, diverse ideas and giving input is easier when people face each other. You’ll also reduce the opportunity for social loafing -- everyone contributes because people can’t hide in a corner.

Yes, even creative sessions need rules

The central rule to an effective brainstorming session is to scrap judgments. There’s no faster way to snuff out creativity than to make people feel self-conscious. This doesn’t mean an idea can't be tossed around for comment, it just needs to happen carefully.

Set ground rules for the meeting in your agenda or via a quick email. When people enter the room, they’ll be in the mindset of positive feedback. Rely on the trusted rule of saying “Yes and” instead of “No” or “Yes but.” You may need to hold the line as your brainstorming session gets under way. If you need to remind people what types of feedback are most productive, do so. Nip negativity in the bud.

A team sitting around brainstorming ideas

Set a timer

You’re busy. So is your team. You won’t make any final decisions in your brainstorming session, but you will get the thought process rolling. Set a timer so you don’t get sucked into a creative vortex and spend more time than you anticipate coming up with new ideas. Make your session long enough to allow ideas to flow, but dragging it out can cut down on creativity.

Decide how many ideas you want

Brainstorming is about quantity first then quality. You want great ideas, but you also need many to choose from. Before the meeting begins, decide how many ideas you want from your team. No need for a hard number, but know your minimum and know when you have enough. As each person rattles off their brilliant suggestions, number them so you keep track of how many ideas you have. Start by collecting a minimum of three from each person.


When you facilitate a brainstorming session, go in order

This meeting might be designed to inspire creativity but that doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice order. Don’t catch people off guard. Go around the room in a circular, orderly fashion so it’s clear who your team should pay attention to and whose turn it is to speak. People feed off each other in brainstorming, so one person’s idea might inspire a new one from somebody else. Remind people to capture those thoughts.

By writing them down, they’ll be ready to share when their time to speak comes up. Here’s another approach to building upon existing ideas:As you go around the room, give others a chance to feed off an idea and add suggestions to it before moving to the next person’s new idea. Avoid critique of ideas at this stage. This strategy is about expanding creative ideas not picking them apart.

Write everything down

How to capture all ideas when you facilitate a brainstorming session

Yes, everything. Facilitating a brainstorming session means you need to document. If you’re brainstorming a name for your new project management app and someone suggests “test tube,” go with it. It might not seem to make sense now but it could spark other ideas from the group. Write it down.

As your session progresses, people may want to refer back to earlier ideas. Now that you have them noted, nothing gets lost.While we’re on the note of accepting each suggestion, let your team know this is the expectation. Don’t waste time dissecting ideas. Instead, use them as creative fuel.

After the brainstorming session, share the results

Session done. You jotted down a lot of ideas and can call the meeting a success. Share them with your team to help them mull over the best suggestions from the session. Invite them to add to the list. You might be surprised by the new ideas sparked by these suggestions.

Schedule a follow up meeting

You’re not going to make any decisions during a brainstorming session. It's the first step in an ongoing process. Let the brilliance of your team soak in for a few days before you bring them together to make any decisions. After you give people time to gather their ideas for feedback, book a follow up meeting. In this meeting, have people try on different “thinking hats” so they can approach each idea from different perspectives.

The follow up is when productive criticism comes into play. Set ground rules for this meeting, too. When you facilitate a brainstorming session, it’s a process. Stick to your facilitator role and encourage feedback, but prevent people from blasting others’ ideas. Creating a positive culture of brainstorming. If people think their ideas will be tossed into the arena among gladiators, they might shirk from contributing in future sessions.

If you’re facilitating a brainstorming session because you’re on the verge of creating a new product, you’ll want to read this - a little encouragement to keep you energized and focused.

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