Skills 360 – Facilitating a Brainstorming Session 1

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Hello and welcome back to the Skills 360 podcast. I’m your host, Tim Simmons, and today I want to look at how to run an effective brainstorming session.

Every company uses brainstorming sessions to generate ideas and solve problems. But do all brainstorming sessions generate good ideas? Does everyone leave a brainstorming session feeling like they accomplished something? Well, that often depends on the facilitator. And if you are the one to run the show, there are several things you need to think about.

First comes good preparation. People need to head into a brainstorming session with a good idea about what they’re supposed to be talking about. So if you’re going to be running the session, don’t keep the topic a mystery. Email everyone well in advance. Make sure people come with a head full of ideas. If they don’t know what they’ll be doing until they arrive, they may not be as prepared.

Now, what happens when you start that meeting, when everyone’s assembled and your job is to get things going? Well, you need to set the stage for a productive session, and one great way to do that is to set some ground rules. You might want to create a list of your own that includes things like “turn off cell phones” and “no judgment.” Or you might want to let the group brainstorm their own list. Let them determine what guidelines will ensure they feel safe and free to share ideas.

Either way, you should write these guidelines down and display them for everyone to see. But remember, good brainstorming happens when people feel creative, free, and happy, so don’t get too hard-nosed or serious by making a bunch of “rules.”

Once you’ve got some guidelines, now you can pose the question or topic for the group. Right at the beginning, make sure you’re encouraging and setting a positive tone. When someone produces an idea, respond with “Fantastic, thanks Ron, let’s put that up here…” That helps create the right mood, and hopefully soon ideas will start flowing more freely. Once they do, don’t interfere. Your job is to record, and to maintain the energy. Keep praising people with comments like “Great stuff Nora” and “Right on Wayne.”

Okay, but sometimes people don’t express things perfectly clearly. And when this happens, you need to get some clarification. You can do this in a couple of ways. You can straight-up ask for explanation, like this, “All right Todd, thanks. Can you explain what you mean a bit more?” Notice that we are still thanking and praising.

You can also try restating what the person said to test an interpretation. For example, you could say something like, “Okay Todd, thanks. So you’re saying that we need to hire more staff? Is that right?” Either way, don’t get too bogged down in explanation. You just want things to be clear enough that everyone knows basically what’s being suggested.

Now, one of the most important principles of brainstorming is that we should separate idea generation from idea evaluation. So producing ideas and judging them are done separately. Brainstorming is all about the former, not the latter. So when someone says something like “I don’t know Todd, that probably wouldn’t help at this point,” you need to step in. But you should do it diplomatically, like this, “Okay Todd, let’s just focus on getting the ideas out for now and later we can take a closer look, sound good?” What happens when people start evaluating ideas? They stop flowing. And that’s not what we want.

It doesn’t matter how bad, silly, or crazy the ideas are. Keep the energy going, keep praising the participants, and keep writing things down. Those bad, silly, or crazy ideas can spark better, saner, more realistic ideas. And at the end of the day, the more ideas there are, the better. And you can move on to evaluating, paring down, and choosing later.

So remember, stay positive, keep the energy flowing, praise the participants, and don’t let people get too critical. If you can achieve all this, you’ll have a great brainstorming session. Of course, getting people to talk is not always easy. Tune in next time and you’ll hear some tips for getting things going and some help with the evaluation stage.

That’s all for today. So long. And see you again soon.