How to lead productive brainstorming meetings
We've all attended brainstorms that feel like a flood of ideas, but that ultimately lead to nothing. This article helps leaders to master brainstorming meetings so that this energy translates into tangible actions and real change.
Creativity is often an underplayed strength in the corporate arena. When the bottom line needs to be looked after, or costs are out of control, it is easy to default to 'logos' rather than 'pathos' in response.
However, the irony here is that a strong dose of creativity could be exactly what leaders need in order to rise to their challenges, and overcome the obstacles that are thrown their way. According to research conducted by McKinsey, 67% of companies with higher creativity reported above-average organic revenue growth1. Brainstorming meetings can help you to kick-start this creativity.
Now, we've all attended brainstorms that feel like a flood of ideas, an explosion of energy, but that ultimately lead to nothing. No clear actions, no tangible outcomes, and no accountability for setting things in motion. In order to fully benefit from brainstorming meetings, we need to grasp the subject matter with both hands, put structures in place, and allow for the creativity to flow within the confines of a regimented approach.
This article helps leaders to master brainstorming so that this energy translates into meaningful actions, real change, and effective solutions.
What is a brainstorming meeting?
Some of the best creativity the world has ever seen took place in groups. When The Beatles converged in the 1960s to write music, their unique blend of ideas, personalities, and experiences delivered some of the best songs ever written.
The same happens in corporate contexts. When multiple people come together to solve problems, through shared creativity, they can achieve the unimaginable. The process of convening as a group to produce ideas is called brainstorming.
For leaders, brainstorming is a powerful way to encourage teams to compose their own 'Eleanor Rigbys', and collaborate creatively on problem-solving. However, without proper structure and processes in place, brainstorming can very quickly become a waste of time.
In the next section, we explore how to lead productive brainstorming meetings, so that leaders can realise the full creative potential that exists in their teams.
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Effective brainstorming methods
1. Keep it short
The downfall of many brainstorming meetings is that they run on for too long. In the absence of clear objectives, or adept leadership, it is easy for discussions to spiral and for the sessions to be side-tracked into different topics, amidst the avalanche of ideas. Therefore, the first golden rule of effective brainstorming meetings is to keep them short. Ideally, less than one hour. If more time is needed, then break the session into two and arrange a second brainstorming meeting with a break in-between. This will keep your brainstorming sessions energised, and having a break in-between can also help ideas to ferment and fresh perspectives to arise.
2. Keep it small
At Amazon, Jeff Bezos has long instituted that meetings should be attended by no more participants than two pizzas would feed. For brainstorming meetings, this should be even smaller. Involving those whose ideas you expressly need is vital here, as it ensures that your brainstorming meeting is a concentrated dose of structured creativity that results in real changes or outcomes. Choosing participants can be challenging, but it is well worth investing the time up front to ensure that there are no passengers during your brainstorming meetings. It is also important to involve stakeholders from different levels of seniority if possible, as good ideas can come from any level within an organisational hierarchy.
3. Keep it clear and focussed
Making sure that objectives of your brainstorming meetings are crystal clear before you start is a vital step in ensuring that you use your meeting time meaningfully. Being certain on what you are convening to discuss, ideate, solve, or overcome helps you to direct conversations and circle back swiftly if discussions meander from the agreed path.
4. Keep it structured
While brainstorming meetings are a hub of creativity, they need to exist within robust structures in order to achieve what you need. Creating an agenda in advance, and circulating it with all participants, not only ensures that the meeting follows a structure, but also gives individuals ample time to prepare and begin the thought processes before the meeting even begins.
5. Keep it light
While the topics being discussed in a brainstorming meeting will likely be important, and have gravitas associated with them, it is important to facilitate your meeting in such a way that enables the creative juices to flow. Keeping things light and creating a sense of psychological safety is vital here - after all, you need to create an ecosystem in which ideas are shared freely and without fear of judgement or opprobrium. If people feel conscious of what they are sharing, you are most certainly missing out on good ideas.
A nice way to keep the tone of your brainstorming meetings lighter is to engage in ice-breaker activities, such as a ‘round robin’ where participants take it in turns to share something unrelated to work. This helps to create an atmosphere of inclusivity, and ensures your meeting starts lightly.
6. Keep it creative
Arguably the most important step in facilitating productive brainstorming meetings is to unleash the creativity of your people. As a leader, there are a number of brainstorming methods at your disposal, which will help you to get the creative juices flowing. These include:
Brainwriting, also known as ‘Crawford Slip Writing’ after C. C. Crawford, who developed the method in 1926, is an effective way to kick-off brainstorming meetings. For between three and five minutes, all participants write down at least three ideas related to the brainstorming topic. At the end of this time, everyone passes their paper to the person on their right, who builds on the ideas that are shared. This process then continues until the papers have made it the whole way around the participants. Participants then discuss them and decide which ideas should be pursued.
As this technique is non-verbal, it alleviates the issue of imbalance in people's contributions, and makes space for everyone (especially those who are more introverted) to participate equally.
b. Reverse Brainstorming
Ordinarily, brainstorming requires participants to solve a problem. Reverse brainstorming does the opposite. It requires participants to come up with creative ways to cause problems. By creating a list of ways to cause the problem you are trying to overcome, you can begin to solve it. Start with the problem in mind, and ask participants "How could we have caused this?" While this may feel counterintuitive at first, it is an effective way of encouraging your brainstorm participants to think about the problem in different ways.
Starbursting is a visual brainstorming technique, which works especially when you have homed in on one specific problem or idea. To begin, place the problem at the centre of a six-point star. Each point represents a different question: who, what, when, where, why, and how. For example, your problem at the centre might be ‘Creating a seasonal marketing campaign’, then you need to consider: who is your audience? What are your messages? When will the campaign launch? Where will your campaign be shared? Why are you doing this in the first place? And how will you make it happen?
This exercise can be done individually and then shared, or it can be done as a group. It is an effective means of broadening the perspective on the problem, and getting your brainstorming participants to consider it from different angles.
d. The Five Whys
The Five Whys is a technique that has applications beyond brainstorming, however it can help stimulate creativity here, too. One of the most simple brainstorming techniques, The Five Whys simply begins with the problem you are addressing and asks ‘Why is this happening?’ Once you have answers, ask ‘Why does this happen?’ and repeat the process until you are five layers deep or more.
This process helps you to explore the root causes of problems in depth.
e. Rapid ideation with Gap Analysis
Some of the best music in history melds genres, and this brainstorming method does the same. By combining the best of ‘rapid ideation’ with ‘gap analysis’ you get a truly powerful approach to brainstorming. Here is how it could work:
Open: Give context to the problem for the group.
5 - 15 Minutes: Participants individually generate as many ideas as possible on post-it notes (or on a Miro board for remote or hybrid meetings)
10 Minutes: Each participant talks through their ideas and posts them on a communal board, with similar ideas grouped together.
10 Minutes: As a group, identify any gaps that exist and agree on a path from where you are now, to where you want to be.
Close: Formulate any outcomes into a roadmap, with actions, responsibilities, and deadlines and share with participants.
Brainstorming meetings: Instrumental in letting the music play
Creativity is critical to success in business, however it often lacks the appropriate direction and opportunities to be expressed. Through brainstorming meetings, leaders can create space for their teams’ creativity to flow, and by using structured brainstorming techniques, it is possible to direct and capture the value that is created as a result.
1 ‘Creativity’s bottom line: How winning companies turn creativity into business value and growth’, M. Brodherson, J. Heller, J. Perrey, and D. Remley, McKinsey, 2017.