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Running a successful brainstorming session

This page will outline the processes, materials, management and post-session activities involved in running a successful brainstorming session.

Sections of this page include:
Running the session itself
Ending the session
Post-session work and idea analysis
Previous pages:
How to brainstorm
Rules of brainstorming
Principles of brainstorming
Preparing to run a brainstorming session

Running the session itself

First of all, you should arrive early, prepare the room and feel relaxed within it. Stick the brainstorming rules up in a prominent place. Mentally prepare yourself by running through what you will be doing during the session and remembering that you will be friendly and encouraging at all times.

As the participants arrive, welcome them individually and try to get them talking to each other socially. You are trying to relax everyone and make them feel comfortable with each other. It is very useful if you can introduce people who haven't met each other before. Turn on some peaceful music if you have some.

At the point when everyone has arrived (or most people have, depending on the time), gather everyone together and settle them down in their seats. Welcome them to the brainstorming session and outline the purpose of the session: to get as many ideas as possible on the subject of your choice. Allow people clarification of your intentions but be careful not to suggest specific solutions and try not to place any barriers to solutions at this stage. For now, they should pretend that anything is possible.

Run through the brainstorming rules:
  • Postpone and withhold your judgment of ideas
  • Encourage wild and exaggerated ideas
  • Quantity counts at this stage, not quality
  • Build on the ideas put forward by others
  • Every person and every idea has equal worth
If anyone is new to brainstorming then it is useful if they have a printout of the rules (eg. from this website).

Highlight the importance of the rules. Also explain that the ideas they shout out are both to serve as possible solutions AND to stimulate ideas in other people. You are expecting strange and impossible ideas which will spark off workable solutions. Let them know how much you value weird and bizarre ideas.

If people are new to brainstorming or do not brainstorm very often, it is important to hold a warm-up session to get people "in the mood" and to help them lose their initial inhibitions. One way to do this is to ask people to approach a non-related topic which will not influence anyone in the company. The purpose is to get minds thinking in a flexible and creative way. Typical examples are: "Generating new features for cars" or "Generating new features and gadgets for the kitchen" or "Generating new television programmes". Anything fun, stimulating and, most importantly, not job related. (NB. This website will eventually include lots of warm-up examples and topics for you to use. If you have any suggestions for us please click here and tell us them. )

After warming up for about 5 to 10 minutes, you should reintroduce your main topic for brainstorming.

Open the session proper by asking for as many ideas and suggestions as possible. Write every one of them down. Tell people to write them down on their own pads of paper if they think they will forget before it can be written down "officially".

Then start asking for radical ideas, ideas which will work in a strange way and any ideas which just spring to mind for no apparent reason. Write them all down on the flipcharts. As each piece of paper is filled, remove it from the pad and fasten it to the wall so that everyone can see it.

Remind people to use other people's ideas as a springboard for their own. Get them to read the current ideas and expand on them radically. Change, warp and exaggerate them and see what further ideas come up. What is the strangest way of solving the problem? Occasionally remind people that you want the ordinary ideas too. They should shout out all of their ideas, not only the interesting ones.

Keep telling them how well they are doing when they come up with new ideas, especially when the idea is very weird. Thank them for saying their ideas. Be encouraging. Lightly tell the group off if they criticize or sound shocked at the ideas. Encourage and reward all suggestions, radical or not. Glance from person to person, catching their eye in a pleasant way and smile. Try to speed up the ideas so that there is less time for criticism or evaluation.

Do not call people by their names because this reduces the group bonding. Use "we" when you speak. Let them know that it is a group effort and that you are all responsible for making a helpful and creative environment.

Inevitably there will be awkward silent periods. Try not to highlight this as bad. People need time and space to think. Light conversation to the other participants will help them speak out again and will stop them feeling like they are breaking the silence. Move back to the ideas listed on the flipcharts, pick an interesting one and put that to the group asking them to expand, modify or remodel it. Keep going until the ideas dry up.

After a short period your group will have exhausted their ideas for a while and will need a break. The time this takes could be as little as ten minutes or as much as an hour. Depending on the time you have allocated to the session and depending on the number of ideas generated, you should ask them to take a break or, indeed, it may be time to end the session. Don't force people to stay for two hours just because the room is booked for that long. Stop when you are finished.

If you are taking a mid-session break, get people to move about, chat outside, meet other people and relax. Thank them for taking part and for their ideas so far. Allow people to talk about anything they want to. Encourage them to look through the flipcharts of ideas. When the break is over ask people to sit in a different place, greet their new neighbours and then start again. Remind people of the rules and the purpose, then ask for suggestions.

You should try to change the process if you are having several sessions or if you find things drying up:
  • Get people to create small groups around different flipcharts and brainstorm around the ideas on it. Then they can move on to the next one.
  • Get people to write their ideas on a piece of paper and hand it to the next person to build on those. (Or you can redistribute them randomly so that people will be less embarrassed and inhibited.)
  • Use any of our extra ideas and materials for brainstorming.
  • Of course, you will want to learn and use the Advanced Brainstorming techniques including the use of our dedicated software. Try a 30 day trial of our specialist software (Brainstorming Toolbox) to make brainstorming easy.
By this stage you should have a great brainstorming session running (especially if you use all of the Advanced techniques, which we will be coming to shortly) and will have hundreds if not thousands of ideas and potential solutions. At some point you will need to stop the session, either at a natural break or end point or, if necessary, due to lack of time.

(You may find it interesting to have a look at our list of ways to kill and ways to help an idea. Click here to see that page, not forgetting to press the "Back" button on your browser to return here.)

Ending the session

When you decide to end the session, for whatever reason, catch everyone's attention and ask them to finish off their writing. Thank them very much for taking part, tell them how good the process was and how enjoyable you found it. Let them know that you will be collating the ideas in a large list and analyzing them to find out which ones you will use. You can offer to send the list to them if appropriate.

Tell them that if they have any ideas later in the day, on the way home, in the bath or during the next week, that they should let you know because you are still interested in all their ideas. Tell them where and how to contact you - don't assume that they all know.

At the end of good session your participants will normally be mentally exhausted so give them a break or some refreshments and tell them to leave everything where it is. When they have gone, go round and gather every bit of paper with writing on it - notepads, flip chart paper, even scraps of paper (accidentally) put in the bin.

If you leave the room now, you can often forget what really happened and so it can sometimes be productive to just sit in the middle of the empty room with a pad of paper and think through the session and note down any extra ideas you now have. You can often think very clearly at this stage and have hundreds of suggestions swimming round in your head just waiting to join together and surprise you. You should also note down your ideas on how the brainstorming session went and how it could be improved next time.

Now take the set of papers to your office, and take a well-earned break. Congratulate yourself on a job well done.

Post-session work and idea analysis

You should now have a large number of ideas scattered about on lots of bits of paper (unless you used a computer program to store your ideas). It is recommended that you put all of the ideas into one list.

If you intend to do any amount of analysis on the ideas or you want to share the complete set with other people in your organization (which is a very good way of encouraging people to contribute) then you will want to enter all of the ideas on to a computer. The simplest way of sorting and analyzing them is using a spreadsheet package such as Microsoft Excel. With the ideas stored electronically you can easily restructure them and send them to other people by email or by disk.

Technically, the brainstorming session is over at this point and the analysis process has begun. It is important to make this distinction. Brainstorming is only the generation of the ideas. When you start to analyze the ideas you are not brainstorming. However, brainstorming without analysis is pointless so we will point out the basics.

The analysis of the ideas can be done by just you or it can be done in a group. The group can be the same group who did the brainstorming or it can be the dedicated group of people who will eventually be implementing the chosen ideas. Because it is best to have "external" people in the brainstorming session it is often the case that the group which analyzes the ideas is a different group to that which produced them.

Even if you are using a group to analyze the ideas it is always helpful to do an initial sort-out to remove duplicates and remove ideas which are really are totally impractical. This removal should be based on valid physical criteria such as cost, time and physical laws. Try not to remove any remotely possible solutions at too early a stage.

Now that you have a long list of possible ideas, work through them and arrange them into three lists:
  1. Excellent. Definitely will work and can be implemented immediately.
  2. Interesting. Will possibly work or may require further analysis to decide if it will work. Needs more investigating. May work in the future.
  3. Useless. Will not work.
When you have the lists you should plan to implement the excellent ideas and to investigate the interesting ones. This is where your management and leadership skills are necessary.

Good luck with implementing your great ideas. It is important that you think about each idea in turn as you analyze it so that you can sell it to your customers or your manager.

You've now learned how to run a successful brainstorming session. You now need to practise it and the safest way to do that is to tell the people involved that you are practising and that you want to get feedback from them. They will be more forgiving and you will learn more.

The next stages of this training course will summarize traditional brainstorming before explaining the need for advanced brainstorming which will really let your sessions fly.

For some extra ideas on running a traditional brainstorming session, click here.

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