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Preparing for a successful brainstorming session

This page outlines the pre-session preparations, materials and organization needed to conduct a successful brainstorming session. (These pages are part of the free training on traditional brainstorming. Click here to go to table of contents for the training courses.)

Sections of this page include:
Know why you want to run a brainstorming session
Decide how you will run the session and who will take part
Prepare the room and materials
Prepare the participants and issue invites
Previous pages:
How to brainstorm
Rules of brainstorming
Principles of brainstorming
Later pages:
Running a brainstorming session

Know why you want to run a brainstorming session

One of the first things you need to determine is whether you need to use a brainstorming session at all. A brainstorming session should be used for generating lots of new ideas and solutions. It should not be used for analysis or for decision making. Of course you will need to analyze and judge the ideas but this is done afterwards and the analysis process does not involve brainstorming techniques.

A brainstorming session must be targeted to a specific topic or else you run the risk of downgrading any future sessions. You must define the problem area or the opportunity area you want to create ideas for. You must draw up a specific probortunity (problem/opportunity) statement which describes what you are trying to achieve. This statement must not even suggest what a typical solution might be because this will hinder the idea generation.

It is perfectly acceptable to propose a brainstorming session to investigate a whole area of interest which you wish to explore. You will have no fixed perceptions about the area and can often discover new ideas and markets precisely because you didn't follow the normal training path. Creative thinkers often suggest that before you do research in a specific area, you should generate your own ideas because if you follow what everyone else has done, you will follow the normal line of thinking and come up with the same or similar answers.

Once you have an initial probortunity statement you should decide whether a brainstorming session is appropriate. The time and costs spent brainstorming can sometimes be saved by just implementing a currently known solution and spending your valuable time on more crucial probortunities. Some problems are best solved by computer simulation or mathematical calculations because they do not need a change in perception. You should not be planning a brainstorming session if you already have several solutions and all you want to do is to decide which one to use (this is done by analysis). If you are only going to ignore what everyone else suggests then you shouldn't waste their, or yours.

Decide how you will run the session and who will take part

Assume you now have a probortunity statement describing what you are trying to achieve or investigate. You have also decided that brainstorming is the most valid approach to your investigation.

Now you need to decide how you will run the session and who will take part. It is important to adjust the style and management of the session depending on the topic and the participants involved.

First you should decide who will lead the session - the facilitator. This person needs to introduce the session, to keep an eye on the time and to make sure the rules are obeyed. This person will facilitate the session to make it run smoothly and ensure that the participants feel comfortable and join in the process. They will also be responsible for restarting the creative process if it slows down.

This central facilitator will normally be you. But you should be careful not to automatically select yourself in this role. If it is a sensitive issue and includes an evaluation of your position, maybe you shouldn't be there. Alternatively, you may be better at being a regular participant than as a facilitator. Or to remove all biases you could employ a facilitator from another department or from outside your company.

Next you should decide who will take part. The natural inclination and easiest option is to gather your own group of colleagues and friends from within your department, group or company. This is what normally happens, and normally works well. If you are more confident then you should invite people from other departments/groups/companies who you don't normally work with. You may now be mixing much more different personalities into the creative flow and this can only result in a broader outlook in your ideas.

Group sizes are often number between 4 and 30 people. More people means more opportunity for diversity but can lead to nervousness or to frustration if each person is not given enough individual time to suggest ideas.

(Click here for more information on this topic from the Advanced Brainstorming training.)

Prepare the room and materials

The choice of room will obviously depend on what is available and we will leave this to your creativity if the ideal room is not available. We make the following suggestions and you should adapt them to your own conditions:

Please try a 30 day trial of our specialist software (Brainstorming Toolbox) to make brainstorming easy. You can use it to start your search for new ideas and is the simulus required to spark off an infinite number of new ideas.

What we suggest for a group of approximately 12 people:

Arrange people to be seated in a circle with no "head of the table". Ideally, a round-shaped table is best, though a set of tables in a circle is the usual solution. Otherwise a broad U shape layout is fine. This makes everybody feel equal and when people's ideas start to flow you will find that the person initiating the session becomes part of the group and can play an equal role without pushing any authority. You could have flipcharts just behind the members (approximately one per two people) and with lots of coloured pens. Each person should also have a notepad and pen so that they can write down their personal ideas at the same time as ideas shouted out by other people are being written down elsewhere. Make sure no ideas are lost at any stage. The cost of extra pads is small compared to the loss of a potential winning solution.

(If you are using Advanced Techniques then you will need additional materials such as a computer and our Brainstorming Toolbox software or special prompt cards, etc.)

You may well need an overhead projector if you intend to display the probortunity description and any background information or pictures.

A room which has space around the table in which to move about, but not one which makes the group feel small in comparison, is ideal. Comfortable chairs and tables coupled with refreshments on a nearby table are useful. Providing an object in the middle of the circle gives people something to fix on while thinking and removes the need to look into the face of someone else while suggesting an idea.

A dedicated secretary (or two) whose only job is to grab and write down the ideas is extremely useful. This releases some pressure on the facilitator who can spend more time guiding the process.

Alterations for smaller groups

Smaller groups are easier to control but there are less people to keep the process moving smoothly onward. Advanced techniques are very useful to kick start the flow of ideas.

A very small group is more like a quick-fire conversation and could be seated round a small table with a large pad of paper covering the whole table surface. Everyone can add their ideas at the same time.

Try to move the group close together so they don't feel remote from each other.

Alterations for larger groups

With large groups it's impossible to arrange people in a circle without them being too far away to feel part of the group. In this situation you will need to have a theatre-style seating pattern with the facilitator at the front.

If you need a microphone and speakers then it's likely that the group is too big for brainstorming because ideas will be lost while people wait for their turn to speak. If you want to brainstorm with such a large group then you need to have everyone write their ideas down on a notepad or on a computer, use some ideas as stimuli to help people with their personal brainstorming and then gather the pads in afterwards.

(Click here for more ideas on this topic from the Advanced Brainstorming training.)

Prepare the participants and issue invites

When you know who you will be inviting and where it is going to be held, you need to invite everyone.

First find out when you can get the room you require and if you can have all of the equipment for those times. Try to find three different times when it is available (and reserve it for those three times if you can).

Send out invites by post or by email telling people the time and the place and how long the session will last. Suggest just the most suitable time and location for you and specify a date by which they must have replied. Tell them you want a reply whether their answer is yes or no. Let them know the topic of the brainstorming session and let them know how much you appreciate their assistance.

You may need to remind people to reply just before the deadline.

If the deadline arrives and you have too few people that can come, send out an invite for the next two times you have planned and ask them which ones they can attend. If they cannot attend those either then you should not ask them again and you should hold a smaller session. Remember to cancel any bookings you don't need.

Thank everyone for replying and tell them the final meeting place and time and invite those who say they cannot attend to turn up if they change their situation.

You are now at the stage where you have a room for your session and have a list of willing participants. Make sure that all of the participants know what to expect by sending them the brainstorming rules or point them at this website (www.brainstorming.co.uk). While we provide free training at this site, if you or your organisation want to use this website on your own PC or network or as in-house training then we require you to purchase a licence for it.

You are now ready to run your brainstorming session. Because of your initial preparation your session will run a lot smoother. The next stages of this training course will tell you how to actually run a successful brainstorming session.

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