Brainstorming is easy right? It can be, as long as the session is organized with a few rules in mind.
Brainstorming, even when you just hear it, it sounds so provocative.
It was developed in the 1940s by the American advertising executive Alex Osborn, and describes the method of generating ideas or problem solving in a meeting where all participants make spontaneous suggestions based on a specific subject.
The reasons behind a brainstorming session are many: how to attract new customers, how to make your products or services more attractive, or to address a need for developing something, or ourselves. Whatever the reason, meeting with colleagues, friends or other professionals is a great technique for creating new ideas.
Many of us, I am sure have experienced a failed brainstorming meeting. This may have been because the attendees kept their mouth shut after two or three rejected ideas by those higher in the organization’s hierarchy, there were too many ideas without a moderator to sift through them, or participants did not have a clear plan of action for after the meeting.
For the last two years, I have organised and participated in several brainstorming sessions, with groups from four to 50 people. It was a fun process and an opportunity to gather fresh ideas on the table. From my experience, in order to set up a successful session, there are some guidelines to follow, along with your personal ‘touch’ as the organizer.
Discuss with the team leader and define the need for the brainstorming session, clarifying what you want to achieve by the end of the day. Prepare a brief clarification of the reason – outlining the problem and its history, and send them together with the invitation. This will help people prepare themselves on the specific issue, as not everyone will have ideas straight from the start. Their preparation could result in more questions that can be used for brainstorming.
Choose the best environment in which to set up your brainstorming session. Since every person communicates in a different way, we need to ensure that the environment suits everyone’s needs, therefore increasing their ability to participate. Find a spacious room in a hotel or in another large type of conference room, so people have the freedom to move around the room. Let them decide where they want to sit, or how they want the room to be arranged, so they feel as comfortable as possible in it. It is better to avoid using a meeting room inside the company. If you want to induce creative thinking, offer participants an environment without any distractions. Importantly, before you start your session, ensure that you have all the necessary tools to succeed, such as white boards, flipcharts, notes, pens and relevant materials or stimulus to make it interactive. In that way, everyone one can see each other’s work and the ideas that have been recorded.
The team leader should define who will be the moderator: the person who will coordinate the whole process and who will help participants feel comfortable to reveal their ideas. The moderator will be responsible for explaining the basic rules before the brainstorm starts, emphasising that all ideas are welcome, that there are no crazy or incorrect ideas, no criticism is allowed, and the more ideas the better. The moderator’s responsibility will be to encourage all attendants to participate, record their ideas, guide the process in a way that ideas can flow, and ensure that the session is challenging. Also you will need to arrange an assistant for the moderator, who will record the ideas in paper, split them into categories and organize the information.
Invite people with different backgrounds, expertise and levels of involvement (e.g. decision makers, out-of-the-box thinkers, a mix of ages, male and female). Consider carefully adding to the mix people of different management levels, because very often the presence of a senior level person can prevent people from participating or expressing their ideas fully.
Furthermore, define the duration of the brainstorming session before you start. This will help avoid people get tired and ceasing to participate.
And now we are ready to start our brainstorming meeting.
As a host of the session, it is nice to welcome each person separately and inform them where they can serve themselves coffee, tea and water. As the organizer of the event, ensure that there is always fresh coffee and any other supplies that you have ordered.
To start things off, an introduction by the moderator could begin with a fun ice breaker, possibly the announcement of a prize for the person with the maximum number of ideas (e.g. they may have the opportunity to choose one of the three final ideas or a perhaps a hotel or restaurant voucher), an overview of the format of the day and the rules that the group are to follow. Continue with explaining the assignment, the current trends and the problem or reason that’s behind the meeting. This might follow with a short discussion about how they feel or what they know about it, and conclude by asking an inspiring question.
Some questions that could follow include: what do they know about the product or service, how do they relate to the product or service, what can be done to resolve the problem, or what are the options for improvement?
When ideas start being generated, have the assistant record all ideas on pieces of paper and stick them to the wall. It is important to retain all participants’ ideas and ensure that they are transferred to an electronic format and saved in a computer file for future reference.
The moderator should then ask participants to get up, review the notes on the wall and pick their two favourite ideas and place them on the other side of the room. The participants should now be asked to have a good look at the papers, and as a group, select six to seven ideas they believe that could be easily applied. The moderator can then thoroughly check the list of ideas and ask questions in order to clarify and analyse the ideas. Repeated ideas and words need to be excluded in order to have a clear view of what to keep and what to continue to work on.
At this point, there is a possibility that attendees whose ideas were not selected will be disappointed and do not participate in future meetings. This can be prevented if the moderator assures them that they have given full consideration to all options and advises them that their ideas may be used in some of the next steps.
When the final list of ideas is ready, participants are split into groups. Each group chooses one or two ideas, depending on the number of people in the group, and works to evaluate the idea and produce a concept. Τhen each group should present their concept to the rest of the attendees and explain step-by-step how they have reached their conclusion. Other groups can ask questions if something is not clear but are not allowed to judge or criticize. Ask groups to evaluate and choose which concept that they are in favour of. The moderator will then present the result, starting with the idea or ideas that took the fewest votes. It is a good idea to ask attendees to give their first impression from those votes.
Before ending the session, agree on what the next steps will be, including which group will develop each concept, and define a schedule for delivering the results. Do not forget to thank participants for their efforts, their creativity and time, and leave time for general discussion and socialising.
When you get back to the office, prepare notes, including all recorded ideas (not just those that were finally chosen), circulate them to the groups and ask for feedback. It is important to show people that their contribution was valued and their ideas resulted in action.
Motivation brings involvement and involvement drives success!
[About the author]
Gina Theofilidou is a dynamic and self-aware personality, with 20 years’ experience as a Management Assistant, and has worked in the market research company, GfK Hellas for the last 18 years.
A graduate from a renowned Educational Greek Institute in Secretarial Studies, Saint George Commercial College, Gina is a Certified Secretary Management Assistant from ACTA, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, and holds Public Relations and Business Administration and Tourism Management and Marketing certifications from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.
Gina is also the National Chairman of EUMA Greece, and administrator of EUMA website.