How to Create a Better Brainstorming Session

A table full of coffee cups and paper

A great brainstorming meeting can be a dynamic way to fuel innovative concepts, campaigns and solutions. The problem is that many brainstorming sessions are not great — yet it isn’t always easy to tell what exactly differentiates awesome brainstorming techniques from poor ones.

The fact is that you can’t leave first-class brainstorming to chance; managers need to be proactive in preparing for their team’s creative-thinking huddles. Here are some ways to plan for and manage brainstorming gatherings to maximize their efficiency and effectiveness:

Time it right

The first decision you need to make is when to hold your brainstorming session. One benefit to scheduling a morning gathering is that people will be fresher, with fewer competing distractions and priorities that often arise as the day goes on.

If you can’t book an early session, though, don’t panic. Research has shown that counter to conventional wisdom, those who consider themselves to be “morning people” actually do their best creative work later in the day, while it’s the reverse for night owls. So, whichever time you choose, at least some of your team should be at the top of their game when it comes to ideation.

Pick your spot

As you select your meeting time, you’ll also need to pick a place to brainstorm. Be aware that as with timing, the choice of the best venue in which to idea surf is not black and white. It can be effective to hold an offsite brainstorming session at a coffee shop, a park, or a conference centre across town to shake people out of their routines, creating energy and excitement.

On the other hand, you don’t need to leave company grounds to get good ideas. An advantage of brainstorming in the office is that you can set up a dedicated area, so that your staff will associate that spot with idea generation.

Fuel the creative juices

No one does their best thinking on an empty stomach. Having treats in the room is part and parcel of brainstorming, particularly for creative groups. In addition to standard creative agency fare like coffee (always have lots of coffee on hand!) and cookies, it helps to provide nutritious snacks that can circumvent sugar and caffeine crashes. Think protein bars, bagels and fruit for morning meetings, and sandwiches and veggie sticks for afternoon sessions.

If you’re working in-house, you can also stock your brainstorming room with a work table, white board and comfy furniture — as well as other creative paraphernalia like games and notepads — to encourage inspired ideas.

Grease the wheels

While great brainstorming involves building on the group’s concepts in real time, there’s no reason creative directors and other managers can’t kick-start the process before the meeting. A few days prior to your session, ask participants to begin thinking about the topics, and request that they arrive with some initial concepts to discuss as a starting point. That way, people will come in fired up with ideas, and you’ll have a head start in sparking the conversation.

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Consider the kickoff

Your creative team has arrived, and it’s time for the brainstorming session to begin! How you launch the meeting will impact its effectiveness. If you’ve assigned participants pre-work, that’s one way to get team members engaged in the free flow of discussion. Alternatively, if people haven’t had time to conceptualize in advance, you can distribute notepads or sticky notes and ask the group to spend the first five to 10 minutes of the meeting brainstorming silently on paper.

Then go around the room and invite each participant to share his or her top-line thoughts — or post the papers on the white board so that the room has a visual to stimulate dialogue. Another way to loosen up the group’s creative muscles is to begin with a fun sketching challenge or drawing exercise.

Create a judgment-free zone

As part of the kickoff, creative leaders should remind their team that the point of brainstorming is to unearth as many quality creative ideas as possible. Your goal as creative manager and lead facilitator should be to encourage active participation from everyone around the table. For this to work, your brainstorming sessions need to be recognized as a judgment-free safe place for people to share what comes to mind. If people are worried about being criticized or mocked, then they won’t reveal their thoughts to the group.

Don’t allow editing during the brainstorming session

The purpose of brainstorming is simply that — to generate as many ideas on a topic as possible, without immediately trying to sort the wheat from the chaff. Managers should ensure that the meeting stays focused on thinking up ideas, not crossing things off the list.

Whittling down a brainstorm to the very best concepts can come at the end or during a separate session. Let the team know that everything they throw out there — no matter how crazy it sounds — will be included and documented. When employees know their opinions matter, they will be more likely to share their boldest “blue-sky” ideas, which just might end up being the ones that stick.

Capture it all

In the frenzy of a successful brainstorm, you might be tempted to just go with the flow and hope that the group remembers the essence of the meeting. A far better approach is to capture every idea as it’s thrown out, writing it down on a white board or large easel pad for all to see. Again, now is not the time to try to figure out if it’s a good idea or not; simply assign a team member to write down the ideas as they come.

Creating this visual collection of the words can help inspire other thoughts and keep the mental riffing going. After the meeting, the team can compile all the ideas and you can distribute them for follow-up.

Know when to quit

Sometimes, the innovative spirit just isn’t there, and the meeting becomes ineffective. As the manager, it’s important to recognize when the faucet has run dry and to call it quits (for the moment). It could be that you’ve maxed out the potential in the room and the team has hit a collective brick wall. If it’s the end of a long day or week when the creative team has been juggling many deadlines and responsibilities, they may be tapped out and need time to rest and recharge. Don’t stretch it out if your staff is clearly sapped.

Consider regrouping after a short hiatus — such as after a weekend — when people have had a block of time away from thinking about the issue to replenish their creative juices.

With some proper preparation, brainstorming facilitators can make sure their idea-generating powwows with creative staff are both powerful and productive. Knowing when, where and how to conduct brainstorming meetings is half the battle — so do your due diligence and don’t skip these crucial steps.