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Five practical tips for brainstorming

Jul 10, 2019

Ever gotten a group together to brainstorm and felt like it was a waste of time? Anne Byrne feels your pain. She provides some practical tips to banish the brainstorming blues and to make your next brainstorming session more effective and innovative.

I have a confession to make: I hate brainstorming sessions. I often find them unproductive, a bit chaotic and leave me wondering – what was the point? I used to think this made me a lousy innovator. Surely, brainstorming was the epitome of innovating? Lots of people in a room, coming up with lots of ideas – that’s innovation, right?

As time has gone on, and I’ve learned more about innovation, I’ve come to realise two things:

  1. Brainstorming isn’t innovation, but it is an essential step in the innovation process.
  2. Brainstorming isn’t bad; it’s often just not done right!

So, here are my tips for better brainstorming, learned from my own mistakes and experience.

Tip 1: I wouldn’t start from here...

Getting lots of people in a room and writing down loads of ideas isn’t productive unless those people understand the problem at hand and user's needs. Too often we rush to brainstorm when we haven’t entirely defined the problem. We need to understand the issue at hand before we start.

Next time you’re thinking about holding a brainstorming session, take a moment to think about whether it’s the right time to do so: do you and the team understand the issues and trends? Have you articulated the problem? Have you spoken to the impacted users? Sometimes it’s a matter of timing. If you can get the groundwork done first, you’ll find brainstorming more productive, relevant and engaging.

Tip 2: Stay quiet!

I’m one of those people who will rush to fill any silence in a room – but one of the things that I’ve learned is that sometimes I need to zip it.

Silence in brainstorming is powerful. Five or ten minutes of silent thinking and idea generation at the beginning of a brainstorming session works wonders. It allows people who may be more naturally introverted to gather their thoughts and more actively participate, and for more ideas to be generated, and it avoids the group getting sucked into “group think” around the first few ideas thrown into the ring before anyone has fully thought them through.

Tip 3: Bold is beautiful

To be truly innovative, we need to be bold, to put forward the big ideas that seem a bit scary or silly. Many innovations sound ridiculous or unfeasible when first pitched. The innovation process is about taking the big, bold, ludicrous ideas and refining them to make it work. Sometimes, we filter ourselves, and therefore limit the ideas that put forward when brainstorming. We are afraid of being criticised or ridiculed, so we stay in the safe zone.The challenge is to silence that inner voice; the one that tells us to play it safe or stay quiet.

Taking a bit of time at the beginning of a brainstorming session, or at the formation of an innovation team, to focus on establishing trust is essential. Simple measures, like developing a team charter of behaviours or conducting an ice-breaker designed to build trust, can make a big difference.

Tip 4: Be ruthless!

Too often I’ve left brainstorming sessions with a wad of post-it notes, but no real idea what any of them mean, and too many ideas to feel like I can do anything useful. Brainstorming is itself a process: step one is creating lots and lots of ideas free from constraints, but step two is to whittle these down and start to tease them out further. By narrowing down your ideas, you can focus on developing the strongest ones.

Tip 5: Let go

Letting go of ideas is hard, so how do we do it? Set some rules and limits, apply them in a fun way, and do so in an environment of trust. Fostering psychological safety in a group is a key factor for letting go. People need to understand that it is an idea that is being rejected, not the individual who came up with it. A team that can trust and let go together can also foster critique and challenge ideas constructively. 

Anne Byrne is the GovLab lead in Deloitte.