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4 practical tips for effective brainstorming

Ever gotten a group together to brainstorm and felt like it was a waste of time? GovLab’s Anne Byrne feels your pain! Read on for practical tips to banish the brainstorming blues and to make your next brainstorming session more effective, innovative and fun!

I have a confession to make. I hate brainstorming sessions. I often find them unproductive, a bit chaotic and leaving me to wonder – what was the point?

I used to think this made me a bad 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 important step in the innovation process.
  2. Brainstorming isn’t actually bad, it’s often just not done right!

So, here are my tips for better brainstorming, learned from my own mistakes and experience. I hope you find them helpful, and that you too can learn to love brainstorming again!

Tip 1: I wouldn’t start from here…

Getting lots of people in a room and writing down lots and lots of ideas isn’t productive, unless those people understand the problem at hand and the user needs that they are trying to generate ideas about. Too often we rush to brainstorm, when we haven’t quite defined our problem. We need to really understand the problem 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: do you and the team understand the issues and trends? Have you articulated the problem? Have you spoken to the users who are impacted? Sometimes it’s a matter of timing. If you can get the ground work done first, you’ll find brainstorming more productive, more relevant and more 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 I need to zip it sometimes. Silence in brainstorming is really powerful. Five or ten minutes of silent thinking and idea generation at the beginning of a brainstorming session, before sharing with the group, works wonders.

It allows people who may be more naturally introverted to gather their thoughts and more actively participate, it allows for more ideas to be generated, and it avoids the group just talking about the first few ideas that are expressed and getting sucked into “group think”.

(If you want to take this further maybe try Tony McCaffrey’s “BrainSwarming” technique, which takes the silence to a new level! Or check out IDEO’s suggestions about brainstorming for introverts.)

Tip 3: Bold is beautiful

To be truly innovative we need to be bold, to put forward the big ideas, the ones which seem a bit scary or silly. Many innovations sound ridiculous or unfeasible when first pitched. The innovation process is about taking the big, bold, ridiculous ideas and refining and iterating them to make it work. Sometimes, we limit ourselves in the ideas that we put forward when brainstorming, as we filter ourselves. We are afraid of being criticised, or ridiculed, so we stay in the “safe zone”.

The challenge is how to silence our inner voice, the one that tells us to play it safe, or to stay quiet. For us at GovLab, we are convinced of the importance of having psychological safety in an innovation group. 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 really important. 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 with them. 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. Narrowing your ideas down to just a few gives you scope to tease out a few more details about the ideas and develop them further.

Letting go of ideas is hard, so how can we do it? Set some rules and limits, apply them in a fun way, and do so in an environment of trust. For example, at GovLab we created an interactive board-game for brainstorming, which we found helps to reduce and refine ideas by making it a fun (but rule-based!) exercise. Fostering psychological safety in a group is also a key factor for this – so that people understand that it is an idea that is being rejected, not the individual who came up with it. The team can foster productive friction, and critique and challenge ideas constructively. 

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