‘It’s time to come up with some ideas!’
If this phrase generates a collective groan from your team, then chances are you need to rethink how you’re running your brainstorming sessions.
For too many organizations, brainstorming just means sitting around a table while everyone throws ideas out to see what sticks. And maybe this actually works for your team. However, for plenty of others, this can be a painful experience full of awkward silences and half-baked ideas — something no one will want to be a part of.
Coming up with the next great idea is never easy, but it doesn’t have to be this hard. Let’s take a closer look at what can often go wrong in a brainstorming session, then consider a few techniques you can use to make your next brainstorming session more productive — and maybe even fun.
Common challenges with brainstorming in groups
We’ve all been in a bad brainstorming session, although the reasons they didn’t work can vary. Here are some common challenges to look out and plan for before you start organizing a brainstorming session:
- Dominant personalities: Any group activity can carry the risk of a few of the loudest people in the room taking over the conversation, but this is especially true when it comes to brainstorming meetings, which often require a certain amount of risk taking and vulnerability in order to share ideas. That’s a shame, since it may mean that more extroverted personalities keep more introverted or quieter participants from contributing their thoughts.
- Groupthink: This happens when conformity or harmony is prioritized over creativity or originality. In other words, it is when a group is more concerned with making sure everyone gets along than coming up with useful, actionable ideas. This can make it more difficult for anyone to bring up a dissenting opinion or explore an alternative viewpoint.
- Lack of structure: While a freewheeling brainstorming session can sometimes be a good thing, it will more often lead to disorganized discussions that fail to lead to tangible outcomes. Participants may even start suggesting ideas that don’t apply to the original problem, causing the entire session to veer off course.
- Insufficient preparation: Some brainstorming sessions just need a room of willing participants. But many others will require the group to do some homework first in order to thoroughly know the ins and outs of the problem they are trying to solve. If this doesn’t happen, any ideas they come up with may turn out to be either irrelevant or altogether insufficient.
- Poor time management: Coming up with good ideas can take time. That means it can be easy to spend too long introducing participants, getting them up to speed, or just generally socializing. The time you spend on irrelevant discussions like this may affect how successful or not your brainstorming session turns out to be.
5 ways to improve your group brainstorms
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to start making noticeable improvements to your next group brainstorming session. Here are a few simple ways you can make participants more comfortable to speak up and share their best ideas.
1. Establish some ground rules for the brainstorm
A good place to begin any team brainstorming session is with some ground rules. By stating outright your expectations for how the session will be run, you can prevent conflict, help participants feel more comfortable, and ensure everyone stays focused on the task at hand.
For instance, you could establish a rule that any and all ideas should not only be accepted, but encouraged. This could help participants get out of the comfort zone and start thinking outside the box. Likewise, you could bolster psychological safety by making a rule that no criticism of anyone else’s ideas is allowed. Then, you could require every person to take turns coming up with ideas. That way, you can be sure you’ll get a good number of ideas from your session without anyone feeling uncomfortable or intimidated during the process.
Note: While a dedicated facilitator can help a brainstorming session run more smoothly, anyone can run a successful idea generation session seamlessly with Mural’s templates.
2. Choose the right group brainstorming technique for your team
Forget about the conference table and whiteboard. There are plenty of different brainstorming techniques you can utilize to take advantage of your team’s particular strengths and structure, no matter where they’re located. Here are a few you may want to consider:
- Question brainstorming: Instead of just coming up with answers, this technique helps participants more completely understand the problem at hand by making them come up only with questions. This can help reduce the pressure of thinking up a perfect solution.
- Reverse brainstorming: This involves looking at a problem from a different angle for generating ideas. Instead of asking how to solve a problem, the goal becomes to make it even worse. This helps team members uncover new insights and approaches they may not have considered otherwise. Use Mural’s private mode to brainstorm individually. Once the "reverse" ideas have been generated, they can then turn off private mode, read the sticky notes, and find ways to turn them into positive solutions.
- Crazy 8s brainstorming: This is a relatively simple brainstorming exercise that encourages participants to explore a wide range of ideas. The goal is to come up with eight different solutions in a span of only eight minutes. Each person will divide a piece of paper (or assigned space in an online whiteboard) into eight parts, then sketch out their ideas in the allotted time. By encouraging quantity and time-boxing, this method helps make your brainstorming process more efficient.
3. Set aside some time for some solo brainstorming at the beginning
Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your group brainstorming session is to give participants some solo time. For many people, coming up with ideas and presenting them in a group setting can be difficult. They may not be able to do their best thinking, or may be reluctant to put themselves out there and be vulnerable, despite any rules or assurances you give them. That’s why it can be extremely beneficial — both to them and to the outcome of your session — to give them the space to be creative on their own.
One way you can do this is through the 6-3-5 brainwriting method. This rapid ideation technique involves taking six participants and requiring them to create three ideas each within a five-minute time limit by themselves. You can do this by either setting up different stations in a room or, if you're working with remote colleagues or even asynchronously, by utilizing our brainwriting template. If anyone is reluctant to share their ideas before their five minutes are up, they can even take advantage of Mural’s private mode.
Run this exercise six times (for a total of 30 minutes) and you should have 108 new ideas by the end. Not too bad for a solo approach.
Related: Learn how to get the most out of virtual brainstorming with hybrid and remote teams
4. Use more than one brainstorming method
There’s no reason you should limit your team to just one brainstorming technique per session. In fact, switching gears halfway through can be a great way to reenergize the room and get a group of people thinking about the problem in a different way. Plus, different methods can yield different results.
For example, consider how the round robin and mind mapping approaches can work together. With round robin brainstorming, you’ll divide your team into small groups, then have each teammate pass their ideas along to the person beside them, who will then offer counterpoints or further suggestions. It can be a great way to identify potential weaknesses and spur creative problem solving.
In contrast, mind mapping involves writing out the topic or question you’re exploring, then adding branches and nodes as you come up with additional related ideas. This brain-netting exercise allows you to explore all the potential variables of your central focus by visualizing how they branch off and connect to one other. The end result should give you new insights into your problem.
Together, these two approaches can help you better understand your problem and come up with a wider range of novel and creative solutions.
5. Prioritize the ideas and follow up with action items
Once your team has generated a good number of ideas, you need to make sure they’re put to good use. Before anyone leaves, discuss which ideas have the most potential and are worth exploring more. This could be an open-ended conversation or even a more formal voting session. However you do it, you’ll need to narrow down the ideas you want to move forward with.
Afterwards, make sure to define next steps by assigning everyone an action item. This could be to iterate an idea further or conduct more research into how it would work. By giving each team member a clearly defined role like this, you can ensure that your brainstorming ideas move successfully out of the initial session and eventually turn into real solutions.
Need somewhere to start? Learn 7 group decision-making strategies to help prioritize the right solution.
To have great outcomes, you first need great ideas
Brainstorming sessions remain one of the best ways to come up with innovative solutions and creative ideas, which is why it’s worth taking the time to consider how you can ensure they are as productive and efficient as possible.
Don’t settle for forced conversations and awkward silences. Instead, by putting in place a few ground rules and using different brainstorming techniques, you can give each participant the space and freedom to come up with ideas that lead to successful outcomes.
What kind of brainstorming techniques have worked best for you? Let us know how your team is coming up with creative new solutions, then check out our brainstorming templates to get even more ideas for your next session.
Run effective brainstorming and ideation sessions with Mural
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