Structured brainstorming: a guide to intentional ideation
August 10, 2023
Brainstorming is an effective tool for generating ideas and creating innovative solutions. But it can sometimes get off track, even in the best of circumstances.
At their worst, brainstorms feel like a waste of precious time. Why’s that? Reluctant participants. Mixed personalities. Lack of clear guiding frameworks or next steps.
Adding a layer of structure to the activity can make all the difference. Structured brainstorming keeps all the creative benefits that come from the free flow of ideas, but controls the process just enough to make sure it’s productive.
While there’s not one “perfect” way to define a structured brainstorm, contrast it with an unstructured or spontaneous brainstorm, where activities flow freely without concrete rules. In contrast, a structured brainstorm keeps the focus on your end goals and helps everyone feel comfortable in sharing their ideas.
For example: Say Company A wants to come up with some ideas to reverse its declining inbound sales pipeline from Q1 to Q2. Sales and marketing leaders gather the members of their teams on a call and ask them to pitch some ideas to buck the trend.
While it could prove productive, this exercise is unstructured. There are no real rules governing how it should play out.
Now, let’s take the same scenario and reimagine it as a structured brainstorming activity. This time, the same sales and marketing leaders ask members of their teams to prepare by examining their inbound marketing motion and a sales deck from a recent demo call.
When the meeting begins, the teams start with an icebreaker question. Then, the groups are split into two, given five minutes each, and asked to produce a minimum of three potential next steps. Whether they realize it or not, these teams are participating in a structured brainstorm.
Structured brainstorming reinvigorates the typical brainstorm by adding a layer of focus and direction — and usually produces better results.
Advantages of structured brainstorming
Structured brainstorming doesn't simply provide structure for structure's sake. It offers significant benefits over its less-focused counterpart.
Participants can prepare ahead of time
Some people thrive at improvisation. Others, not so much.
It’s why giving everyone an equal opportunity to speak is integral to having an effective brainstorming session. Asking participants to prepare before the session does just that.
When participants prepare for a brainstorm, they’re not just thrown into a situation without context. The simple act of informing your team about the topic of discussion will help them relax and improve the quality of the session dramatically. Calm people are open enough to get creative.
But preparing also gives your team time to ruminate on the topic of discussion.
Imagine a book club where folks aren’t allowed to finish reading the book ahead of time. Compare it to one where everyone’s already on the same page (literally). It shouldn’t surprise us when the depth and breadth of engagement with the subject matter is better at the latter. Such is the magic of preparation.
Everyone is encouraged to participate
Teams usually include people of all different personalities. The quiet types. The extroverts. The ones just there for the pizza.
In a structured brainstorm, it’s easier to elicit feedback and participation from the whole group. For example, by requiring a minimum number of responses, you make sure everyone gets a place at the table.
And this is important. After all, the best ideas often come from junior members of your team operating outside the boundaries of your daily context. One method that helps teams incorporate everyone's feedback is the stepladder technique.
The stepladder technique is a brainstorming and decision-making method that brings in more team members to provide input as the exercise goes on. Designed to encourage participation from all members of a group, this exercise is a natural hedge against the impacts of conformity and groupthink in working groups.
Focus is directed
Finally, structured brainstorming makes it easier to place focus where it belongs: on the problem at hand.
Random acts of conversation tend to meander, well, randomly. But when an area of focus is clearly defined, you’re much more likely to walk out of that meeting with actionable ideas and clear next steps.
Companies run on good ideas. And often, the quality and consistency of those ideas depend on your team's ability to engage with the tough questions. Structured brainstorming makes that much easier.
When to use structured brainstorming
In any organization, there are still times when traditional, unstructured brainstorming sounds appealing. But structured brainstorming cuts through the chaos of large meetings or the limitations of remote interactions to elevate the quality of ideas.
When you’re part of a remote or distributed workforce
There’s something about Zoom or Microsoft Teams calls that makes it easy for participants to blend into the background. When working remotely, adding a layer of structure to a brainstorm makes it easier for people to cut through the digital noise and make meaningful contributions to the discussion.
This is especially true when your team is scattered across various time zones. One way to address this issue? By conducting a hybrid brainstorm. Hybrid brainstorms allow individuals to prepare by themselves asynchronously before collaborating in real-time.
You should use a template to get inspired and add process to the asynchronous and real-time parts of the collaboration.
When you need to build repeatable processes around idea generation
Remember: Unstructured brainstorms aren’t inherently bad. For the right group and context, they can unlock some truly inspired thinking. (This is the magic of the ‘watercooler’ in action.) The issue? The results of unstructured brainstorms can be difficult to replicate.
You can’t improve what you can’t measure. And if you’re not regularly coming up with ideas to tackle your company’s biggest challenges, it can be hard to assess the quality of those ideas.
Structured brainstorming presents an opportunity to create a qualitative goal around the number of ideas generated. And that makes innovation easier to repeat.
When you’re presenting to a large group
Some of the worst participation at a brainstorm can come at company all-hands meetings. If you’re presenting to 100 people, many will just wait for someone else to offer an idea.
Imposing some guidelines around participation will mitigate anyone’s fears of looking silly in front of a large group. It also reinforces the notion that their input is welcome and needed for the brainstorm to go well.
Structured brainstorming: Getting started
Sometimes, an unstructured brainstorm makes sense. But when you’re looking to generate repeatedly and consistently great feedback from your whole team, structured brainstorming presents unique advantages.
Looking to take your next brainstorming session to a new level? Check out our suite of templates for brainstorming, both live and asynchronous. Energize group collaboration with templates for use cases spanning daily stand-ups, quarterly meetings, and much more.
About the authors
About the authors
Content Marketing Manager
Bryan is a Content Marketing Manager @ MURAL. When he's not writing or working on content strategy, you can usually find him outdoors.