Your meeting is just about to start and you give yourself a mental pat on the back for assembling this ideal group of individuals to help tackle a challenge. There are a few subject-matter experts in the room, plus you know from first-hand experience that everyone here is great at generating thoughtful, quality concepts.
You call the meeting to order, discussion ensues, and at the end of the hour, this little brainstorm session has likely gone one of two ways:
- Everyone in the room participated in the discussion, throwing out concepts and building on each other’s ideas. At the end of the meeting, your white board was filled with items, some circled as the collective favorites to explore further.
- Two or three people did most of the talking while only a few chimed in at rare intervals. Others didn’t contribute at all. A number of good ideas were garnered, but you suspect even more ideas would have surfaced if the entire room had been engaged.
Some might blame the dynamic for the second scenario on the attendees – a few people were blowhards and the rest were wallflowers. Or, some might blame it on the topic itself - a real “stumper” in the idea department.
But wait a minute, these individuals always come up with good ideas. Why couldn’t they collectively produce good stuff when they were together in the same room?
Okay, so maybe there was a blend of extroverts and introverts in the group. Maybe the topic was a tough one. Factors like these, however, shouldn’t impact the outcome of a successful meeting.
The ultimate objective of any brainstorm session is to wind up with a good quantity of high-quality ideas with which to move forward. The best way to achieve this goal is to bring the right group of people together, then create an environment where each person has an equal opportunity to contribute.
Hearing all voices and generating quality ideas are dependent on two seemingly simple factors: how you, as the facilitator, introduce the meeting (the launch), followed by how you ask the group to start speaking (the call to action).
As the facilitator, you’ll get out of a session exactly what you put into it. If you come across intimidating, the group will feel intimidated. If you appear tired or distracted, you’ll be setting a mood that might limit or prohibit creative thinking. If you come to the meeting with excitement and energy, however, you’ll provide your attendees the greatest opportunity for engagement.
Your top priority is to create an atmosphere where people will feel comfortable and stimulated. Time permitting, starting with an ice breaker or warm-up exercise can be a very helpful way to get those creative juices flowing.
When you’re ready to begin the brainstorm, the way you set up the session will influence tone and dynamics and may also determine the meeting’s overall effectiveness. There are, of course, many methods for doing this, but here are three core techniques:
- Ready, Set, Ideate! Attendees are only aware of the meeting topic at a high level when they walk into the room. For example, they just received a simple email invitation that read: “Let’s explore cost-cutting ideas for second quarter.” The facilitator might provide a bit of context at the start of the meeting, then immediately open the floor for ideas.
- Diving right into ideas sort of turns the meeting into a race. People who love competitiveness might get a thrill, but it could turn others off.
- In a “free for all” session like this, there’s no guarantee that all individuals will contribute.
- Not all topics need much upfront information or thinking time.
- Sometimes getting those spontaneous “off the cuff” ideas is the best route.
- Thinking time. This technique is similar to the first approach with one subtle, yet important difference. After providing a bit of context on the topic, the facilitator calls for a few minutes of quiet reflection time so the group can think about and write down their individual ideas.
- Some of that magical spontaneity is lost.
- The reflection time might slow momentum for those who are champing at the bit to throw out their thoughts.
- Over-thinking might dispel an otherwise great idea.
- On the other hand, some thinking time might dispel an otherwise bad idea.
- Everyone is given an equal opportunity to think, self-edit, and flesh out ideas.
For extremely large groups, say 20 or more, this approach works very well with a slight variation: Break up the room into teams of three to five people. After the individual thinking time, add a round of team discussion time, up to 10 minutes. This allows each small group to share ideas amongst themselves and create a short list of favorites to share with the full group.
- Bring your ideas. In this approach, the facilitator provides attendees with what they need to know prior to the meeting (in writing, ideally, so that everyone has the same information). Then everyone shows up with thought-out concepts or even fully fleshed-out ideas.
- Most of that magical spontaneity is lost.
- “Over-thinking” could squash the seed of a good idea.
- There’s a chance some may show up empty-handed and be less engaged during the session.
- Everyone is provided with the opportunity to think through and flesh out potentially high-quality ideas.
None of these scenarios is better than the other – it really depends on the topic and the group. For example, the third approach (asking attendees to come with ideas) might be the best technique for a team that has frequent brainstorms, like an advertising creative team.
THE CALL TO ACTION
After the topic has been set up and people have had time (or not) to think of ideas, the next step in the process is to get the ideas rolling. Using the free-for-all “Ready, Set, Ideate” technique will certainly work in many situations. It’s a clean and simple way to get the ball rolling. However, if you want to ensure that all voices in the room contribute, consider these two approaches:
- Call on specific individuals. You obviously don’t want to shut down the frequent talkers, but you might need to give extra focus to the quiet ones. Let’s say you’re well into the brainstorm when you realize that Roxanne hasn’t said anything yet. Don’t assume she doesn’t have any ideas. Maybe she’s been waiting for an opening in the banter or she’s simply not comfortable interjecting. When you see this, it’s perfectly okay to ask a person who’s been quiet if they have something to share. Certainly, your goal is not to put them on the spot, but to provide them with an opening. They might say they don’t have anything, and that’s all right – at least you’ve offered them the opportunity to contribute.
- Go around the room. Asking each person (or small group) to share his or her ideas one at a time is the best method for ensuring everyone’s chance to be heard. Rather than having each person share all their ideas at once, ask each person to contribute just one idea and then keep going around the room until all new ideas are exhausted. The benefit here is that people will self-edit their concepts if they hear an idea that is similar to their own, or they might come up with an interesting thought that builds onto someone else’s idea. Remember, some people shine at generating fresh ideas, while others might be great at expanding on them.
Make sure to save time at the end for the group to prioritize the top ideas that merit further exploration.
When you’re bringing people together for a brainstorm session, or frankly any meeting where your goal is thoughtful dialogue and quality ideas, remember that you called each of these specific individuals together for a reason. As the facilitator, it is within your power to ensure that ALL the voices in the room are heard.