How to have a productive brainstorming session in 4 steps

How do you feel about brainstorming sessions? They are a fantastic way for teams to get together and problem solve. Kristen Price says brainstorming improves team building and critical thinking. It’s also helpful in distilling thoughts and ideas. Price also praises brainstorming for helping people to consider alternative viewpoints.

It’s still the very beginning of the new year. And, I know both, you and I, have plenty of goals to reach and milestones to accomplish by next January. What better way to come up with creative solutions or tackle particularly challenging problems than through brainstorming?

However, to make sure your next brainstorming session is effective, there are a few things to consider. Below is a list of four well-detailed steps to ensure you’ll run highly productive brainstorming sessions from now on. 

Step number 1: Set clear expectations

There are a few different things you can do before your session even starts to make sure it’s set up for success. To conduct a productive brainstorming start by setting an agenda and defining your goals. What’s the purpose of the session?

Maybe you’re trying to…

  • generate creative marketing campaign ideas? 
  • create a better onboarding flow?
  • improve lead opt-in rates?
  • decrease the amount of customer support requests?
  • improve overall customer experience and satisfaction?
  • reward recurring customers or power users?

It might be helpful to outline what you’re not there to discuss as well. Having clear session boundaries avoids unnecessary tangents and rabbit holes. Naturally, both of which get in the way of productivity. A non-participating facilitator will keep the participants accountable to those boundaries. 

People in a meeting discussing sticky notes on a whiteboard.

Identify additional roles

It’s also recommended that you identify who is the ultimate decision-maker. Of course, they should be present during the session to hear different ideas and thought processes. The participants are there to generate ideas and problem solve. While the decision-maker is there to avoid designing by committee. And, they will also identify the team’s next steps to ensure follow-through.

Therefore, allow them to ask questions before the session. Encourage it even. You can never be too careful. 

Ensure participants understand the problem

If the participants are unfamiliar with the problem, they can’t be helpful in the session. They will be wasting time by either solving the wrong problem, getting in the way or trying to catch up. If you want to set the right atmosphere for creative ideation, make sure the participants are familiar with the problem they’ll be solving. 

Enable a quality discussion

Additionally, feel free to provide tips for communication and discussion best practices ahead of the session. Attaching links such as this one or this one when you’re sending out the invitation will do the trick. It doesn’t hurt any to get a refresher of how to communicate during a brainstorming session. Don’t assume anyone knows the best way to communicate in a brainstorming session. Be diligent and provide tips for everyone. 

Step number 2: Include the right people

It’s going to be challenging to generate many creative ideas if all the participants have a similar line of thinking. So, to avoid such a challenge include a diverse pool of participants. Include people from various disciplines, experiences, and backgrounds. This ensures distinct problem-solving methodologies that are bound to provide diverse ideas. And, diverse ideas are a good sign of a productive brainstorming session. 

Different disciplines mean developers, designers, copywriters, or customer service reps, for example. Invite people with various experience levels since those in junior and senior roles also problem-solve differently. The same goes for backgrounds. Again, aim for a diverse participant pool.

Setting the right mindset

You can only run a productive brainstorming session in a judgment-free zone. Otherwise, the brainstorming will become ineffective and quickly. Make sure that everyone is clear that there are no egos, and there is no need for competitiveness. People who are open-minded and riff off each other’s ideas are ideal. This way, their egos won’t get in the way of ideation and problem-solving. 

It’s easy to spot a productive brainstorming session because of the fantastic flow of energy among the participants.

Avoid hungry participants

Lastly, make sure that everyone participating is well fed beforehand. Ideally, you can book the session right after lunch. Hungry people are distracted. So are those eating, which is why it’s not recommended to bring snacks as part of the session. (Though beers or drinks are fine if that’s your company’s thing.) 

A lunch serving of fries, calamari and a burger.

Step number 3: Improve the quality of communication

There are two helpful techniques you can try with your participants. 

The first one is phrasing questions as “How might we…?” Asking the right questions in a brainstorming session considerably affects its productivity. This is one of those questions. It’s a simple yet powerful phrasing that fosters creative thinking and problem-solving.

  • How might we decrease trial withdrawal rates?
  • How might we get more opt-ins on the site’s main lead magnet?
  • How might we get creative in our marketing?
  • How might we generate higher customer satisfaction next quarter?
  • How might we improve the user experience of using this feature?

The second one is, “Yes, and.” Yes, it comes from improv comedy. And, it’s a highly regarded technique for brainstorming. That’s because it fosters the participants to expand on the original line of thinking. Actually, this methodology forces the participant to accept the idea before continuing the discussion further. This is great because it avoids the potential of immediately dismissing or judging the idea. “Yes, and” is a proven method for improved communication and idea-sharing. Give it a try.

Step number 4: Follow a process

Finally, let’s talk about the session itself! As already mentioned, a productive brainstorming session should have a non-participating facilitator. This is someone who will keep the group and the session on track and ensure it’s moving along smoothly and in the right direction. For example, they will be the ones to point out if you’re going off tangent. They’re there to help the ideas flow and capture them as they do.

A strong facilitator is necessary to bring out ideas and keep the session moving forward and the participants focused. 

Gina Abudi, Brainstorming Sessions: The Facilitator’s Role

Another important aspect of keeping a good process is timeboxing. You’ll want to timebox the session to say 30 min. But, don’t forget to timebox the activities within the session as well. What kind of activities? Glad you asked!

A man writing on a whiteboard.

Breaking down a productive brainstorming session

Most brainstorming sessions can be divided into three parts: ideation, discussion, and voting. Those can be repeated multiple times. Doing a few rounds will further improve riffing off each other’s ideas.

The exact ideation method will depend on how you want to conduct the session. Thankfully, there are plenty of different brainstorming techniques you can try, such as:

  • Trigger storming
  • Reverse thinking
  • Brainwriting/Slip writing
  • Starbursting
  • Mind mapping

Whenever the participants are voting on the ideas, make sure it’s confidential. Avoid putting people on the spot. Use a dot voting method. 

Leave with a plan of action

Now that your brainstorming team has come up with some fantastic ideas and solutions, it’s time to follow through on them. The final decision maker can identify which solutions will be followed through on and how. Ending a session by creating a plan of action will ensure the ideas generated will be acted upon promptly.

A brain neon sign.

Identify who will do what. Maybe the user researcher needs to follow up on some data, the developer needs to set up a framework, or the product manager needs to create a new project ticket? Whatever it is, identify the next steps to leave the session with a plan of action. 

The takeaway

As you can see, creating a productive brainstorming session can be broken down into four manageable chunks. A lot of it boils down to prep work too. It honestly doesn’t take much to ensure a successful and fruitful brainstorming session. These four steps were specifically organized to help you do just that with ease. Now, go on. Solve those problems!

A dust of smoke that looks like a brain.