Your next big idea could be the one that makes your business take off. It could be a feature that changes the way your clients do business, or a service that makes their lives easier.
Getting to that big idea, however, can be a struggle. And one person alone can only view a scenario from their singular perspective. That’s why it’s so important to borrow from the collective genius of your team, via brainstorming — and it’s essential to develop an effective creative brainstorming process to get you there.
This post will outline tips for preparing, facilitating, and following up on brainstorming sessions. Make the most of everyone’s time by creating a safe space to share off-the-wall ideas that just might turn into your next gold mine.
Why host a creative brainstorm?
The word “brainstorm” might produce an emotional response in you.
Perhaps you’ve sat in some incredibly useful sessions that yielded spectacular results. Perhaps you’ve been forced through an incredibly useless meeting that yielded spectacularly poor results. The make-or-break factor stems from an effective creative brainstorming process.
“Brainstorm” as a term was first coined by an advertising executive named Alex Faickney Osborn in 1942, meaning to “storm a creative problem and do so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.”
But the problem with traditional brainstorming is that it can easily lead to groupthink — everyone building off of one idea, instead of coming up with truly unique thoughts. It’s human nature to anchor yourself to ideas already in the air, instead of stepping out on a limb to share something you’ve thought of on your own. Developing an effective creative brainstorming process can prevent this.
I interviewed Shopify’s Luc Lafontaine, whose official title is Talent Development Builder, but whom is more accurately a brainstorming wizard. He walked me through all the essentials of the brainstorming process, and I’ll do the same for you with the insights he shared.
Preparing for a brainstorm
“You can do anything, but you can’t do everything,” Luc says of the brainstorming process. To make sure your session remains focused, you should begin with a question. What specifically are you trying to solve? Good examples of focused topics include, “How can we get people to perform X specific action?”, “What would lead to increased conversion on Y client’s site?”, or “How can we achieve Z result?”
Here are three things to consider as you plan and prepare for your next brainstorming session.
- The Facilitator: You need a strong leader who knows what they’re doing. This should be a neutral party, and not the project manager (or “champion” as we call them at Shopify). This person may not be you, and that’s okay. A neutral third-party will help draw out and synthesize ideas in an unbiased way.
- The Decision Maker: You’ll be creating a safe space where all ideas are equal and welcome, but at the end of the day, it may not be a democratic decision as to which idea(s) will win. Determine in advance who will have the final say on next steps. This is typically the Project Manager.
- The Stakeholders: Remember the trifecta of UX, Engineering, and Product — and be sure to have a representative from each discipline (where relevant). Other stakeholders might include someone from Marketing, Data, Content Strategy, or Account Management. Each attendee should be an expert in their respective field.
- The Naysayer: This one is counterintuitive but important. “Who do you think is going to bitch the most?” as Luc put it. We’re not endorsing someone who will argue for the sake of it, but rather someone who will challenge you to defend your ideas. In fact, Luc recommends that you sometimes even invite people based on their Enneagram personality type— and you may want to include someone who is a Challenger.
- The Scribe: Someone needs to be in charge of recording all the ideas and thoughts that surface throughout the session. This person is able to contribute ideas as well, but their focus needs to be on information collection.
You can’t be creative in a non-creative space. Give yourself room to breathe, and choose a spot that the team doesn’t regularly use for meetings or normal work. This may involve renting out a room in a local conference center or hotel, or moving to a different floor in your office (if you have one). It’s a bonus when you’re able to control the temperature in the room as well — you don’t want it to be too hot or too cold, but juuuuuust right. Be sure to have one big blank wall where you can place post-it notes from your brainstorming session.
If you have any colleagues who will be tuning in remotely, use a room that has a monitor so they can teleconference in, and have a digital document ready for them to contribute to. Inform your designated scribe that they’ll be responsible for writing out the remote members’ thoughts onto post-its so that those ideas get the same consideration as everyone else. It has to be said — it’s ideal when everyone can be in the same room together, but sometimes that’s not possible, so be sure you’re prepared to make them feel included.
Timing is important as well. My recommendation is to bookend the week — choose a Monday (when people are refreshed and ready to dive in) or a Friday (as people are gearing down and finishing their to-dos of the week). First thing in the morning is my preference.
Make sure everyone is fed and watered.
You’ll need to determine how long your brainstorming session will be so that you can book the room accordingly. Consider one hour for a micro-session, three to four hours for a medium-sized discussion, and a full day for a larger project.
When it comes to creative brainstorming, low-fi is key. It’s all about old-fashioned technology to prevent people from becoming distracted, and to help them access more creative parts of their brains.
Here are some items you’ll want to have on hand in your meeting room:
- Chairs: Be sure they’re comfortable and set up in advance, whether it’s in a u-shape, a circle, or in smaller clusters.
- Whiteboards or chart paper: Allow people to write with their hands. It takes longer to write than it does to type, letting people think more critically and creatively about the ideas they’re formulating. And of course, don’t forget whiteboard markers or sharpies.
- Post-it notes: 3 x 5 inch post-its are the perfect size to fit one thought; nothing more, nothing less. Be sure to have enough pens or extra permanent markers for each person in the room.
- Dot stickers: After the initial brainstorming session, it’s often useful to have small, circular colored stickers so that people can vote on their preferred ideas. Consider giving each person a maximum of two stickers (or “votes”) per brainstorming sprint, and dole them out accordingly.
- Timer: This can be a physical clock or an app to help the facilitator keep things on track.
- Refreshments: You don’t want people to need to leave the room to get a drink or snack, and you also don’t want people getting hangry in the middle of your session. Bring in some drinks and snacks to satiate people throughout the brainstorm.
Pro tip: Luc has a “Brainstorm Facilitation Kit” ready at all times — a clear box full of markers, post-it notes, and stickers so that he’s never scrambling if a session pops up on the fly.
Your job as facilitator is to tease the ideas out of other people, not yourself.
You might not always be the perfect candidate to facilitate a brainstorm session, but facilitation skills can be useful in many aspects of your life. You’ve probably been a facilitator more times than you think — with your friends at the bar when a disagreement gets out of hand; in a client meeting when two parties are butting heads; when you get in the middle of a healthy debate.
A good facilitator is someone who can read the room. They are socially intelligent, and able to make a group of completely different people feel at ease. Facilitators need to be able to say to the loud ones in the group, “What a great idea. Let’s hear from (insert quieter person’s name) now.” A facilitator should also be neutral — they are not participants in the session, and should only synthesize ideas, not contribute ones of their own. This is very hard for some people. Your job as facilitator is to tease the ideas out of other people, not yourself.
To level up your facilitation skills, Luc recommends doing volunteer work, introducing yourself to strangers, attending Toastmasters, and finding opportunities to get up on stage and speak. By making these public moments less scary, you’ll be building the confidence needed to be the calming force in the room of a brainstorming session.
The brainstorming process
To ensure that you get optimal results from your brainstorming session, inform all attendees as early as possible so they can block the time off in their calendars. Consider passing along an agenda in advance so people will know how their time will be spent, and present them with the main question you’ll be looking to solve so they can prepare some thoughts in advance and hit the ground running.
Once everyone arrives in the room, here’s what the day should look like:
Break the ice
The best ideas aren’t necessarily the loudest spoken ones.
Arguably the most important element of your brainstorming process should include making sure everyone is comfortable sharing their thoughts. The best ideas aren’t necessarily the loudest spoken ones.
If not everyone in the room knows each other, be sure to do a round of introductions off the top.
“My favorite question to warm everyone up is, ‘Tell me the story of your worst haircut,’” Luc says. “Everyone always has a good one.”
Establish rules of engagement
After everyone is acquainted, it’s important to decide on the ground rules.This should be determined as a group, and should outline how everyone agrees to behave.
Examples of brainstorming rules could include:
- No idea is stupid.
- Postpone criticism. Feel free to ask clarification questions, but wait until the team decides whether to dig into that particular idea to provide any constructive feedback.
- No solutioneering. Avoid focusing on the solution in the early stages of the brainstorm — just focus on the problem.
- You don’t need to raise your hand to speak, but make sure you’re not cutting anyone off.
- No phones or laptops.
Your team can establish whatever rules they think will help your particular brainstorming process. The facilitator should write these down and keep them in a highly visible place to be referenced when, or if, anyone breaks one of those rules.
Start with silence
I’ve mentioned groupthink, and people not feeling comfortable enough to speak up. A great way to mitigate both of these issues is to begin with silence: a solo brainstorm where each individual writes down all of their ideas on post-it notes. This concept has been called “brainwriting,” and studies have shownthat this particular brainstorming process generates 20 percent more ideas and 42 percent more original ideas compared with traditional brainstorming groups.
If you’re organizing a design sprint, sketching down ideas can also work with this method. In fact, even if it’s not a design sprint, sometimes visuals are more compelling than words when trying to explain a concept to someone, so play around with both.
Luc recommends that this solo period, or “sticky storm,” only lasts about three minutes. Be sure to use a timer to make sure you stay on track. As people are jotting down their ideas, the facilitator can begin to collect those post-its and start grouping them into themes and concepts onto the whiteboard or blank wall.
How might we…
You’re wasting everyone’s time if you already have a solution in mind.
It’s so important that a brainstorming session doesn’t have a predetermined or preferred outcome. You’re wasting everyone’s time if you already have a solution in mind. I previously mentioned that you should start any session with a question, but sometimes you might not know the right question to ask.
If this is the case, you should begin with a “How might we…” exercise, where you ask people to come up with the questions that will determine the focus of the actual brainstorm session. Again, a three-minute limit will suffice, and the facilitator’s role remains the same (collecting and sorting these thoughts).
Some examples of “How might we…” questions include:
- How might we find out what our end user really wants?
- How might we measure the success of what we’re trying to accomplish?
- How might we find a new way to reach our target?
If you employ this technique, the facilitator can instruct everyone to vote on which of the questions they think are the most essential to answer during the brainstorming session. People can express their votes by placing their colored stickers on the post-it notes of their choice. For each of the top-ranked questions, conduct an additional brainstorming sprint to get to the WHAT: what are crazy and original ideas answer that particular “how might we” question? As always, keep your eye on the clock throughout.
Finally, the brainstorm
It’s time to start thinking about taking action.
After all of your questions and ideas are up on the wall, and everyone has placed their votes via stickers, it’s time to start thinking about taking action. It’s useful to note that before jumping into this portion of the brainstorm, you’ll likely want to give the group a comfort break — time for lunch, a stretch, or a snack.
Once everyone is refreshed and ready, the group should together decide which of the sticky notes fall outside the realm of the present group (i.e. is this a question for HR instead of UX?). The facilitator should attempt to paraphrase and synthesize as many of the points as possible to make sure everyone is following. If any notes are difficult to read or understand, don’t be afraid to ask people to clarify their points.
When the top priority ideas have been voted upon, it’s time to decide how to take action. Here are two questions the group should determine before leaving the room:
- What is our deadline? This will vary greatly depending on the scope of the project. It could range from “next week” to “end of year.” Make sure you choose an ambitious, but achievable, timeframe.
- Who will own this? It could be that the Project Manager will take ownership of each of these line items, but cross-collaboration between teams means there could be multiple stakeholders for each item. Determine who will be the “champion” of each specific post-it note to hold someone accountable.
As important as an effective brainstorming process is for drawing out unique ideas, the really important part comes from the follow-through — making sure those great ideas you worked so hard on actually get implemented. Designate a cadence to check in on each of your action items’ champions — this is not the role of the facilitator, but rather the Project Manager who is working most closely on the project.
As a facilitator, however, one final duty remains. Send out a survey following the brainstorm to collect feedback on the session. What did people like? What didn’t people like? What could have been improved? Be open to these insights, as they will help shape and improve your brainstorming process in the future.
The process outlined above is one method that works well for some people, but it won’t be a one-size-fits-all for everyone. Below, I’ll share some tools, resources, and alternative strategies you can try to come up with a brainstorming process completely your own.
Six Thinking Hats
This is a brainstorming method developed by psychologist Edward de Bono, outlining six different colored “hats,” or ways of thinking about a certain problem. A red hat, for example, symbolizes intuitive or gut-instinct reactions, while a white hat stands for information: what are the facts available to us? Each participant is assigned a “hat” to wear (more accurately, a role to play) during the brainstorming session, or the facilitator can task each individual with wearing different hats during different parts of the brainstorming session.
This technique was pioneered by Shopify designer Verne Ho to run debates with his design team. The idea is to use a beach ball to establish who has the floor, adding a fun way to keep order during a brainstorm session. Particularly good if you have a rowdy bunch!
Especially good for design-related brainstorm sessions, mind maps are diagrams used to visually organize information. A central concept or theme is drawn in the center, and ideas or words building off that theme branch off from the core. For visual learners, this is a great way to go, although it’s harder to consolidate in a group setting than sticky notes.
Each person gets a sheet of paper with eight boxes on it. Set a timer for eight minutes, and ask people to sketch eight quick ideas within that time limit. Ask everyone to present their top three ideas to the group, and then have people vote using colored sticky dots to determine action items. This is a great exercise for rapid prototyping and design sprints.