Brainstorming is a creative, collaborative method you can use to generate a list of ideas or possible solutions to a problem. It is a powerful team building activity because all participants can play a role. Everyone is invited to share their ideas without fear of criticism. The goal of brainstorming is to generate many ideas quickly, and “out-of-the-box” thinking can be encouraged. The ideas are then discussed, merged, and refined. The group eventually works to achieve a consensus on the final list or best approach to solve the problem.
You can also encounter challenges running a brainstorming activity. Some participants need more time to formulate their ideas or are reluctant to speak in front of a group. Other participants will sometimes try to dominate the session. Also, if you find that you are working in an organization with hierarchical leadership, participants may be less motivated to share new ideas if they believe they will be ignored. You may have to actively manage the activity so all voices can be heard. While the idea-generating part of the activity is supposed to be judgement-free, disagreements can flare up during the review and evaluation stage. Consensus building is not always peaceful.
Here are some guidelines for an effective brainstorming session:
- Set a time limit
- Provide a clearly defined question or goal
- Prohibit negative feedback (words or body language)
- Encourage different perspectives
- Allow one speaker at a time
- Encourage quantity and quality
- Expand on others’ ideas
- Record all ideas
How to conduct a brainstorming activity:
- Introduce the challenge (generate a list, come up with solutions, etc.).
- Explain the ground rules for the activity.
- Set the timer.
- Participants take turns sharing their ideas.
- Encourage creative, non-traditional thinking.
- Record all ideas on a white board, easel paper, or sticky notes.
- When time is up, review the ideas.
- Guide a discussion on how to group or organize the ideas to refine the list
- If the goal is to arrive at a recommended solution, facilitate a discussion on the merits of the refined ideas.
- Achieve a consensus with the group on the best option.
At a meeting on a corporate initiative, the Knowledge Management Unit gathered participant input during a problem-solving brainstorming session using crowdsourcing. The goal of the brainstorming session was to get information on best practices, lessons learned, and action items. To encourage participation, the unit sent registrants pre-event emails with question prompts and explained how participant input would be used. At scheduled times during the event, the session host posted open-ended questions, polls, and word cloud prompts in the virtual platform (i.e., Microsoft Teams or Adobe Connect.) After the set time elapsed for each prompt, the session host displayed the answers, poll results, or word cloud. The session moderator facilitated discussions on the brainstorming results and explained what would be done with the collected information. For registrants who may have missed the event, a post-event survey was provided with all the crowdsource questions.
Instead of verbally sharing, provide participants with a stack of sticky notes or note cards so they can write down their ideas. Then, ask them to read their ideas aloud, have the groups move around and read each other’s notes, or collect them and read them to the group. Sticky notes make it easier to group and organize the ideas during the refinement part of the activity.
For online courses, set a time limit in terms of hours instead of minutes. Participants can post ideas to a common wiki or collaborative document. As they review the posted comments, they can leave comments or contribute additional ideas if they become inspired. If a consensus is required, schedule a web conference meeting, and facilitate the discussion.
Web Conference Training
There are several collaborative online tools that allow participants to type on virtual note cards or whiteboards during a live or asynchronous session. Using the web conference platform, you can set up small discussion groups so participants can edit or expand the ideas and arrange the cards or idea bubbles into groups or categories. Then bring the groups together for a whole group discussion where they can present their ideas and work together to achieve a consensus that meets the activity goal.