Four Fail-Proof Steps to Planning a Successful Brainstorming Session

You’re getting ready to launch a new project, and you want to kick off with a solid idea for how to execute the work. That means you should gather the whole team to crank out as many ideas as possible, right? Not so fast. 

It’s true that two (or more) heads are better than one when you’re trying to solve a problem. It’s also true that brainstorming sessions can be a great first step in the creative process of idea generation. But in order for them to be a productive use of time, they have to be done right. 

Poorly organized brainstorms can amount to nothing more than time wasted and a stack of half-baked thoughts scribbled onto sticky notes that never go anywhere. So how do you avoid that scenario? The four steps below provide a solid framework for setting your next brainstorm session up for success—regardless of whether it takes place virtually or in a conference room.  

Step 1: Set the Foundation of an Effective Brainstorming Session 

To maximize the benefits of your next brainstorm, you’ll want to start by thinking through the basic parameters of the meeting. Both size and duration make a big impact on the quality of ideas you and your team will generate.  

Brainstorm size 

Research shows that small but diverse groups lead to more effective brainstorms. You can expect to get better, more valuable ideas with a smaller group of strategically selected team members with a diverse mix of skills, expertise, and personalities.  

When curating your hand-selected invite list, keep the following factors in mind: 

  • Team diversity: Especially in the case of cross-functional projects, ensuring every skillset is represented will result in the best ideas. A brainstorm for a marketing campaign that only includes engineers and strategists with no input from a graphic designer or user experience designer would likely result in a poorly executed product. 
  • Team dynamics: Everyone should feel comfortable to express their ideas, so be sensitive to different team dynamics, especially when mixing teammates at different seniority levels. Do you think a junior professional would feel comfortable sharing their most unconventional ideas with the CEO listening? Maybe, but probably not. 

Brainstorm duration 

Brainstorms don’t need to be long—in fact, the longer a meeting goes the more likely it is that teammates will get distracted or the discussion will go off on a tangent. 30 minutes should be all you need to properly set the framework for the session, discuss ideas, and wrap up before there is any time to follow a tangent. Setting an agenda will help get your team in the right mindset to share their ideas without losing focus.   

Step 2: Prepare for Your Brainstorm 

Your brainstorm session may only be 30 minutes on your team’s calendar, but work should begin well before the group gets together. Preparation is the most crucial step for an effective brainstorm session because it sets the tone for the actual meeting. You should have a specific goal in mind ahead of time and make sure your team is on the same page before the meeting convenes.  

Brainstorm moderator preparation 

As the person leading the session, you should clearly define the problem and provide context for the solution. If you need help whittling down to the crux of the problem, ask yourself these questions: 

  • What are the apparent opportunities?  
  • What are the obvious limitations?  
  • What questions can the team tackle to take advantage of the opportunities and overcome the limitations? 

These questions should help you set a clear goal for the session and prepare guided questions based on this goal to drive the team. Your questions set the framework for the way your team generates ideas—so make sure questions are focused but still allow room for creativity and spontaneity.  

Preparing brainstorm participants 

Notify your team in advance as to when and where the meeting will take place. Will it be virtual, in person, or both? Provide the necessary information, like room number, conference number, or video chat link.  

Once the logistics are out of the way, let everyone know the topic beforehand so they’re on the same page. Ideally everyone should have background knowledge on the topic and be prepared with their initial ideas for when brainstorming begins.  

Emphasize that everyone should show up to the meeting with ideas to share—you could even encourage them to add ideas, imagery, and comments to a virtual team page like SharePoint or InVision. Your brainstorm will be the most effective if your team members work individually first, and then collaborate as a group during dedicated brainstorming time. 

Step 3: Conduct Your Brainstorm 

You and your team are prepared with background knowledge, questions, and initial ideas—now it’s time to kick off the meeting. You only have 30 minutes to come up with the next big idea, so there’s no time to waste. Here are some pieces of advice that will help ensure you’re making the most of your time.  

Start your brainstorm solo 

Since your team has had time to prep, have everyone write down their best three ideas or concepts.  

Have participants share their ideas 

Once everyone has written down their top three ideas, go through them one by one as a group via screen share, whiteboard, or even good old fashioned sticky notes. It is crucial that in this sharing stage all ideas are welcome—don’t reject any right off the bat. You’ve built time into the schedule to narrow down options, so initially accepting every idea will set a positive tone for the meeting and encourage continued creativity.   

Narrow ideas down  

Once everyone has presented their top three ideas for consideration, start the elimination process. Quickly eliminate ideas that fall out of the basic parameters of what’s possible, reasonable, or what the customer wants. Discuss potential strengths and weaknesses of the remaining options—maybe even creating new ideas in the process. There could be one clear winner that stands out, or you may be left with several great options.   

Vote on the best options 

Depending on the goal of the brainstorm, you may be looking to find one perfect solution or stroke of genius. In this case, you may want to cast a vote to further narrow your options from the many on the table. 

Once every idea on the table has been discussed, tell your team to write down and rate their top two ideas. Even if results vary, this should give you great insight into the most promising options.  

Step 4: Follow Up with Brainstorm Participants 

Your team may not reach a consensus by the end of a single brainstorm. That’s what follow-up protocol is for. Although it’s an often underrated aspect of brainstorming sessions, follow-up is essential for ensuring your brainstorm was time well spent.  

As you decide on the final approach, make sure to share updates on how ideas have been transformed and which ones are being put to use. This will help team members feel valued and will encourage more creative collaboration moving forward in this project or the next one.  

By following these four steps, you’ll quickly learn that brainstorm sessions’ bad reputation is wholly undeserved. As your team gets more efficient at bouncing solid ideas off each other and singling out the most viable option, you may even start to look forward to these creative sessions!  

Got a favorite idea-generating brainstorm you want to share? We’d love to hear it.

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