So you’ve been tasked with brainstorming some ideas with your team. First, please don’t be one of those leaders who runs willy-nilly and chaotic brainstorming sessions that end up with poor results and frustrated team members! Contrary to what many leaders think, brainstorming sessions are not free-flowing creative processes where anything goes. Yes, there is a free-flowing element, but this must be combined with a structure that pulls the whole process together.
Here’s how I recommend you structure your brainstorming session to get maximum value out of it:
Step one: Clear problem definition
Here you write the problem in a single sentence on the whiteboard. Make sure you and your team are on the same page. You’d be surprised how often a team starts brainstorming without really understanding the problem. Invest time in articulating the problem or challenge clearly and make sure everyone agrees on it.
Step two: free flow of ideas
This is the step that most people are familiar with, which is the free flow of ideas. Here anyone can throw out ideas and let their imagination run wild. List down all the ideas on the white board. Beware, there are two important rules in this stage! First, no judgement! Ideas may not be judged, discussed, or criticised! This comes later. Second, team members should not explain their ideas at this stage. They should just mention the headline or title of their idea to be written on the white board. Give this stage a time limit. When the time is up move to the next stage.
Step three: idea explanation
Here you go through the ideas listed on the whiteboard one by one and let the relevant team member explain his or her idea. You still don’t debate the ideas or offer opinions, just listen to what the team members have to say. Others may only ask questions but not judge or comment otherwise. This step should be fairly quick and only last a few minutes. If someone takes too long to explain their idea politely ask them to summarise and then move onto the next person.
Step four: debate and discussion
Once again go through the list of ideas one by one and ask, “what does everyone think of this?” Now the team can give their opinions about the ideas. Make sure everyone is polite and respectful. You’ll find that as you go down the list several of the participants will let go of their own ideas and allow you to cross them out. Make sure you keep your ego – and that of your team – in check! People might get defensive about their ideas or offended that others didn’t like them. Make sure you handle this diplomatically and be fair to everyone. If your own idea is shot down than just accept it. If someone wants to really hang on to their idea than let them keep it on the list. Find the right balance between allowing a healthy discussion with the need to move forward and bring the discussion to a close.
Step Five: the democratic decision-making process
Now you’ll have a number of ideas remaining on the whiteboard that the group thought we’re good. It’s very likely that you won’t be able to implement them all. I’d suggest not more than five ideas, but that really depends on the situation at hand. How to choose the best idea that everyone agrees on? How to make sure the process is fair? Here’s what I do, give everyone three votes. They can assign those votes however they like. Meaning they can give one vote to three different ideas, or two votes to one idea and the last one to another, or give all three votes to one idea. You can distribute the votes as tick marks, asterisks, or team member initials next to each idea. If someone wants to give all three votes to their own idea that’s fine. Also, allow people to change their votes. Now you’ll have a list of ideas to move forward with. Everyone’s had a chance to express, defend their ideas and debate or support those of others. If you’ve done this properly there should be no bruised egos and complete buy-in from all.
There you have it. Now you have a creative process with just enough discipline to make it effective. Happy brainstorming!