Five tips for bigger, better brainstorming

Helen Scheuerer

In today's fast-paced world of entrepreneurs and tech-savvy marketers, we're constantly on the lookout for new ways to reinvent ourselves and our brands. Whether you're after concepts for new content, marketing strategies or a plan for a new small business, brainstorming is a great way to take your ideas and creativity to the next level. Effective brainstorming can increase your business' productivity, give you a competitive edge, enhance teamwork and ultimately, improve and expand your business as a whole.

Bigger, better brainstorming

But running a successful brainstorming session isn't as simple as you might think, which is why we've put together five awesome tips for bigger and better brainstorming:

1 Be Prepared

Bigger, better brainstorming

Nothing drains away creativity and innovative thinking like being put on the spot, so the first rule of brainstorming 101 is: give people notice. Send an email to the team about a week or so in advance, letting them know the date of and time of your brainstorming session. Outline what the session will entail, and what problems you're looking to find solutions for. Instruct your team to come armed with a few rough ideas to throw on the table - this prevents the awkward silence at the beginning when no one can think of anything.

Arriving with some ideas already under their belt will make people feel a lot more at ease with the situation, and far more likely to share with the group. On the day of the brainstorming session, make sure you're providing a positive and welcoming atmosphere. Sharing ideas with a group of people isn't everyone's cup of tea, so do your best to make everyone, especially the 'silent thinkers', comfortable.

Putting on a morning tea or providing nibbles is a great way to get everyone in good spirits. Have this set up and ready to go before people arrive so that no brainstorming time is wasted. Check out the 3 Pillars of Brainstorming from Smart Storming here.

2 Lay Down Some Ground Rules

Bigger, better brainstorming

Have someone introduce the session. Even though at this point everyone should know why they're here, presenting the session within a professional environment and structure helps keeps things productive. Outline why you're all here and what the brainstorming should cover. Be sure to identify any problems you're aiming to solve, any goals or objectives you hope to reach/achieve by the end. It's important that people are informed and are at ease with what's going on, ask your team if anyone has any questions or concerns before you begin.

Introduce some rules. These don't have to be formal but they should highlight the importance of respecting each other's ideas and opinions. Be sure to emphasize that everyone's ideas are valid and important - no idea is too small or silly. No one should talk over anyone else or interrupt, these instances make for tension that productivity and innovation generally shy away from. Elect one person, preferably a decision maker in the business, to guide/facilitate the conversation, this way the session will stay on track.

These tips on running effective meetings from Mind Tools are a great starting point.

3 "Be Curious, Not Judgmental"

Bigger, better brainstorming

The wise words of Walt Whitman apply to our approach to brainstorming as well. In a brainstorming session, there's no such thing as a bad idea. Often, you'll find that it's these supposed 'bad ideas' that go on to fertilize some really incredible ones. If you're facilitating the session, you'll have to be extra careful not to let your natural tendency to judge good from bad get in the way - you need to be open to all possibilities at this point. It takes all kinds of people to make up the world, and indeed a business, so it's only natural that you may have one or two 'wet blankets' in the group. These people generally think of all the cons before the pros, and perhaps have a tendency to see the negative side to things.

Make sure you monitor how these folk contribute, as sometimes, they're more likely to shoot someone else's idea down, that offer up an idea themselves. A brainstorming session is also one of the rare times in life that you'll be going after quantity as opposed to quality (though naturally you'd like some quality concepts as well). Get as many ideas as possible on the table so you can pick and choose, and hopefully build upon later.

4 The Storm

Bigger, better brainstorming

When you're brainstorming the main thing everyone has to keep in mind is: the client/target audience. Step into their shoes and ponder about what it is they want from your business, and how you can best provide it. Get everyone to contribute the ideas they 'prepared earlier' to get things going, then - the fun begins. Question everything! How about this way instead? What if you turned it upside down? What if we added wheels? It all sounds very abstract out of context, but you see where we're going with this. 'What if' is a fantastic question to get the ball rolling - how do you think movies and novels are written! They all start with 'what if...?'

The point of a brainstorm is to bounce ideas off each other, and build upon existing ideas. Something the person next to you contributes could trigger a totally different idea for you - which is great! Voice your opinions and ideas, just be sure to remain positive and friendly. How are you going to document this session? Ask one person to take 'minutes' or document the outcomes and ideas in an official sense - making notes on a laptop is probably best. For the rest of the team however - this is a great opportunity to get everyone away from their computers and interact without screens dividing them. If people want to take notes - provide them with some good old fashioned pens and paper. This eliminates any digression into checking things online, as well as any anti-social behavior.

Click here for seven more brainstorming techniques! The last thing to note about the brainstorm itself is: keep it short and sweet. The last thing you want is for people to lose interest/enthusiasm in the ideas you're playing around with! 20 - 30 minutes is an ideal period of time (if your team is relatively small) for a successful brainstorming session.

Keeping things short avoids the danger zone where people get fed up and begin to cut potentially awesome ideas. Conclude your session on a positive note and thank everyone for their contributions and efforts. Let them know you'll send them a follow-up email within the next week.

5 Sleep on it & Follow-up

Bigger, better brainstorming

As with any kind of creative work, the best approach often the one after a long hot shower and a good night of sleep. Use the night following your brainstorm to gain some perspective - you'll often be surprised at what ideas peak your interest the next day. Determine whether or not you need a follow-up meeting. If you do, be sure to hold the next session shortly after the first (you want people to remember what you're after and the ideas that have already been discussed) but also be sure to give them enough notice, as mentioned earlier.

If a follow-up meeting isn't needed, send your colleagues an email thanking them again for their efforts, as well as informing them of the direction you plan on taking. This will show your team how much you value their contributions and time.

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As with any new method - practice makes perfect: the more brainstorming sessions you hold, the bigger and better they'll become. With a solid structure and great leadership skills, your brainstorming session is bound to lead to a well of creative possibilities. Have you got any awesome brainstorming tips? Share them in the comments below!