Have you ever facilitated a brainstorm where no matter what you did you couldn’t get the energy up and the participation flowing? Have you ever participated in a brainstorm and had a hard time coming up with great ideas? Have you ever walked out of a brainstorm and thought we didn’t come up with much that we haven’t already discussed before?
I love brainstorms! I love the collaboration. I love the energy. I love the creativity. I love seeing participants getting a flash of insight. I love hearing each person build on anothers ideas. I love great brainstorms. Bad brainstorms on the other hand leave the team more demoralized than if they hadn’t happened at all.
Over the years I’ve facilitated dozens of brainstorms and have participated in dozens more. Here’s what I have learned about facilitating great brainstorms:
- Select the environment: get out of the board room, away from the conference room and out of the convention space. Instead find a fun space. Try a room in the local children’s museum, go outdoors on a nice day in the shade, look into the local arts center, play at a summer camp, or try a fun restaurant. We take cues from our environment: the more fun, the more comfortable, the more creative – the better.
- Pick your team: Less is more. Participants have to participate when there are fewer people in the room. The right size for an association brainstorm is probably between 6 and 9. A diversity of opinions and background is preferred but also the willingness to respectfully listen and collaborate is key. And watch hierarchy because too many VP’s in the room may drown out the great ideas from junior staff.
- Start it off right: Before you detail the goals or share the agenda surprise participants by having them all engage in something creative. Color, doodle, practice some beginner yoga, cook something, finger knit, play charades, try anything creative that everyone can participate in. This sets the expectation that everyone will participate. Additionally, starting the brainstorm in this way disrupts the same old patterns of thinking and gets everyone out of the association mindset.
- Set rules: The purpose of a brainstorm is to generate ideas. It is not the time to vet ideas. Share a small handful of rules for the brainstorm and post them where all participants can see. This will help the group self-police if the conversation starts sliding into discussing the validity of any of the ideas. The no idea is a bad idea rule is an important rule for the team to adopt. In brainstorms 95% of the ideas thrown into the ring out are bad ideas. The more bad ideas the better because it is usually on the backs of the bad ideas that we can identify our best ideas.
- Guide with goals: Focus the conversation on one, two or three goals. Don’t brainstorm solutions to problems instead brainstorm solutions to reach goals. Problem oriented brainstorm confines our thinking. Goals oriented brainstorming opens up our thinking.
- Know what you are going to do with the results: Boards and staff teams get worn down by participating in brainstorms when nothing is ever done with the results. Use the results to fix a process, launch a new product, or change a benefit and then communicate back to the team what was accomplished. The team will then be ready to participate in their next great brainstorm!