How to Run a Brainstorming Meeting that Actually Works

March 23, 2019

Typical idea-creation meetings are dull and don’t actually result in actionable items. Here’s how you can change that.

We’ve all been to a traditional corporate brainstorm session. You know the ones-someone rustles up a couple of not-quite-dried-up markers and everyone gathers around the conference table. Some light jokes are made to break the ice and we’re off and running. We shout out responses to the posed problem and they’re furiously captured on a flip chart-and we leave feeling triumphant and exhausted. A good day’s work-with little to no follow up, typically.

Sometimes when I say my team runs idea sessions, people respond, with barely contained smirks and eye rolls, “oh, you mean brainstorming.” And I like to respond, “no, actually, my team does brain-hurricaning.” Because what we do is more powerful than a brainstorm-what we do is we dig deep into the problem at hand, we use tools to elicit a lot of ideas, and then we build them into viable business solutions with actionable next steps.

Try these tips to run a successful idea session that people will remember and that could actually get you to your next big idea.

1. Set the right stage

You wouldn’t ask people to cook in a microwave in the bathroom, would you? (Please, don’t.) Similarly, don’t invite people to an idea session in a windowless conference room with 25 people around a table and no supplies.

To run a successful session, try to find space with some light (we think better when we’re not in a cave) and ideally, space for people to work in small groups. Scatter brightly colored sticky notes and markers and maybe even spring for a few snacks. I like to play music as people are coming into the room. These are all signals that we’re in for a different kind of meeting and it may even be fun.

2. Frame your focus

Go in with a clear ask and give some context. In design thinking, we often frame challenges starting with “how might we…” “How” implies there are solutions to the problem; “Might” says we’re going to come up with a lot of solutions to consider and there isn’t one right answer; “We” says we’re going to do it collaboratively.

Related article: Five Tips to Build a Better Culture

A good “how might we” statement also includes qualifiers or constraints, as this helps provide some of that context. For example, if you’re looking for new ideas to improve service: “How might we improve the customer experience for our senior citizens, in order to differentiate ourselves from the competition and ensure seniors leave feeling confident, not confused, about their next steps?” 

3. Create a contract

The goal of getting people together is to get their ideas-and sometimes that can be stymied because people are afraid to share, or they think only certain levels of people can contribute ideas. It’s also useful to make sure everyone in the room knows the expectations for the sessions. We often set expectations like “be open minded,” “ask questions,” and “be willing to speak up.” It can be helpful to include one that says “leave titles at the door” to signal to everyone that their ideas are valued regardless of their level.

By creating a verbal contract in the beginning, you can mention it again if you notice the behavior you want isn’t occurring. We come up with a verbal signal and ask the group to agree verbally to each expectation. We’ll often use something silly, like a line from a song; then it becomes a rallying call for the group, often far beyond the idea session.

4. Start silently

We like to start sessions focused on quantity over quality, because if we have more ideas to work with, we’re more likely to end up with something great. To that end, we start with silent brainstorming, so everyone has a chance to get out their ideas. To do so, everyone uses sticky notes and writes their ideas down, one per note. Then we group them into like categories and do a deeper dive to build them out-how would the idea work? Who would be responsible for it? What’s the budget? We build out each grouping from thoughts to ideas that we can later vote on and prioritize.

5. Decide on next steps

Before leaving the session, there should be clear direction and agreement on next steps. We typically will vote on the top three to five ideas that we think will solve the problem. Then we get back into small groups and each group takes an idea and begins mapping out next steps. What would we want to do immediately to consider moving this forward? Who do we need to get on board? When will we next meet to discuss?

We also like to assign a point person before leaving the room, so we have a designated point person to keep moving things down the line.

Try these tips to give your employees a memorable, engaging, and productive session that will truly make the ideas rain!

Michelle Histand is director of innovation at Independence Blue Cross.