Light bulb glowing with a brainstorming idea among other green light bulbs.

Successful brainstorming requires so much more than just pulling together a team in a room and hoping the ideas flow. Typical depictions of brainstorming show wild idea creation and an “anything goes” mindset, but the brainstorms that get the best results are focused, are disciplined, and lead the group toward a common goal. Brainstorming meetings should be fun and productive, but they are not all fun and games.

This year, we set out as an agency to improve our brainstorming abilities and work better together as teams when we need to come up with ideas for our clients. While this blog won’t cover the entire approach to brainstorming we shared in our agency training, it details some highlights of our brainstorming best practices for inspiring more creativity and getting more ideas.

Be a Good Facilitator

Good brainstorming is hard work, and a good brainstorm session needs a good facilitator to make it all happen. You are the party host. You can’t just show up with a can of beer and a bag of Doritos and expect everyone to have a good time. You need to plan ahead to make your brainstorming “party” fun for everyone.

The main duties of the brainstorm facilitator are to:

  • Define the problemWhat problem are we solving?
  • Define the desired outcomeWhat are the goals and deliverables?
  • Figure out the logisticsWhere and when is the session?
  • Invite the right peopleWhat is the role of each participant?
  • Provide contextWhat background is critical to know? What’s the situation?
  • Set the agenda How will the team’s time be used?

Be Prepared

Don’t just show up as the facilitator and expect people to come up with ideas. 

The best way to facilitate a brainstorming session is by starting everyone from the same place: defining key terms and providing essential background so all participants have the same foundational understanding. Ideally this is done prior to the meeting and might include items like:

  • Problem/question we’re solving
  • Definitions, background, and historical info
  • Desired outcome
  • Guardrails or boundaries
  • Competitive and inspirational examples
  • Framework and expectations for the brainstorming session

Facilitate With Authority

The duties of facilitator go beyond administration and moderation of the brainstorming session. In addition to preparatory material and information, be ready with brainstorming techniques — materials and/or activities — to help the team “get in the mindset” and to keep the conversation going. Each team will have unique personal and professional dynamics that you need to manage.

Launch the session with focus and direction.

  • Specific direction is good.
  • Express the challenges, goals, and objectives.
  • Pose the challenges as questions to the team.
  • Ask, "How do we get there?"

Allow time for both independent brainstorming and group brainstorming so different people can participate in ways they are most comfortable, and to allow people to build on a variety of ideas. The more ideas that are generated, the better the chance of getting good ideas.

Most importantly, as a facilitator (and as participants) you need to trust the process. While a goal and objective may be set, the path the group takes is not always linear. Be ready to pivot and capitalize on great ideas and engagement.

Be a Good Participant

A successful brainstorming session doesn’t just depend on the facilitator. Participants need to carry the weight, too, for this team effort to be fruitful.

Be Prepared

Don’t just show up! Your facilitator should have provided information to help you prepare prior to the session, so be sure to put it to good use. But, we know there are some people who are really good at doing homework and thinking in advance and there are others who like to live in the moment and come up with ideas spontaneously. Respect each other and complement your strengths.

If you are a good preparer but maybe a little shy in group brainstorms:

  • Bring your research and talk about it!
  • Share pre-brainstormed ideas early.
  • Dare to step into the spotlight.
  • Keep an open mind for off-the-wall, crazy thinking.
  • Remember: Stay in the moment. Listen and feed off ideas. Just say it already!

If you are more spontaneous but maybe not the best preparer:

  • Bring the energy and fun!
  • Loosen up the group; get ideas flowing.
  • Show enthusiasm for others’ ideas.
  • Listen and learn from those who brought research and knowledge.
  • Remember: No need to fill every awkward silence with a joke or comment.

Generate Lots of Ideas

Put some of the approaches above to use to make your next brainstorming session a success. And check out some of our other perspectives on brainstorming from a creative perspective and some ideas on facilitating a virtual brainstorming session. With best practices, solid preparation, and enthusiastic participation, your next brainstorming is sure to result in many great creative ideas.