Five Simple Ideas For A Better Brainstorm

You’ve heard the dreaded line before. “Let’s have a quick brainstorm about it.” These kinds of meetings have become the punching bag of today’s corporate culture. And the punishment fits the crime. In fact, 67% of executives consider most meetings a failure.

It takes planning and preparation to plan for a productive brainstorm session. Unfortunately, the time needed to plan is something that most of us find in short supply.

Here are five tips for hacking your next brainstorm session, each including an easy activity to try the next time you need to turn an unproductive meeting into a better use of everyone’s time.

1) Warm up well. 

It takes about seven seconds to make a first impression. The same holds true for a brainstorm session. How it starts indicates how it will end, so starting off well is vital.

Try it: Here’s a way to take introductions to the next level. Bring out a box of 64 or 128 crayons. Ask each group member to pick out the crayon that best represents their personality. Go through the group and have everyone describe why they chose the color they did. Keep in mind, this is not about picking a favorite color. The goal is to pick a crayon that will tell the larger group something interesting about who they are.

Use this as an opportunity to learn about everyone’s perspectives, moods, what’s important to them, or just how they think. This is an especially helpful exercise to warm up the group and get them prepared for a discussion that will require them to think more creatively.

2) Set the stage. 

When challenging ourselves to think creatively, it’s easy to keep our incoming biases despite our best efforts to drop them at the door. It’s critical to hit the reset button on these incoming assumptions.

Try it: When brainstorming around a new product, feature or marketing initiative, use a well-known metaphor to dig deep into the brand experience. In the solar system, the sun is orbited by small planets, which are orbited by even smaller moons. Brand attributes, services, and features have a similar correlation to each other. This exercise will help us identify the hierarchy of the attributes and features as if they were the sun, planets, and moons.

In preparation for this activity, each participant should submit 10 words they feel best describe the product, feature or marketing initiative that you’re planning to discuss. Each of those words should be written on an index card by the facilitator. Then, the group should place the cards into like-piles based on whatever criteria the group decides on. Once every card is in a pile, the relationships among those piles can be discussed.

3) Explore extremes. 

In today’s world, it’s just as important to know who you are not as it is to know who you are. By exploring extreme ends of a polarizing spectrum, you can help your team tease out distinctions.

Try it: Before coming up with solutions, it’s important to fully understand how to define success. With that in mind, use images to spark discussion around deep-seated thoughts and emotions. Bring a pile of random images from magazines. It doesn’t matter so much which images you choose, so long as they are diverse and you have plenty of them.

Gather your team and ask each participant to choose one or two images that they think best represent what sort of experience you’d like the end user to have with your solution. Then pull one or two images that represents what you don’t want the user experience to be like. Discuss the difference between these two piles and summarize, giving the group a clear illustration on what the end goal looks like.

4) Imagine a future state. 

Einstein famously said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” By imagining a future scenario of your product or service, you can help your team efficiently think about solving the right problem.

Try it: Dream about what could be for a moment. This exercise is all about ambition. Break your group up into teams of three to four people for this activity. Each team should be given a mock template of a magazine cover.

The title of the magazine should be a blank box. Decide which magazine you’d love your brand to be featured in. If you’re a tech company, maybe it’s WIRED. If you sell fitness gear, maybe it’s SHAPE. Whatever it is, write the name of the magazine at the top. Give each team 10-15 minutes to come up with a potential cover story about your brand as well as some supporting articles and features. Each team will then present their magazine cover to the group, sharing their thoughts on what an ideal future state for your company looks like.

5) Prioritize efficiently. 

Many ideas can be generated in meetings as a team builds on the energy of colleagues. All too often, little action takes place as an outcome of brainstorm sessions. It’s important to make the prioritizing an easy process that takes the pain out of ending a meeting with actionable items.

Try it: When wrapping up a brainstorming session, use a sports metaphor to help the team prioritize its ideas. In random order, put the top 16 ideas into a tournament-style bracket. Once the brackets are organized, vote on each bracket to see which ones advance to the next round. Before voting, give participants the opportunity to make a case for their favorite idea in each pairing. Continue to repeat the process until you determine the winning idea. This should be the agreed-upon priority. The ideas that make it to the final rounds but don’t win could be seen as secondary priorities.

While meeting culture won’t change overnight, hopefully these tips will make your next brainstorm more productive.

This post also appears on LinkedIn.

Josh Carlton is the Principal of 500THz, a boutique marketing strategy and research firm that delights in using creativity to solve marketing problems. He is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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