A businesswoman points to a white board, leading a group of four other people in a brainstorming discussion.

How to Facilitate a Great Brainstorming Session, in Person or Virtually

Need some fresh ideas? Time to put on your brainstorming cap!

While brainstorming can certainly be done on your own, facilitating a group brainstorming session can be extremely helpful in generating new ideas and bringing fresh perspectives to a problem.

Read on for tips on bringing the right group together and facilitating creative brainstorming whether you’re in person or remote.

The four rules of brainstorming

Way back in 1953, Alex F. Osborn coined the term “brainstorming” in his book Applied Imagination. In the book, he outlined a system for generating ideas in groups, and laid out these four rules:

  1. Focus on quantity (over quality)
  2. Withhold criticism
  3. Welcome wild ideas
  4. Combine and improve upon ideas

For Osborn, and many who still use his methodology today, the more ideas the better in brainstorming. The more viewpoints and perspectives you can get, the more options you’ll have that you can then consolidate down into one (or more) really great ideas.

“It is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one.” – Alex F. Osborn

Have a specific goal in mind

Before you begin a brainstorming session or even schedule one, make sure you have a very clear goal in mind. If you’re coming up with ideas for work or an organization you’re involved with, make sure to have a specific business or organizational goal to guide you.

Document what it is you’re trying to achieve, as well as how you’ll take action on the ultimate idea(s) that come out of the brainstorming session. Then, be sure to share that goal with the group, so they know exactly what problem they’ll be helping to solve.

Create an agenda for the brainstorming session to send out ahead of time, so people have time to prepare if they wish. Some people like to think about something on their own before they share their thoughts or ideas with others.

Create a distraction-free environment

If you’re meeting with your group in person, you’ll want to hold your brainstorming session in an environment that is conducive to creative thinking.

Choose a location where people will feel comfortable, and eliminate distractions as much as possible. Consider implementing a technology-free zone during the session, so people can really focus on creativity and not be distracted by their phones or laptops.

If you always meet in your office conference room or a classroom at your school, consider moving the meeting to a new location, like outside (if weather permits) or to a coffee shop. Caffeine and snacks may help get people’s creative juices flowing too!

Gather unlike minds

When it comes to brainstorming, it’s important to avoid groupthink. People who are very similar or have a lot of the same experiences tend to think about things in similar ways.

If you put together a more diverse brainstorming group with people who have different past experiences and worldviews, you’ll get a wider variety of great ideas to build upon.

People with different perspectives tackle problems in different ways, so when you start putting those unique ideas together, they’ll combine into stronger, more well-rounded ones.

“Create a judgement-free environment and you’ll unleash a torrent of creativity.” – Alex F. Osborn

Capture and combine ideas

Make sure you or someone else in the group is responsible for capturing all the great questions and ideas that will be floating around in your brainstorming session. If your group is meeting in person, writing them down on a whiteboard for everyone to see is a great option. Seeing the ideas that have already been shared may spur new ones.

The ability to erase is also helpful because it allows you to easily move different ideas around and group them together. This helps you identify any gaps, unanswered questions, or concepts you might be missing, so the group can think more on those areas and provide relevant ideas.

Leverage technology to brainstorm remotely

As we’re still feeling the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us are not working or learning together in the same rooms. But thanks to the amazing collaboration tools we have at our disposal today, creativity is still very much possible in a virtual setting.

Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas, shared some great tips for remote brainstorming in his recent article for the Harvard Business Review.

“Start your brainstorming process by having each person generate potential solutions on their own,” Markman writes, “or perhaps have them work in small groups to think about possibilities. What you want to avoid is having the entire group start throwing out ideas at one another — which isn’t ideal in a remote environment anyway.

According to Markman, it’s helpful to give everyone a chance to engage and work on the problem first before your live group session. You can do this by capturing everyone’s ideas in a shared document where they can reflect and collaborate.

Then, you can leverage a platform like Zoom or Google Meet to bring the entire group together to discuss the most promising ideas and narrow it down to a handful of options to consider further.

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