Before you go any further, if you’re interested in facilitating effective brainstorming sessions, do yourself a favor and pick up two books:
Brainstorming: "creating an atmosphere where a cloud of ideas comes together, allowing collaborative lightning strikes of inspiration to thunder through your team."
Weather analogies aside, brainstorming can be a fun, interactive, and transformative exercise.
As a part of any good service designer’s tool kit, brainstorming is a common method used to elicit ideas or feedback from a group. The challenge being discussed is irrelevant, so it’s important to focus on the voices in the room. The people behind the challenge are the ones best suited to address it.
While it helps to have aids to capture ideas as they come up (and someone to write them down!), brainstorming truly only requires a group of people, and a pen. With those two resources, you’re ready to go. If you want to do something a bit more comprehensive and professional, like a facilitated brainstorming discussion, consider hiring a professional facilitator. Objectivity in a brainstorming session is the name of the game!
And it’s true: one of the common mistakes facilitators make (when they’re asked to act wholly as facilitators) is to allow themselves to influence the team they’re working with. While it’s nice to be invited to participate and contribute, sometimes it’s better to keep a facilitator separate, so politics and other frictions are mitigated.
Back to brainstorming. One of the cardinal rules of engagement for facilitators and alike: there are no bad ideas. Brainstorming is not the time to defend, discount, or discuss the merit of an idea. It is simply the process of evoking and capturing them.
If you find yourselves getting bogged down in thinking through solutions, stop. Stand up. Take a break and come back. There’s plenty of time for thinking about the solutions once you truly understand the challenge you’re facing. Without taking the time to gather diverse input, defining the essence of the challenge is impossible. Even worse, team members may feel stifled if they are not heard.
Ensuring all participants, whether they’re the CEO or the administrative assistant, has equal opportunity to participate, is another excellent rule of engagement. Without hearing from the people in the mail room, companies consistently miss out on thoughtful (and sometimes customer-facing) feedback and ideas. Give people a chance to get involved in creating solutions to challenges that affect them!
About the author:
Ethan Bagley is a service designer, facilitator, philosopher, and many other things. He lives in the greater Los Angeles area with his wife and dog, and travels the world solving problems as a part of EB Advising. When he’s not creating solutions, he’s volunteering with Hack for LA, Atheists United, and other mission-driven organizations.