Productive Meetings

How to run a brainstorming session

Paige Magarrey

You need to solve a problem. So, what do you do?

You gather together your team. You corral them into a room for 90 minutes. You cover whiteboards, you argue, you drink coffee. Then, you walk out – brainstorming session over. But what do you have to show for it?

Because unless you’re taking the time to run a truly effective brainstorming session, that invested time is all going to be wasted – all you did was pull your team away from their looming deadlines for an hour and a half.

The next time you think you need a brainstorming session, use our step-by-step guide to make sure it’s as effective – and efficient! – as possible.

Here’s how to run a brainstorming session:

1. Identify your goal 📈

Before you start pushing people into a meeting room, make sure you know what you want to achieve. And make sure it’s as simple as possible.

This is a good place to mention Alex F. Osborn, the ad exec who originally invented the concept of brainstorming in the 1940s and 50s. His basic idea was that beforehand, all participants should be given a clear, concise statement of the problem the session is meant to address. Then, in the session, the goal is to come up with as many solutions to the problem as possible – from there, at a later meeting with a smaller crowd, you can fine-tune the list (“It is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one,” Osborn wrote).

While not everyone agrees with Osborn’s approach, there’s a great takeaway here. If you really want to know how to run a brainstorming session, you need to start with a clear, concise goal. Focus on one simple problem you’re looking to solve, and communicate that to your team beforehand.

2. Set ground rules ✍️

As any introvert will tell you, it’s easy to get lost in a sea of voices in a brainstorming session. And, it’s easy for the conversation to get off track. And, it’s easy to – well, there are lots of things that can go wrong in this kind of meeting. That’s why you need rules.

You might find you’re able to develop your own rules over time (they might be a version of your rules for effective team meetings). But, here’s something to get you started: Osborn’s original four rules for running brainstorming sessions:

Go for quality

How do you get quality ideas? Osborn suggests taking a volume approach. “The assumption is that the greater the number of ideas generated the bigger the chance of producing a radical and effective solution,” he wrote.

Withhold criticism

As we mentioned before, in Osborn’s approach, there will be a later meeting to fine-tune the list of ideas. Suspending judgement during the actual brainstorming session helps participants to think outside the box.

Welcome wild ideas

Speaking of thinking outside the box, a good brainstorming session shouldn’t just be about recycling the same old ideas again and again. Focus on “new perspectives and suspending assumptions,” says Osborn.

Combine and improve ideas

Osborn also suggests using associative thinking to build on other ideas and spark new ones.

Again, you might not find these rules to suit your team (and granted, they don’t touch on etiquette at all), but creating a list of brainstorming rules will ensure that all voices get heard, and the creative juices really get flowing.

3. Choose your team 👆

Osborn suggests a group of 12 or so people, but you might find that to be too big a crowd. You want to encourage outside-the-box creative thinking, so bring together a group that will be comfortable enough together to do just that.

You also ideally want to bring together a diverse group of thinkers. Looking to come up with a new marketing campaign for the latest feature launch? Don’t just bring together the marketing team. CX experts, a product manager, even a few engineers will definitely add to the conversation.

4. Find a new locale 🗺

Change the environment, think differently – we touched on that in our post on walking meetings, and it’s just as true here.

“If you can, pick a space not used by your team for any other purpose,” explains author Scott Berkun. “If you use the same room that you use for nightmarishly boring status meetings, don’t expect people to be stimulated by the surroundings.”

Obviously this isn’t always possible – but if you do end up in the same old meeting room, consider doing something else to switch things up. Bring in a new whiteboard or grab some interesting snacks – or even just encourage the team to avoid their usual seat. Any little tweak helps!

5. Choose a facilitator 💪

It can be you, or it can be someone else. But you need someone driving the brainstorm. It’s their job to keep the meeting on track, and make sure you leave with something to show for it.

“Good facilitation requires good listening skills, very sharp group awareness, and the ability to help people express their ideas,” says Berkun. “The facilitator should run the whiteboard, writing down ideas as people come up with them, preventing people from interrupting each other, and giving the floor to quieter people who wouldn’t ordinarily find a way to contribute on their own.”

Keep in mind: it’s not an easy task. The facilitator won’t be able to contribute as much as they like, and will often find themselves wanting to focus on one interesting idea rather than simply writing it down and moving on. But if they can continually remind themself of their role, they’ll be a huge asset to the meeting.

6. Get the right tools 🛠

The facilitator should own the list – but the list should be in a central location for everyone to see. After all, it should be the main focus of the meeting. If everyone is keeping their own notes, it’s easy to get off track. This can also help the team to feel like they’re actually accomplishing something. As they see the list grow throughout the meeting, they’ll feel more and more engaged to continue to add to it.

That’s where SoapBox’s idea management tool comes in super handy. With SoapBox discussion kits, you can invite specific employees, teams or entire organizations to a shared central hub for all their ideas on a certain topic. Use SoapBox in your next brainstorming session to capture all the ideas you come up with. Learn more about SoapBox’s idea management tool here!

7. Go round robin ↪️

To ensure everyone speaks up, try Wrike’s Round Robin Brainstorming approach: at the start of the session, go around the room and have each person give an idea. Oh, and saying “So-and-so already said my idea,” isn’t an option.

Not only does this get the ball rolling, it ensures everyone gets talking right from the start, which will help to facilitate a more lively conversation overall.

8. Adopt an improv mindset 👋

Anyone who has ever taken an improv class knows the importance of the phrase “yes, and.” It means your never turning down a premise, you’re always building on it.

“As in comedy improv, good brainstormers don’t waste time tearing down silly-sounding ideas. Instead, they either improve on the idea by adding something awesome to it, or generate a new idea quickly, writes TED’s Laura McClure. “Another way to phrase this is ‘build on the ideas of others.’ This is one guideline I always mention at the beginning of every brainstorm, and reinforce throughout, since it’s the exact opposite of how large, traditional corporations tend to work with new ideas. The goal at this stage is to remix and add to others’ ideas — not filter or critique.”

That also means writing down everything. Every idea. The goal of the meeting isn’t to get bogged down in the minutiae of how an idea could actually pan out – that comes later. This is one of the biggest roadblocks that threaten brainstorming sessions, so it’s worth repeating: if you want to know how to run a brainstorming session, you need to focus on generating ideas, not validating them.

9. Fine-tune the results afterward 🎯

You’ve come up with a big list of ideas – great! Now you need to pare it back to the really good stuff. Luckily, you don’t need to do that with everyone in the room.

There are a few things you can do to start to develop a shortlist. First, directly after the meeting, go through the list yourself and clean it up. Remove any duplicates or ideas that absolutely can’t work for any reason.

Next, consider putting the ideas in a public forum for the team – or even the whole company as a whole – to vote and comment on.

SoapBox’s idea management tool makes this easy. Once the team is invited to the discussion, they can vote on their favourite ideas from the brainstorm, so the favourites rise to the top! Learn more about SoapBox’s idea management tool here!

From there, you’ll want to take the top ideas and hold a smaller logistics meeting to prioritize and plan. Again: you don’t need to be thinking about logistics in the brainstorm session. Do that with a smaller group later on, so that you’re not wasting the larger group’s time getting into the details.

That’s it! Hopefully these nine steps help you to have more effective brainstorming sessions with your team. And be sure to try out SoapBox to see how it can make brainstorming simpler and easier!