brainstorming2Brainstorming is a powerful way to come up with new and creative innovations and solutions for your company. When done right, brainstorming can be one of the most powerful tools in your tool belt. When done wrong, brainstorming can be an energy draining production and waste your valuable time.

Over the years, I have sat through some creative and energizing brainstorming sessions and some horrible and draining brainstorming sessions. I have attended brainstorming sessions both as a professional and as a volunteer.

So what is the difference between a productive session and a production killing session? Below are some tips to help you steer your next creative team brainstorming session in the right direction and leave your team feeling energized when they are done.

Before the Meeting

Successful brainstorming actually takes place before the meeting. A lot of people think brainstorming is spontaneous and therefore don’t plan very much to do at the session. I feel this is a big mistake. Brainstorming does take place as a group, but individuals before the meeting think up the majority of the ideas.

Imagine you are the head writer for a late night talk show and you want to hear pitches from your writers for new jokes or skits for the week. As the head writer, it is your job to lead this meeting. Bear in mind that you are surrounded by some of the funniest people in show business. Imagine the response you’d get if you pointed to one of your writers and said, “Make me laugh, now!” You probably wouldn’t get much out of him or her because even though that writer is very talented, you didn’t give him or her any direction or time to prepare.

Now imagine if you told your writers ahead of time that you wanted them to come up with two or three good jokes about a certain topic. You might even throw in some ideas of your own to get their juices flowing. Imagine if you gave them a couple of days to come up with their ideas.

Now your meeting will be much different. Your creative team is prepared. They have a clear idea of what you are looking for and will probably have you rolling on the floor with laughter in the first few minutes of the meeting.

Whenever possible, give your creative team as much information as you can as far in advance as you can. Tell them when and where you’d like to meet. Tell them what you’d like to discuss and be as specific as you can. Let them know what you’d like them to be thinking about and what you hope to accomplish at the brainstorming session. The more prepared your team is, the better your meeting will go.

During the Meeting

Ideas may be thought up before the meeting, but during the brainstorming session is when the “magic” happens. One team member pitches an idea and that idea sparks a new idea or application in someone else. Then that idea ties into another thought that someone else was going to pitch and you are off and running. The excitement builds and builds until the whole room is swept up in it and can’t wait until they have a turn to speak.

So how do you nurture that environment and make the most out of your session?

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One of the simplest and best tricks is to get a big whiteboard and start writing the ideas down. I’m sure you can lead a successful brainstorming session without a whiteboard, but I have never been a part of such a session.

The whiteboard brings a lot to the meeting; I don’t know why you’d want to work without one. First of all, it let’s the person leading the meeting remain standing, which commands attention and respect. It subconsciously gives the person the power he or she needs to lead the meeting.

Writing down ideas also creates a sense that something is being accomplished and a list seems to give some order and helps people not to talk out of turn. Writing takes time, so it gives the ideas the breathing room they sometimes need. An excited team member might want to move on too quickly to a new idea before the current idea has been explained and teased out. Waiting on the idea to be written out gives people time to clarify and ask questions before moving on to the next item.

Writing down ideas also gives people a sense of contribution and importance. This is especially true if you write down every idea that is mentioned. Even if the idea is just a restatement or additional thought of a previously mentioned topic, go back and make a note, circle, or underline that idea. Every time a person speaks you should be making a mark on the whiteboard. This lets them know that they added to the conversation and what they said was valuable, and it helps the group want to keep adding to the conversation.

After the Meeting

Wow! You had a great brainstorming session and you’ve got a whole list of great ideas and creative solutions for problems you didn’t even know you had, but your job is not done yet. In order for your brainstorming session to be a success, you have to follow up.

The first thing you should do is thank everyone and give a brief overview of the meeting making sure to hit all the highlights. This can be done in person or in an email.

Then you actually need to do something with the list that you have.

  • Is the information saved somewhere?
  • Did you take a picture of the whiteboard or have someone type up the information?
  • What are you going to do with that information?
  • Were your expectations met for the meeting?
  • Are you going to send it out to the group or run it by a client?
  • How are you going to implement the ideas on the list?
  • Are you going to use all the ideas or weed through the list and pick the best ideas?
  • How are the ideas going to be sorted?
  • Who is going to go through the ideas?

The list of follow up questions goes on and on.

Following up after a brainstorming session is one of the most important and most overlooked steps. Obviously, following up on your meeting will not change the outcome of that meeting. It will, however, change the outcome of your next brainstorming session.

No one wants to spend time preparing for a meeting and pitching ideas if they are never going to be used. If the ideas you come up with are never implemented, then why would anyone want to spend time coming up with more ideas? If you do not follow up with your team after a meeting, your next brainstorming session will seem like a complete waste of time, which, in turn, will suck the life out of your next meeting.

The best thing you can do is start implementing the items you discussed at your brainstorming session as quickly as possible. The sooner people can see actual results from their hard work and creativity the more excited they will be about the next meeting and their jobs, and company morale will increase. Whatever you do, don’t skip the follow-up.

Summary

There are several other tricks and tips that could be applied to any meeting. These are only a handful of the main themes to keep in mind if you are leading a team of creative professionals in a brainstorming session. The main thing is to remember as a leader that your job starts well before the meeting and isn’t over once you walk out the door. Making brainstorming a success requires planning and follow through.