When brainstorming works, it feels amazing. After an hour or so your group has imagined wonderful new things that didn’t exist yesterday. But there are a few tricks to getting it right. Here’s a simple guide we use to plan and get the most out of brainstorming.
We use Milanote (Editor's note: the author is the co-founder) for brainstorming, but these steps work just as well with other apps or a pile of sticky notes and pens.
Prepare — a day or two beforehand
- Create a brief. Include an explanation of one problem and it’s history. The more specific and focused you are, the better the results will be. Don’t try to cover too much in a session, focus on a specific area. E.g. How can we drive more people to our website?
- Invite the right people. A good mix of people with different experience will bring different perspectives. These don’t have to be the people who will execute on the ideas. Aim for 3–5 people max. This ensures there’s just one conversation at a time and people won’t end up talking over one another. Send them the brief so they have time to mentally prepare.
- Keep it short. 45–60 minutes max. Brainstorming is hard work.
- Find a quiet space. Somewhere with no distractions and plenty of wall space to work with your ideas.
Set the scene and explain the rules — on the day
- Explain the problem you’re trying to solve. Read over the brief and make sure everyone understands the problem. Share stats, watch a video or read over customer feedback to get the point across.
- No “killer phrases”. Here are some examples: “It’s too expensive, it’s too hard, we’ll never get it done in the timeframe, the client will never go for it, that’s a bit too out there”.
- All ideas are encouraged. If in doubt, blurt it out. No fear!
- The more ideas, the better. You want as many ideas as possible, they don’t need to be well thought through. You can do that later.
Generate ideas, individually
- Give everyone a stack of post it notes. This ensures everyone knows they’re expected to contribute.
- Warm up. Brainstorming can be intimidating if it’s your first time. Help people warm up by starting with a fun (if slightly cheesy) exercise. Something like asking everyone to “list three ways the world be different if rocks were soft”.
- Set a timer. After you’ve explained the brief, set a timer for 5 minutes and leave people to it. Timers create just the right amount of pressure.
- Write (or draw) your ideas. Have everyone silently write their ideas for on post-it notes for 5 minutes.
- Present ideas one at a time. Working round in a circle, have each person explain their ideas one at a time before moving on to the next person. Let people ask questions. Encourage people to expand on the idea and combine it with their own. Doing it one at a time ensures everyone gets airtime. Often, it’s the quiet people who have the surprising ideas.
- Defer judgement. Don’t judge or cut down ideas yet (that’s the next part).
- Build on each idea. Try to add something new to each suggested idea. See how far you can take each one and embrace the ridiculous.
Evaluate your ideas
- Critique. Now’s the time for criticism. Run through the ideas again, this time critically evaluating them against the brief. Ask each person to choose their favourite ideas and explain why.
- Create themes. Group similar ideas and you’ll start to see themes emerge. Use your wall space or an app to uncover patterns in your thinking. See a live example of this step.
- Agree on next steps. Take the 2 or 3 strongest concepts away and start bringing them to life!
Keep it simple
Brainstorming shouldn’t be a huge event. The main goal is to create an environment where people feel comfortable enough to share their crazy ideas.