9 steps to better brainstorming

Almost everyone agrees that brainstorming can be an extremely valuable process for a business, but our own personal experiences with brainstorming probably vary dramatically. I know some people who recoil from the mere mention of the word. Myself? I’ve had the pleasure of partaking in energizing brainstorming sessions that led to important change, but I’ve also had the pain of trudging through a poorly organized brainstorm that was DOA, and the frustration of the incredible-seeming brainstorm that never translated to any real action.

Keeping with our theme of Smarter Collaboration, here are nine points to consider before you schedule your next brainstorm.

1. Location, location, location.

Studies show that environment makes a major impact on creativity, but you don’t have to take a researcher’s word for it: ask your own team. Sure, brilliant ideas are hatched every day in sterile conference rooms with bare walls and awful florescent lighting and stiff chairs, but if you’re playing the odds, it’s never going to hurt to find a more comfortable and creatively inspiring location. Pro tip: this location doesn’t have to be within the physical confines of your office.

2. Take it to the cloud.

I’ve worked in a few satellite offices and know that working away from HQ carries the risk of feeling marginalized. The good news: it’s easier than ever to incorporate all of your key stakeholders, regardless of location. Cloud collaboration and web conferencing have even advanced to the point where some experts suggest scheduling some meetings in the cloud even if all of the participants do share an office. Online collaboration obviously makes it easier to capture (and revisit) all of the ideas that arise.

3. Find a moderator who isn’t afraid to step on toes.

You need a stakeholder who’s well-versed in the subject matter; it doesn’t necessarily need to be the most senior person in the room, but it does need to be someone who isn’t afraid to refocus a drifting conversation and to rein in ramblers and naysayers. Obviously, you don’t want a moderator who’s going to hog the mic.

4. Set parameters.

Brainstorming doesn’t have to be “everything goes.” If you work for a car manufacturer and you need to brainstorm ideas for a reinvented dashboard design, don’t let your meeting be hijacked by people wanting to talk about engines and hubcaps.

5. If you aren’t prepared to deliver big, don’t tell people to dream big.

Let’s say you run a Mom-and-Pop company that makes energy drinks and enjoys distribution throughout most of western Iowa. Your ultimate dream may be to catch and surpass Red Bull in market share and brand awareness. Great. You should have a plan for that. But when brainstorming actionable ideas for the foreseeable future, you don’t need to pretend that anything is possible and that you can sponsor a space jump. In fact, it’s probably best if no one brings up “space jump” in your brainstorming; it’s better to hear from the person who has a plan for cracking the market in eastern Iowa.

6. Establish your topic(s) ahead of time.

Some of the most fruitful brainstorming occurs when someone comes in with an idea and then others riff on it. You don’t have to pull something out of thin air. Announcing a general topic in advance will also give people a chance to gather supporting material and not just have to rely on hunches or anecdotal evidence when making a case for an idea.

7. Dive in, but don’t go off the deep end.

It’s a delicate balance: you want to linger long enough to riff (as above), but not so long that you bog down in hypothetical details.

8. Break out of departments.

We’ve written a lot about how some companies and agencies are shaking up creative teams. If you’re having strategic brainstorms that omit a certain department, see what happens when you open it up.

9. Leave with homework.

“Well, we all have a lot to think about. Good job, everybody!” Nooo! Don’t let the group disperse before everyone gets on the same page about action items and next steps. Don’t let people leave thinking they’ve pitched ideas into the ether, never to be seen again.

Post by Adam McKibbin

Adam McKibbin is the content marketing manager for iMeet Central. His writing has been featured in Adweek, the Chicago Tribune and The Nation, and he’s produced content for some of the leading tech brands on the Fortune 500.