Six steps to successful brainstorm sessions

Have you ever been in one of those cringe-worthy brainstorming sessions where one person spends the whole meeting droning on about their vision while everyone else stays uncomfortably mute?

idealog zac de silva brainstorming​Or, even worse, they disengage to the point that you catch them scrawling completely unrelated notes on their refill pad (really important things like, “We need catfood”, “Talk to a builder about the deck”, you know the sort).

Meetings like this can turn out to be the antithesis of what you really wanted – instead of getting everyone excited about new opportunities and ideas, people can leave feeling excluded, demotivated and thinking, “Why do I bother?” And as a boss it’s pretty heartbreaking to hold a brainstorming session and see none of your staff (who you hope are almost as passionate and invested in the company as you are) contribute or participate. There are things you can do to make sure your next session is a successful one.

The start of the year is a great time to hold a brainstorming meeting for your company or division. People are still reasonably fresh from their holiday – they’ve had time to think about the big picture (time to think, in general, is a bonus!), they’ve probably got a renewed focus on doing more for their career and, if they’re lucky, that to-do list hasn’t grown out of control yet. So let’s go over a few things you can do to make sure your brainstorming session isn’t a major flop and waste of everyone’s time, but instead yields some pretty exciting and helpful feedback:

Have a mediator

It can be someone within your team (it doesn’t have to be a ring-in) but they need to take the responsibility of shutting the conversation down if it becomes unhelpful, negative or off task; politely move along a team member if they become overbearing or start to fixate or waffle; encourage participation from quieter employees; and offer discussion points that will provide new ideas.

Make sure the brainstorming participants are aware of what you are after from them, well ahead of time

What problem is it that you want solutions for? A better relationship with your customers? New sales avenues? Make it clear beforehand. The more concise you are about what it is you want brainstormed, the more research your employees can do and the more informed they can be.

When you don’t tell them ahead of time what you expect from them, a lot of the meeting time can be lost to unnecessary explanations and background – it’s a real time waster. Tell them that you expect them to bring 2-3 ideas to the table each – as always, KPIs are good to hold everyone accountable and make sure everyone participates and pulls their weight.

Leave the ins and outs for another day

While it’s human nature (and good business sense) to run through the logistics of a plan, a brainstorming session is not the place for it. It immediately makes the discussion negative and shuts people down – no one will contribute if they think someone is going to play Devil’s Advocate and nitpick their idea. Instead, aim to keep it creative and get as many ideas as you can. Heard the saying, “No idea is a bad one”? This is the mantra for a good brainstorming session. The critical thinking can come later – for now, no judgement, no nay-sayers, just plenty of ideas.

Cut ‘em off from the real world

No phones, no internet, no PAs popping in to say that they have another meeting to go to. You need people to be focused on what you’re trying to achieve, not sidetracked by other business matters.

Brainstorming sessions often work best off-site, if you can manage it. Out of the office, people immediately shrug off the office mentality and become more lighthearted and open to discussion. Throw in a nice lunch (but no heavy pasta, which will have them drowsy in no time) and, hey presto, the ideas should come barreling in.

Add new talent into the mix

You don’t just have to stick to your current team for these sessions – sometimes new blood brings new energy and new motivation. It helps employees look at a problem from a fresh perspective and to consider new viewpoints.

Interestingly, an outsider can really encourage people to open up and share – some will rise to the occasion of having a new audience (ie those “show offs” who seek applause) and others will appreciate having a new face that will perhaps make their input feel valued (if it’s an employee who feels they’re not listened to at work). The outside talent can be anyone who will add zest and enthusiasm and experience: a consultant, an accountant, someone from a different division, even a loyal customer or supplier.

Take action

If an employee gives a brainstorming session their all (lots of energy, great participation, real thought) and then notices that the feedback and ideas don’t leave the room they were aired in, you can bet your bottom dollar that they won’t get so invested in the next session.

There’s not much more demotivating than not being listened to. Show your team their time and energy was worth it and run with something, or the loudest contributor in your next session will be crickets…

Zac de Silva is a business coach and former owner of Barkers Menswear. He currently runs Business Changing and works with over 70 clients, including BNZ, Westfield, Huffer, Foodstuffs, The Icehouse and Les Mills

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