Chairing a Brainstorming Meeting

Last Updated Jul 3, 2007 5:22 PM EDT

Sometimes meetings are held in order to pool knowledge and ensure that everyone is on the same page; but at other times meetings call for more creative input. Such meetings may be held to come up with:

  • the idea behind a new product or service
  • a name
  • a soundbite
  • a marketing campaign
  • potential project partners

In these situations, a brainstorming session may be exactly what you need. The terms "brainstorming" and "meeting" may seem contradictory—given that creativity requires time and meetings are limited by it—but the two may be reconciled. This article suggests ways for people to become more creative in a productive way.

What You Need to KnowWhat's the difference between brainstorming and analysis?

Before starting, you need to make sure that brainstorming is the right way to tackle your problem. Brainstorming is best done when you need to innovate, or come up with new ways of solving problems. If you cannot decide between several solutions, you should consider their pros and cons in an analysis session. In this case, brainstorming is not the best tool, as it will just result in additional solutions which are not necessarily preferable to the existing ones.

F you wish, you can start brainstorming from scratch if, for example, you are planning to expand to a new business area. However, it is best to conduct some preliminary research and analysis, so that you are aware of what your future competitors are already doing.

What's the best time for brainstorming?

Given that different people reach their "peak" at different times of the day, it may be difficult to find the right time of day for the brainstorming session. For example, some people perform best early in the morning, while others have lower energy levels in the early afternoon. It is a good idea to have these meetings before lunch— this way you will have a break that everyone can look forward to.

What do I do if energy levels drop?

Keep up the energy levels by staying positive. If you sense that energy is flagging, provide the group with a measurable but achievable goal, such as, for example, "Let's think of five more ideas before breaking for lunch."

What to DoDecide What You Want To Achieve

Although brainstorming allows people to think creatively about things, it will only be an effective means to tackle a problem if you have specific goals. You do not need to worry about the potential outcome at this stage, as this would restrict the participants' ideas—but you do need to keep your final goal in sight.

Find the Right Mix Of People

First, make sure that you're the right person to lead (or "facilitate") the brainstorming session. Good facilitators are enthusiastic, knowledgeable, tactful, and good leaders—their job is to ensure that the group is collaborating during the session. Don't hesitate to ask a colleague to facilitate in your place if you think you might not be the best person for the job: in fact, it is sometimes best to use someone who is distanced, and thus more objective.

Second, make sure that there are more people attending the brainstorming session than those who show up at regular meetings. Those familiar with your business, department, or team will need to be present, but you should also consider inviting other co-workers whose talents and experience—although they do not work on your projects on a daily basis—will benefit the discussion.

Some of us have first-hand experience with the issue at hand; others are natural problem solvers; and others come up with catchy headlines. Try to tap in to and take advantage of these different talents. Remember that most people are glad to be asked for help. However, it's best to not expect too much: if someone says they can spare you an hour, don't take up two hours of their time. Afterwards, always remember to say thank you.

Choose the Right Place

If the meeting is likely to continue for some time, make sure to schedule short refreshment breaks. This will allow people to stretch their legs, and will give them a chance to check their inbox and voicemail (should they wish).

Good brainstorming venues are well-lit, spacious rooms. Other useful considerations include:

  • Try to find a quiet room where you will not distract your other colleagues. If your budget allows you to hire a room outside your normal office building, go for it—such a step will reinforce the idea that you're taking the event seriously, and that you're trying to move beyond established thinking and procedures.
  • Make sure you have a whiteboard and paper and pens to note ideas.
  • Create an informal atmosphere: avoid assigned seating, and try to use a round table.
  • Ask people to turn off their cell phones to avoid possible distractions.

At the beginning of the meeting, explain why you are having a brainstorming session. You may need to interrupt during the session, to bring the discussion back on course.

As the facilitator you should:

  • make sure everyone participates.
  • encourage everyone to think of as many ideas as possible.
  • write down all suggestions on the whiteboard, flip chart, or large pieces of paper. Having these clearly visible around the room may encourage further ideas.
  • avoid criticizing suggestions, however outlandish they may at first appear. Doing this will break the flow of ideas and make the meeting rigid. Plus, you risk dismissing an idea that could lead to the ideal solution.
Close the Session Appropriately

At the end of the session, thank everyone for their time and cooperation and inform them of what is to happen next.

Record the meeting's notes as soon as you can. The longer you wait to write them down, the more likely it is that they'll make no sense and that you won't be able to decipher them. If you want people to read over the minutes, send them round as soon as you've finished them and provide a deadline for feedback.

Translate the Ideas Into Practical Solutions

Once you have your list of ideas, you need to rank them in order of practicality. Will any of them actually work? If you are asking the brainstorming team to evaluate the ideas, ask them to identify their top five ideas, and reject those that are too outlandish.

Once you have compiled a top-five "master" list, evaluate each option, keeping in mind the following considerations:

  • cost (including staffing costs and other overhead)
  • time required
  • competition
  • legal issues
  • drawbacks

If either the project at issue or potential solutions are too controversial or represent a radical departure for the company, you should immediately discuss them with senior decision-makers. Unless you are the final decision-maker, you'll need to inform the relevant parties as early as possible so that you can anticipate any potential fallout.

What to AvoidYou Don't Do a Reality Check

If you're leading or facilitating the brainstorming session, remember that although an idea may appear to be exciting, it's not necessarily beneficial in the long-term. Organizations trying to come up with a unique product or service will consider many ideas that—despite their first impression—will not advance. Some sort of monitoring is required to make sure that only viable ideas end up being implemented. If you have misjudged timing or context issues, you risk making costly mistakes.

You're Not Receptive to New Ideas

Often the most obvious ideas are dismissed because they threaten the status quo. Bottled water provides a good example—it was launched at a time when drinking water was considered to be a commodity that was freely available to all. However, what originally appeared to be a business failure has become a major sector of the soft drinks market. Always ask yourself: on what basis am I rejecting this idea? It might be the next bottled water!

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