Preparing for a Brainstorming Session

By definition, brainstorming is a “spontaneous” group activity in which participants try to generate as many ideas as possible, however outlandish, without criticism. Brainstorming can take a lot of forms, and the “spontaneous” part is often misinterpreted as “if you invite people into a room and tell them to brainstorm, then magic will happen.” That (almost) never works. I believe that brainstorming requires a lot of structure and planning to be productive.

I’m interested in creating a safe space where people feel free to contribute and where that contribution results in an actionable direction for the project when we’re finished.

There are three basic components to preparing for this type of session: the room you reserve and the resources you provide therein, who you invite, and the mindset of the participants. You’ll see throughout that I put a lot of emphasis on preparing the mindset of the participants and minimizing distractions.

In this post, I focus on the first component: resources.

Resources for Brainstorming

There are six resources you’ll need to keep top of mind, and one bonus resource that everyone thinks they need (but don’t!).

The first resource is one we all struggle with: time.

  1. It’s been my experience that the most productive brainstorming sessions take about two hours, so schedule accordingly. Any shorter and the session seems to end before anyone feels like we’ve really accomplished something. Any longer and the participants will burn out. In two hours, you can rehash the scenario, put forth a ton of ideas without feeling like you’re too under-the-clock, and wrap up with all the notes you need for a preliminary scope.

The next resources concern the space in which you’re brainstorming. If you’re virtual, that might mean picking a tool like Zoom that has the type of collaborative whiteboard capabilities you might need. If you’re in person, you’ll put your attention to choosing a room with certain features:

  1. A whiteboard. Make sure you have markers and eraser for the whiteboard. The whiteboard can serve two functions, but don’t feel like you have to use it to have a productive session; it’s just important that it be there, just in case. As participants try to convey their thoughts to one another, they can use the whiteboard to sketch out their data flow, screenshot, or other ideas for everyone to see and discuss at once. Or, as group ideas emerge, they can be recorded to the whiteboard for further development or as a list of those features the group has agreed on. If a whiteboard isn’t something you can access easily, consider using post-its.
  2. A large central table. You want to be able to seat everyone comfortably at this table, but it doesn’t need to accommodate more than 8 people.
  3. Doors. You’ll want to close the doors and block out the distraction of hallway noise and other people walking by.
  4. If you’d like to take some time to demo a database, form, or other electronic or networked resource at your company, make sure you pick a room with a working network connection and a working display. Assign a point person from the company to arrive to the meeting early and set up any demos so that valuable meeting time isn’t wasted waiting for the computer to turn on or for the demo to cue up.
  5. Everyone should have blank paper for taking notes. This gives people the freedom to make notes on the ideas of others, or sketch out some ideas of their own before sharing with the rest of the participants. You can ask them to bring their own, but I’ve found it works best if you supply the paper and the writing utensils.

Finally, here’s the bonus:

  1. Do not provide food or set up a coffee station. These are distractions. People can bring their own beverages, but this time shouldn’t be doing double-duty as breakfast, lunch, or an afternoon break. This will also save you a lot of hassle in terms of coordinating dietary restrictions and catering.

In the next post, I’ll focus on the second component: who to invite to the session.

Barbara Olsafsky

Owner and Data Wrangler/Strategist

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