This article was based on episode 220 of The Modern Manager podcast. Get the full episode guide when you become a member at themodernmanager.com/join. Purchase any full episode guide at themodernmanager.com/shop.
Brainstorming is an essential part of teaming. It is used to generate solutions, identify potential challenges, develop new products, and think expansively on almost any topic. Brainstorming can boost creativity, facilitate engagement by all team members, and increase whose voices are included.
Some of the best brainstorm sessions I’ve been part of have more about structure and planning rather than a creative free-for-all. To get the most out of your brainstorm sessions, try using these three approaches.
WAVE A MAGIC WAND
Even though we might say “all ideas are good ideas,” it’s hard not to censor ourselves when sharing ideas with our team members. Sometimes we do this subconsciously, assuming that we don't have the budget or resources for one idea, or another will simply take too long. By holding back these ideas, we’ve limited the larger pool of possibilities. Maybe there’s additional funding we can tap into, or with a small tweak, the cost of an idea can be greatly reduced to fit within our budget. We’ll never know if we don’t share all our ideas.
To overcome self-censoring, Sanford professor BJ Fogg suggests the phrasing “If you could wave a magic wand.” The beauty of this approach is that we’re inviting all ideas, even the impossible, to be shared. And in many cases, it works! I used this phrasing with a team and one idea offered was that a fellow team member become telepathic! To “wave a magic wand” opens the door for ideas of all kinds: big and small, simple and complex, obvious and innovative.
PREPARE PROMPTS AHEAD OF TIME
While it might seem counterintuitive, most people find it easier to generate more ideas when they’re given specific prompts instead of broad questions. While starting with a general “how might we…” can get the brainstorm session started, it helps to have a series of prompts prepared to keep those juices flowing. Prompts can take almost any form related to the topic of the brainstorm. Here are a few of my favorites:
Physical and digital resources: physical spaces, technology, equipment
People: all employees, senior leaders, customers
Time: one time change, daily behavior, quarterly
Business functions: R&D, HR, finance, marketing
Trends: environmental, global, economic
The key is to make a list of prompts ahead of time so that you’ve got them ready to go when you start the brainstorm. You can always ask if anyone else wants to offer a prompt to keep the brainstorm going and ensure you didn’t miss an important perspective.
EXPAND ON A SINGLE IDEA
A first round of brainstorming, especially when using the “magic wand” approach will often generate dozens if not hundreds of ideas. Before discarding the most wild and basic ideas, and simply selecting from what’s left, I suggest trying a second round of brainstorming that iterates on one idea. Perhaps there is an idea that would have a huge impact but is too costly. Or, maybe it’s an idea that would be incredibly easy to implement, but not as powerful as you’d like. Or, maybe it’s a strong idea on its own, but worth exploring a bit more for the sake of something even better.
During this second round brainstorm, the idea you start with becomes the focal point for amendments. Ask the group, “how might we make this idea more feasible by being easier to do, faster to do, cheaper, more impactful, more aligned with our capabilities, more interesting to customers or stakeholders, etc.” Everyone then offers new ideas that are amendments or revisions to the original idea. This approach helps you discover if there is an even better version of the original idea.
As you engage people in the creative process of brainstorming, no matter what approach you’re using, be sure to give the group quiet time to think of ideas on their own before sharing. Brainstorming works best when people can initially generate ideas without being influenced by others. Plus, having people write down their ideas, ideally on sticky notes or a digital document, automates capturing the ideas without additional work and makes it easier for everyone to view the ideas once they’re shared. Now go get those creative juices flowing!
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This article was based on episode 220 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.