Recently I had the opportunity to work closely with CooperKatz principal Ralph Katz on a presentation focused on creating and facilitating effective brainstorming sessions.
Before co-founding CooperKatz in 1996, Ralph trained as a brainstorming facilitator at Burson-Marsteller, where he went on to lead the firm’s highly regarded creative services unit. He has carried the skills with him ever since, making the sessions a cornerstone of our open, innovative culture.
For Ralph—and, really, our agency as a whole—brainstorming is all about disciplined creativity. It’s about tackling a problem head on, but also taking productive “excursions” away from the problem. In working with Ralph on the presentation, I learned some key tips on how to create the most effective brainstorms in the business:
• Take time to define the problem. Before you begin brainstorming, spend time defining the problem you’re facing as accurately as possible—even if it seems “obvious” at first. Often, teasing out the precise timely or business challenges facing an organization can orient the team, and doing so can be the first major step toward finding just the right creative approach or solution. Using a “how to” format (e.g., “How to creatively introduce the smartphone, conveying that it is the first of its kind in the mobile space”) is a good way to articulate the problem while focusing on the desired outcome.
• Don’t skip out on an agenda. Many people think that a structured agenda inhibits creative thinking, but it is vital to a productive brainstorming session. Creating one with time-estimated segments helps ensure that you will cover everything that should be discussed. By putting an agenda together, you will probably identify topics and exercises—such as key audiences, social media ideas, or ideal headlines—that you would want to emphasize. This preserves time in the session itself for generating great ideas, and it eliminates confusion.
• Give yourself enough time. At an agency, it can be difficult to find any time for a group of people to meet—let alone a few hours. When brainstorming, allocating enough time is imperative for producing truly great ideas. You must immerse yourself in a topic to brainstorm it successfully, which is why we aim for two- to three-hour sessions at CK, when possible—even if it means coming in a bit early or staying a bit late. If enough upfront time isn’t allocated, it can strain the group after the session, because follow-up meetings are required.
• Don’t be afraid to enforce a few rules. It may seem counterintuitive, but we find that using a few brainstorming “rules” or guidelines to set the tone is effective. We kick off most brainstorms by either saying them aloud or visualizing them for all to see and hear. These include our intention to get lots of ideas from everyone, build on ideas, avoid using negatives (knowing there’s always time for vetting and evaluation after), and having fun. These rules set the stage for an open, enjoyable, and productive session.
• Stay in control if you’re the facilitator. Brainstorming facilitators are instrumental in determining whether a session is successful. They must actively listen, while capturing suggestions and ideas on flip charts or whiteboards to create an accurate record—and validate the thoughts everyone is sharing. They must defend each participant’s self-image, so that everyone is continually encouraged to participate. And they must maintain high energy for the entire session, so that the group does so as well.
• Use exercises wisely. Some brainstorming exercises relate directly to the problem at hand; others are excursions away from the problem, designed to “get the creative juices flowing.” It’s important to determine ahead of time which exercises will be most beneficial for your particular problem or group. Many times, it can be helpful to assign brainstorm participants brief “pre-thinking” exercises so they’ve put thought into the problem before the session begins.
• Parameters shouldn’t exist—until they have to. Although it’s important to know what your parameters are (e.g., budget, timeframe, etc.) when approaching a problem, you should briefly acknowledge them, but then disregard them during the actual brainstorming session. Doing so will help creative thinking to flourish, and often, it’s the most “out-there” or “off-target” idea that sparks what ends up being the big winner. At the end of the session, it’s crucial to bring the parameters back into play and assess your top ideas against them. This will help you to come up with the best, most practical plan.
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Have some advice of your own on effective brainstorming? Please share your tips in the comments.