1. Start with group-defined ground rules.
People often hate group brainstorms because they’ve probably had bad experiences in which a few people have dominated the conversation. Or, some people don’t feel “important” enough to speak up, so they sit in silence the whole time. These things shouldn’t happen in effective group meetings. Take a moment to set ground rules to tackle these issues up front. Great ground rules include:
- Everyone participates; no one dominates.
- There are no bad ideas, so speak up.
- We are all here to learn, so be humble and curious.
2. Start with a group-defined definition of success.
Ideally, you’ve designed the agenda in collaboration with the committee/organization that is hosting the meeting, so you probably have a good idea of what the meeting goals are. However, it is very important that attendees have a voice in these goals. They’ve given up an afternoon, or even three days, to be here. If they are given an opportunity to speak out about their personal goals, they will be more engaged.
3. Get a facilitator.
It’s really important that the person who stands in front of the group and drives the agenda does not have a personal agenda. A facilitator’s only goal should be the success of the group. This neutrality results in the group being more engaged and free to speak. Facilitators can also be unbiased mediators and ruthless time keepers, enabling the organizers to participate and avoid uncomfortable mediation.
4. Make sure this isn’t the talking heads show.
Too often when groups get together—especially in academia (*eye roll*)—the agenda can become non-stop presentations. Presentations must be limited to give attendees the chance to discuss questions, assimilate new knowledge into their thinking, and figure out how to apply new information to a custom solution. So, include meaningful gaps in the agenda for breaks, networking, and small group discussion.
5. Add in some fun.
Maybe drop some fun animated GIFs into your boring PowerPoint. Or, if you’re doing topical break-out groups, put paper airplanes on the tables for participants to send ideas across the room. Finally, make sure you have great snacks.
6. Be thoughtful about room setup: round tables are almost always best.
When you reserve a room at most locations, they’ll default the room setup to lecture style (rows of chairs, or rows of tables with front-facing chairs). This is good for presentations, but these setups are a huge hindrance to brainstorming meetings. Instead, set up the room with round tables. Ideally, half the room is round tables, and half is open space for standing and congregating around boards for discussion.
7. Consider hiring a graphic recorder.
People understand information quicker if it’s heard, read, and conveyed visually. But too often, brainstorming meetings result in a large book of notes with no clear direction. A quick way to make sure your session results in distilled and engaging deliverables is to employ a graphic recorder. We’ve worked with ConverSketch in Fort Collins on several events (who is a member of the International Forum for Visual Practitioners) and find that graphic recording is highly interactive for participants, and that deliverables can be quickly used to communicate results to outsiders. Graphics can even turn into marketing pieces (like the City of Denver’s Sustainability Vision that ConverSketch and IBE helped facilitate).
8. Keep an “idea garden.”
We sometimes call this a “parking lot,” but it’s simply a flip chart reserved just for valuable ideas that are just a bit off-topic. Having this designated flip chart helps re-direct participants who get off track, honoring their idea by writing it down someplace where it “can grow…later.” These notes then provide guidance for future discussions that should happen after the brainstorm event.
9. Think of the agenda like a funnel.
All brainstorming meetings should be designed with iterations of the process “gaining perspective, distilling ideas, and prioritizing.”
- Perspective can include short presentations on critical information or group brain dumps on the topic (e.g., Who are our customers? What are the barriers?…)
- Distillation activities take that perspective and start to organize it. Often, this means “theming,” or creating buckets to organize the brain dump.
- Prioritizing means facilitating the group to answer the questions: What is most important themes, or, what do we need to focus on first? A good tool for prioritization in a group setting is dot voting. Hand out a limited number of dots to participants that they use to vote on items they believe are most important.