Brainstorming is something that most of us will have done several times in our lives. Whether it was at school, university, at work, or even in your personal life, it’s a great way of generating lots of ideas and getting over the initial hurdle of any project - the blank page! However, it can be easy to think a brainstorming session is the solution to your problem, only to find you’ve just wasted a large amount of time and ended up none the wiser.

Brainstorming is a very informal way of holding a planning session, and it’s this laid back approach that makes them so successful. It is still important however, that you go into the process with a clear idea of how the session should work to make sure you get the most out of your time and the people involved.

We’ve picked out the most important things to consider before you jump into a brainstorming session, so let’s get organised!

Set Your Goals

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While brainstorming is usually considered one of the first stages of tackling a problem, you really need to decide on the goals and outcomes of your project before you start generating ideas around it. Coming up with ideas around a particular problem or area of your business is all well and good, but you really need to decide what it is you want to achieve, and then you can work towards that end goal.

You’ve obviously decided you need to brainstorm for a reason, so what was that? Are you trying to solve a specific problem or just looking for more input on a particular situation? What has to happen for you to be satisfied that your problem is solved and the project is finished? This is your end goal and you’ll use the brainstorming session to figure out what you need to do to get from your problem to your solution.

When you are holding your brainstorming session it is important to keep this outcome in the back of your mind at all times. Not only will this help keep your discussions and ideas focussed, it will let you quickly see which ideas are going to help you achieve that end goal.

Location, Location, Location

Students waiting

While you may have a standard set up for other meetings you hold, you need to be especially considerate when it comes to brainstorming. These sessions are all about being creative, and encouraging people to participate as much as possible. You’ll want to make sure your surroundings bolster everyone’s creativity, so perhaps consider getting out of the office for a little while and popping to a local coffee shop if you don't have anything suitable within your building. A more informal setting may encourage participants to chill out a bit and think outside the box, which can be where some of the best ideas come from.

You’ll also want to be considerate of this when planning the day and time of your session. Are people going to be on their best game first thing on a Monday morning or last thing on a Friday? Probably not! According to Mind Power News, the best time for creativity is between 9am and 11am, so perhaps a mid-week, morning slot would be best to get the most from your brainstorming session. Think about when you're are most productive yourself during the working week and you'll probably find the perfect brainstorming time.

Timing is Key

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As is the same with any meeting, it can be easy to get carried away and end up spending a lot of time discussing a problem, instead of actually doing something about it. The best way to get around this is to set a strict time limit for your meeting and make sure you stick to it! The amount of time you spend will correlate to how big a problem you're trying to tackle, but brainstorming sessions shouldn’t last any more than a couple of hours. Not only will you be wasting time if you schedule them for longer, but people are unlikely to stay fresh and motivated for long periods of time.

Additionally, it is also important to try and get as much out of the time as possible, so don’t finish early! Even if the ideas are tapering off, those last five minutes could lead to a major breakthrough, so use all the time you’ve set aside.

To ensure you stay on track, make sure you elect someone to be in charge of the session at the beginning. It will be their job to make sure you run on time and that everyone is staying focussed on the task in hand.

Make it Visual

Cutting paper

This is possibly one of the most important things about brainstorming, and it is what makes it a great way to map out your ideas. It also means you have a hard copy of all your planning, so things won’t be forgotten, and it is easy to refer to at a later stage.

There are several different ways you can document your brainstorming sessions, but the important thing to remember is you don’t have to keep them neat. The ideas might be flowing very quickly, and it’s more important to get everything down than it is to make it look nice. For all these techniques you can either use some paper and a pen, online tools, or a whiteboard if you want to make it more visible to everyone, though this may mean copying all the information down at the end of a session so you have a copy to take away with you, though this can be easily done by taking a photograph.

Here are some of the most common ways to document your brainstorming:

Mind Map

A mind map is one of the most popular ways of keeping tracking of everything you discuss in your brainstorm. Start by drawing a circle in the middle of the page with the problem you want to tackle drawn in the centre. Every idea that someone contributes about the problem should be added on a line coming away from the circle. Connected ideas or developed ideas should branch out from the same line, so you can see how everything intertwines. Online tools such as iMindMap, let you create mind maps on your computer, smart phone or tablet, if you're not into pen and paper. If you're interested in more tools available to you, Mashable has a list of 24 essential mind mapping and brainstorming tools.

SWOT Analysis

A SWOT analysis is a great way to see your problem from a number of different angles, and means you can come up with ideas you may not have considered before. Split your page into four sections, each with one of the four headings strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. You can also print off some great templates for a SWOT analysis, so you'll always be prepared. Looking at your problem from these four viewpoints will challenge you to think differently, and hopefully come up with a solution that was hard to see before.

Post-it Notes

Post-it Notes are a great way of laying out your ideas. The limited size means you have to be quick and concise with your idea, which prevents you wasting time by writing out huge paragraphs. They are also very easy to move around, so if you want to group certain ideas together, it’s much easier than it would be if it was written on a page. Additionally, Post-it Notes give you more creative freedom, as you can stick them to a large sheet of paper, the desk, the wall, a whiteboard, pretty much anything!

Post-it Notes encourage a collaborative approach to documenting the session too, as everyone can be given a pad to write their separate ideas on, and then they can be discussed when they are being stuck on the larger mind map.

Don’t Dismiss

Writing on whiteboard

Brainstorming is all about coming at a problem from different angles, and getting other people's opinions which are different than your own. It’s important to take every idea on board and don’t dismiss things offhand as a “bad idea”. What may seem like a strange approach at first, may turn out being the winning idea in the long run.

Take the time at the beginning of the session to stress to all participants that they should put forward every idea they have, and create a safe space where they know they won’t be ridiculed for anything they say.

Some team members will be shyer than others, and ensuring that everyone feels comfortable sharing their input is important. Missing out on input from these team members means you could lose some of the best ideas, and the session will be a waste of time for people who don’t feel valued.

Getting as many different ideas and outlooks on the problem is the main aim of a brainstorming session, and even if some ideas aren't fully formed, sharing them in an open environment means other team members can build on these ideas, and you’ll get a collaborative outcome that wouldn’t have come about another way.

If your struggling on how to kick off the creative ideas process in your brainstorming session, why not try Eyewire Creativity Cards. You can print off these 20 cards, each of which gives you a different way to look at your problem which you may not have thought of before. These are handy as you can take them along to any brainstorming meeting you have in the future, in case you get stuck.

Review and Follow Up

Typing on keyboard

A review session after the brainstorming session will be the time when you take all the ideas generated and decide which are good and which are bad. Maybe bad ideas are things that just aren’t feasible, don’t fit in with company guidelines or would cost far too much money, but these can be ruled out pretty much straight away. Parts of these ideas may be changed and incorporated into a useable idea, which is why it’s so important not to veto anything during the first stage.

Next sort through the good and usable ideas, and decide on the next steps. Organising what happens next is important for a number of reasons:

  • The project has already been kicked off with the brainstorming session, but moving on to a more detailed stage means the project is really getting under way.
  • It lets team members see that their ideas are being used, and not just being sucked into a vacuum. This will encourage them to participate in more sessions if they had fun and feel like they are contributing.
  • It keeps the project rolling while the brainstorm is fresh in everyone’s mind and everyone is excited about being involved.

Conclusion

Brainstorming can be a great resource for generating ideas and getting organised, as long as it is done properly. You want to make the most of your time, and make sure you are getting the best ideas possible. While the session itself may seem a little hectic, especially if everyone is getting very excited and generating a lot of ideas very quickly, if you organise yourself beforehand, you can make sure the session is as worthwhile as possible.

The more brainstorming sessions you attend and run, the more familiar you will be with how to use your time effectively and which documentation techniques work best for you. Combine this with our tips and you’ll be a brainstorming expert in no time.