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Why a Little Structure Goes a Long Way towards Brainstorm Success

The vast majority of people who regularly lead or participate in brainstorms report that the results they achieve in their idea generation sessions are all-too-often, disappointing. A lack of fresh ideas, minimal participation, dominating personalities and inadequate follow-through are among the most common complaints.

This is the first in a series of articles that will provide a basic understanding of the key principles necessary for brainstorming success. By simply considering and applying these concepts, you and your team can experience much more productive and enjoyable brainstorms.

The first, and one of the most important elements, is structure. Structuring your session...Structure? In a brainstorm? Isn’t that going to put everyone in a box, stifle creativity and suck all the life out of your session?

In fact, adding some structure can have a big impact on the success of your brainstorm.

Brainstorming ChaosMany people mistakenly believe that because brainstorming is a creative process, it should be as free of structure, rules and process as possible. But in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Effective creative problem solving in any form always follows a structured process, whether the problem solvers realize it or not. Typically there are distinct phases for identifying and understanding the challenge, gathering and assimilating important background information, imaginative exploration, free association, critical judgment, refinement, etc.

But while individuals engaging in creative thinking might naturally follow such a process, it is unlikely that a group will spontaneously do so. This is why applying a proven, systematic structure to your brainstorming sessions significantly increases your team’s productivity and by channeling the creative thinking efforts of the group.

The SmartStorming 6-Step Structure is one example of a highly effective brainstorming process. It simulates the same type of process used by highly effective creative individuals, but adapted for group idea generation. The structure helps a brainstorm leader quickly achieve group alignment, focus attention, clearly state goals and objectives, inspire enthusiasm and create the momentum for spontaneous idea contribution.

SmartStorming 6 Step Structure
Step 1: Pre-Session Strategy Planning
Perhaps the single most important thing you can do to ensure brainstorming success is to plan your session head of time. Pre-planning your session provides you with a step-by-step blueprint to follow during the brainstorm, resulting in more efficient use of time and a dramatic increase in your group’s “creative yield” of fresh ideas. When you know what you are going to do in your session, you can spend less time improvising and more time confidently inspiring and guiding your group. (SmartStorming provides a simple Pre-Session Planner checklist that you can download for free by clicking here.)Step 2: Breaking the Ice (Group alignment exercise)
At the start a typical brainstorm session, participants may be in the room physically, but their minds are elsewhere. Their attention is often focused on outside concerns, responsibilities, tasks and deadlines. And the Smartphones they hold in their hands, a direct connection to the outside world, only make matters worse. In order to make the most of your brainstorm, you need to get your group focused on the task at hand and fully aligned toward the goal of the session. The faster you are able to do this, the more time and energy your group will be able to devote to generating ideas. Starting off your session with a fun group activity helps break down interpersonal barriers and frees up participants’ attention from outside concerns. There are countless effective icebreakers. Learn some…and use them.

Step 3: Defining Goals and Objectives
Most brainstorm leaders and participants, alike, have only a vague idea of what they are trying to accomplish. “Let’s see what we can come up with,” is hardly a specific goal to work towards. By clearly defining your session goals and objectives, and presenting a clear, inspiring challenge statement, you ensure that participants understand the task at hand and your expectations for the session. How many ideas, and of what nature? Are you looking for initial concepts or fully fleshed out plans? And when you state the challenge, are you using bland, cliché language that does nothing to inspire creative thinking?  Strive to make your challenge statement a launch pad for your group’s imagination.

Step 4: Idea Generation
Most brainstorms start here. And in fact, this is the “heart” of a brainstorming session, when an effective leader actively engages and guides the group in the exploration of ideas. Unfortunately, even this step is, more often than not, handled poorly. The key to effectiveness in the ideation phase (in addition to taking the previous three steps) is to employ a variety of ideation techniques to stimulate new, different ways of thinking. Such techniques are proven to help groups expand their thinking and generate a greater number of fresh, unexpected ideas. As a leader, familiarize yourself with some proven techniques (there are dozens; just look them up). Then in your Pre-Planning phase, decide on two or three to use during your session. Not only will you feel better prepared and more confident, you will watch your group’s productivity soar!

Step 5: Idea Evaluation and Selection
A well planned and facilitated brainstorm (following these steps) can generate hundreds of ideas— a handful of which may have real potential. It is critical to efficiently and accurately guide your group through the process of separating the “wheat” from the “chaff.” The most important consideration in this step is to have a predetermined set of selection criteria, which will serve as a yardstick the merits of ideas. Decide ahead of time what, specifically, will define a “good idea;” and then share your criteria with the group at the start of the brainstorm. In this way, everyone will understand the definition of success.

Step 6: Next Steps and Follow-Through
One of the top complaints we hear about brainstorms is that, even when interesting ideas are generated, no one ever hears about them again. The time to initiate next steps is before you leave the room. Wait until “later,” and the odds of decisive action being taken diminish significantly. Nothing will kill a great idea more effectively than passing time. So be sure to make this important, final step a part of your brainstorming structure. As quickly as possible after ideas are selected, determine action steps, assign roles and responsibilities, and agree to deliverables and deadlines.  This will help ensure that all the time and effort devoted to generating ideas, wasn’t wasted.

Like the carefully sequenced acts in a tightly choreographed play, each of the 6 steps of the session format builds on the step before to help maximize your group’s creative performance and productivity.

If your brainstorms are like most, they are loose, unstructured and free – and the results probably fail to meet your expectations. Add a little structure, and watch your team’s creative genius explode!

Click here to download your free copy of the SmartStorming Pre-Session Planner checklist.