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Laying Ground Rules for Brainstorming Sessions

written by: Heidi Wiesenfelder•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 5/24/2011

Brainstorming is a widely used technique in project management both because it encourages engagement from individuals involved in a project or work process and because it can lead to better solutions that would come from individuals alone. But effective brainstorming sessions require rules.

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    Using Brainstorming Ground Rules van Niekerk Effective brainstorming holds many of the same advantages that make workplace collaboration itself valuable. It requires contributions from individuals with different perspectives, encourages creativity, and promotes synergy as ideas are built upon each other and evolve dynamically.

    While brainstorming may seem a simple matter of asking a group of people to all share their ideas and opinions, in reality it is a different matter entirely. Without planning and appropriate brainstorming ground rules, a brainstorming session can be dominated by a few people who resonate with the communication style being employed or who simply overpower more soft-spoken or lower-ranking participants.

    The challenges can get even more complex when these sessions are not held in person, as when communicating via Skype video conference, phone conference, webinars, or even over an extended period via email.

    By incorporating a few simple ground rules you can optimize your brainstorming efforts and leave your team members feeling that they have truly had a voice.

    1. Accommodate different styles

    Suppose you are leading a brainstorming session and you start out by standing up at a whiteboard and asking folks to just speak out with their ideas and comments on a specific subject. Are you likely to get participation from everyone in the group? You might, but it would be in spite of your method rather than because of it.

    Some people are uncomfortable just shouting out their ideas, especially if it essentially means competing with others in a group to be heard. They are likely to just sit quietly while others compete for attention, only making their ideas heard if there is a lull in the group discussion. Others may require more time to process their thoughts before making a contribution. By the time they are ready to suggest some new ideas you as the facilitator may have already led the group on to another task.

    Thus it is important to set up your brainstorming session so that people who need time to process get it, and so that those who will not compete to let their ideas be known get a chance to speak. This can be accomplished any number of ways. For an in-person meeting, consider starting out by having people write down as many ideas as they can think of on sticky notes. Allow enough time that even those who process slowly will have a chance to get a few ideas down. You will get a visual cue as to when everyone in the group has some ideas simply by looking at the stickies in front of them.

    Once you see that the group has slowed down their pace, use a whiteboard or large flipchart paper to post the stickies and begin organizing them. You may want to take a quick pass at organizing them yourself, or you might consider using a group activity such as an affinity diagram. At this point you can begin to let the group dynamic take over. Let individuals begin shouting out new ideas based on what they see already posted, and add them on the fly by writing up a new sticky and posting it.

    Note that at this stage it is okay if the louder and more assertive folks start to dominate the session for a while, they may make their best suggestions under these conditions. Just be sure that once there is a lull, or even if you have to force a stopping point, you then ask individually each of the people who have been quiet whether they have anything they would like to add.

    You can use similar techniques with a video conference or webinar. For a webinar you can have participants send you their ideas via instant message and then compile them to display to the group, or you can have folks use the chat feature. (Unlike an in-person meeting, having some participants posting lots of ideas up front should not dissuade quieter or slower individuals from adding their contributions.

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    More Brainstorming Ground Rules

    2. Listen to and value each person's contributions equally

    As a brainstorming session facilitator or participant it is important that you actually listen closely to each person's contributions regardless of their position in the company, their relationship to you in the business, or your feelings about them. A million-dollar idea could just as easily come from a brand new support employee as from a veteran director. Even a seemingly outlandish proposal could turn out on further consideration to be the seed of an optimal solution to a problem or of a new business initiative.

    It is particularly important that you as the facilitator respond similarly to each idea, listening to be sure you accurately capture what an individual says, and responding in a way that doesn't seem to show that you value some people's ideas more than other people's.

    3. Don't judge ideas during brainstorming

    The brainstorming session is for just that: brainstorming. It is not for judging, evaluating, or eliminating ideas that have just been suggested. Save those tasks for a subsequent part of your meeting or for a separate session altogether. Whether you are a participant or the facilitator you do not want to stifle the creativity or discourage people from making suggestions by passing judgment when ideas are first heard. This issue may arise particularly often when brainstorming is being used to solve a problem, as in the Improve phase of a Six Sigma DMAIC project.

    As a facilitator, you can decrease the odds of this happening not only by announcing this and other brainstorming ground rules at the beginning of the session, but also by stopping any instance of judging in its tracks. You can also as a facilitator or scribe help to limit the judging by capturing exactly what a person suggests, not your interpretation or preferred version of the suggestion. If necessary, ask clarifying questions before adding an idea to the list and/or ask the person who made the suggestion to confirm that what you capture in fact reflects what he or she intended.

    Image credit: van Niekerk