Using Brainstorming Ground Rules
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.