5 Ways to Transform Your Team’s Brainstorming

Written by Cathy Bouwers and Michael Grant on October 4, 2017

Great ideas don’t appear out of thin air. If you want your team to start taking more innovative approaches to solving organizational problems, you may need to change the way you work.

The Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science (CSMLS) is an association with big dreams but a modest budget. Yet, it has won several international marketing and communications awards alongside big budget organizations like HSBC, UPS, and eBAY. We attribute part of our success to the fact that our team has embraced the concept of brainstorming and we regularly include this practice in our work routine.

Here are five ways our team has made brainstorming work for us:

1. Make Time

Everyone is busy. There are never enough hours in the day or week to get the essential work done. When things get busy – and let’s face it, that’s all the time – we often get tunnel vision and focus on getting through the day-to-day needs. It’s hard to be creative when you’re constantly treading water. It is important for teams to make time to exist in a creative head space.

We schedule brainstorming sessions regularly and well in advance. Otherwise, we would just push the activity off. We also give this activity the time it deserves because it is important. Scheduling about two hours works best: it gives enough time for the creative energy to build, and participants have time to explore, discuss and debate ideas.

That being said, two hours on a Friday afternoon can seem like torture. So can an early Monday morning. Choose your time wisely. Depending on your team, recognize when they are most alert, ready for work and open-minded.

2. Plan and Prepare

If you are facilitating the brainstorming meeting, you need a game plan. If you walk in without one, be prepared to watch the participants awkwardly stare at each other in silence for most of the meeting.

For successful brainstorming, we find it is important for the group to have a shared understanding of the goal for the session – what they are collectively trying to accomplish. It’s also important to know the context and confines so you can tell when conversations have left the productive realm and wandered off on a bunny trail.

While your desired goal for the brainstorming session is a good starting place, you also need a plan to get the group there. Your role as facilitator is like being the conductor of the symphony. Your participants will play the music, that’s what they do best. Your role isn’t to master an instrument. Instead, you keep the group playing in harmony with each other and moving together to the end of the song. You’ll need a bit of structure to do that.

That structure can take many forms depending on your desired outcome. We often use a scattershot approach, where thoughts and ideas get recorded onto cue cards and posted up on a wall. From there, the ideas can be grouped with similar thoughts to identify emerging themes. Using activities like this gives the participants a process to follow and a way to channel their thoughts and ideas.

Give the participants homework to prepare for the meeting so they aren’t coming in cold. It can be as simple as some thought-starters or preliminary questions to ask themselves – anything to get their creative juices flowing before starting the meeting.

3. Keep the energy up

Prevent the brainstorming buzz from flattening by getting the participants up and out of their chairs. When creating your facilitation plan, include activities that will force some movement – individual presentations, group work, card sorting, voting, etc.

Another way we do this, and there’s no fancy trick to it: we feed people. Snacks and a healthy dose of caffeinated beverages can go a long way to having happy and energized brainstormers.

4. Get inspired

Many of our brainstorming sessions include the discussion and dissection of campaigns outside of the association world. We find inspiration in everything, from Dove web videos to the Lung Association’s website to the latest Game of Thrones episode.

We will often task every member of the team to bring forward something they have seen or heard that struck a chord. As a group we discuss the campaign/video/ad from a variety of perspectives: what worked, what didn’t resonate, whether it had the desired result, what could have been executed differently, etc. We want to learn from the successes and the failures.

We then turn the discussion to look at what we, as a not-for-profit member association, can use any ideas or elements from those examples to address our business needs.

Here’s a quick example of how that happens…

In one brainstorming session a team member presented a campaign from Taco Bell, where they sent female fashion bloggers a customized taco ring. On the surface, this seems to have little applicability to the association world. The nugget of the campaign we found interesting was the use of an influencer to reach an audience that Taco Bell couldn’t otherwise communicate with. We also liked the fun interplay between Taco Bell and the influencers through social media.

The CSMLS similarly has limited ability to communicate with the general public, even though membership looks to us to engage the public in raising awareness about the profession. We evolved the concept and created The Pocket Project, where we sent influential Canadians a customized piece of the lab – their own pocket protector. We asked them to share their new lab-inspired accessory with their social audiences. Here’s George Stroumboulopoulos sporting his customized pocket protector on Twitter:

5. Foster some healthy disagreement

Good ideas are rarely ever hatched perfectly formed. You need different perspectives and a willingness to challenge each other. We call that creative abrasion.

That’s not easy. Everyone on the team needs to trust the intentions of one and other. On our team, we’ve had to learn how to tear apart ideas without tearing apart each other. We are respectful of each other’s ideas but don’t shy away from disagreement. We have to remember that we are helping each other’s ideas reach their fullest potential.

If we didn’t do that, The Pocket Project wouldn’t have been a successful campaign and certainly wouldn’t have won an award. Disagreement is good – embrace it.

Creativity doesn’t just require creative people. You need the right team dynamic and method to encourage and foster the creative spark, to fan the flames – and sometimes to put out fires. Putting consideration and effort into your actual brainstorming practices will make the creative process much more effective, and the results all the more powerful.