Brainstorm meetings can be one of the most important parts of being on a team.
Lots of great ideas can come from a group of colleagues gathering together. But brainstorm meetings can also quickly turn chaotic without a little bit of structure.
Great brainstorm meetings are creative, innovative, mindful and feel like a safe place to think aloud. That’s not always an easy feat, especially as you add different ideas and egos into the mix.
If done right, you can get way more out of your meeting than you expect. But to get there, you have to create the right circumstances. Doing so can leave a team feeling excited and motivated for what’s next.
All team members play an important role because they all have something to contribute. Whether you’re the person planning the brainstorm meeting or you’re a participant, here are a few ways you can make the most out of it:
1. Start by defining your goal
Before the meeting even begins everybody should have some idea about what the goal is. Brainstorm meetings have a tendency to be pretty fluid and go where the energy of the group takes it, but having a goal in mind will help steer the team in a direction that stays on track and reaches the desired destination.
Not every brainstorm meeting has to end with coming up with a million dollar idea. That’s rarely how it works, and depending on the reason for the meeting, you may have a totally different goal in mind. You may want to get team feedback on a new system (what’s working or what isn’t) or come up with ideas for a client who will make a final decision. Brainstorm meetings can be as specific or lax as you want them to be, but creating a course helps everybody stay on track.
Also try to avoid setting a goal that is too rigid. It’s tempting to be really specific, but that may end up backfiring and making team members feeling limited in what they can contribute. Afterall, if your goal is your perceived solution, why have a meeting at all?
2. Come prepared (big ideas don't actually come out of nowhere)
Even though these types of meetings tend to be non-formal and are built on a creative spirit, the group should come prepared, at least enough to give others in the group a foundation to build upon.
We like to imagine that brainstorm meetings are places where a little back and forth leads to the next best thing, but the truth is that those big breakthroughs are the result of experience, research and a lot of time and effort. Team members being unprepared can lead to an awkwardness that’s hard to recover from, so send any necessary materials ahead of time.
When you get the details for a brainstorm meeting, try doing a mini solo session first. This way you’ll know what data or information to pull before the meeting that might be helpful in reaching the goal. You’ll also have the shell of a few ideas ready to go and you’ll be prepared to ask questions of others.
3. Set some ground rules
A brainstorm meeting can be intimidating for a lot of reasons, but mostly because there’s a big fear of having a bad idea. Brainstorming requires vulnerability, which is something not many of us are comfortable with in a professional setting.
These types of meetings should be no-judgment zones and “bad ideas” shouldn’t be disparaged. In fact, they should be welcomed. They might end up sparking something really great. There’s usually a nugget of genius in every idea we think is bad, you just have to chip away to find it. Creating an environment to do so is important.
Team members should feel included and comfortable with speaking up, so make that a defining characteristic of the meeting. When people feel they are heard, there’s bound to be more productivity. If you’re a participant, make an effort to have an open mind. There’s a good chance your idea will be made even stronger by doing so.
On the other side of the spectrum are meetings that are exciting and maybe a little rowdy. These too can squash ideas. People speaking over one another or interrupting can put a serious stunt in any progress. Instead, develop a way everybody can contribute one at a time and be heard.
4. Start small and allow your ideas to grow
If you’re brainstorming with a big group, consider breakout groups to start with. A more intimate space makes it easier to share ideas and feel included. Three or four people at a time can make a lot more progress than 20 or 30.
The biggest benefit of this method is that ideas are more developed by the time they are presented to the whole meeting, and when you add even more opinions, it becomes something much more put-together than it would have been if it had started out in front of 20-30 people.
The expression “having too many cooks in the kitchen” can really ring true in brainstorm meetings. Creating groups may save you and everybody else from becoming stuck, overwhelmed or uncomfortable.
5. Make a plan for progress and next steps
A brainstorm meeting is only as helpful as what you decide to do next. Even if the decision is to tap the brakes, it will at least let everybody involved know what to expect moving forward — and that may be the most important part of the meeting. Great ideas can fall to the wayside if an action plan isn’t established, making the whole endeavor pointless.
At the end of the meeting, make a game plan. Oftentimes it takes another meeting to really define the ideas the team comes up with. Because the goal of a brainstorm meeting isn’t to flesh out full concepts, one or two or more meetings might be required.
It’s also a good idea to have one person in the group take notes and distribute them to the team. This will help jog memories in the future and they can return to build on something that maybe wasn’t fully developed in the beginning. Sometimes it just takes a little time marinating in the back of your mind to get to something really good.