Brainstorming sessions are easy!
They do not have to take long time – there are no fixed rules and the duration will depend on the context, but an hour is a reasonable time for a successful brainstorming session and offers an opportunity for productive team interactions that can generate a lot more (good) ideas than an individual could have done alone.
A simple structured approach to a brainstorming session revolves around the use of the Post-It (be it physical or virtual) which has become a regular feature in types of group activity. The popularity of the Post-It as the medium for capturing individuals’ contribution is that it forces everyone to be brief and write down their thoughts succinctly. There is simply no space to write too much on a Post-It which forces everyone to summarise their point and use some key words or phrases. That’s a good thing as it takes little time to write them down and the best ideas can be expanded later – perhaps by the individual who is responsible for the completion of the task. The Post-It also provides a mechanism for individual ideas to be collected by sticking them up on a shared space – a real or virtual whiteboard, depending on whether you are doing this in a physical room or using a collaboration tool.
There are many descriptions of how to run a brainstorming session with Post-Its on the Internet – here is a simple one that is used with children. In summary, the session can comprise the following steps:
- Clearly identify the topic/task that is being brainstormed – phrasing this as a question can be useful to ensure everyone provides a contribution or response – an answer – that addresses the relevant issue being considered – the question.
- Everyone gets a bunch of (virtual) Post-Its on which each individual team member writes down their response to the topic/ question in a few words. It is important that this response is done independently by an individual. This way we get everyone to contribute and no ideas are off-limits.
- The Post-Its are then shared by sticking them onto the shared space. Now everyone gets to see everyone else’s ideas and, depending on how you do this step, it is even possible to keep each person’s contribution anonymous. This latter point is about democratising the process as it allows all ideas to be considered on their merit and not based on who made the contribution.
- The next step is about grouping similar ideas, because it is likely many people will have the similar thoughts. This is sometimes called “clumping” but “affinity mapping” is the fancier phrase for saying that we want to find the common factors so we effectively reduce the number of ideas down. At this stage individuals may be asked to clarify what they meant or (if the session is being done anonymously) discuss what it might mean. This discussion can be as important as the original contribution and should be captured in some way. While the session could end at this stage, when there are too many “clumps” it can be useful to have the ideas prioritized by importance.
- Prioritization is often done by voting – much as we did when selecting Capstone projects. Each member of the team is given a fixed number of votes, which in a physical workshop can take the form of round “bullet” stickers, that the individual can stick to identify the clump that they think should be a priority. There are many ways of doing the voting and the aim of this process is to force people to individually prioritize by giving them just one to three votes depending on the number of participants.
- Counting the votes for each clump or idea will give a clear group priority that, because it is a result of a highly visible democratic process, is difficult to argue with. This kind of approach can reduce the tension when it comes to important but fractious decision and so plays an important part in maintaining team harmony. So long as everyone abides by the group decision.
- Writing up the results of a brainstorming session might now fall to an individual who had the responsibility for that task. But the good news is that everyone has had the chance to make their contribution and the output of the task will be understood by everyone on the team and likely be of a better quality than it would have been if done by an individual.
So, do try to work together and brainstorm key aspects of your project – allocate an hour for the first one but you can see how your team will get quicker at this after a few times. It could even be useful to run such sessions weekly with a suggested topic being: What do we want to communicate to the project sponsor?
Why not give it a try before you submit your next assignment? You could use a brain storming session to identify risks? Or even work collaboratively on a vision map? Whatever you use this simple technique for, it holds the promise of improving the quality of your deliverables.