Better Brainstorming

If you say “brainstorming” to a roomful of people, half will cheer, and the other half will wince. The fact is that many people are intimidated by sharing their unbaked ideas with a roomful of their coworkers. After all, the fear of rejection is a strong incentive for hiding in the corner. Luckily for all of us, there are brave business coaches and experts ready to help make the brainstorming process more comfortable and effective for everyone. 

Hal Gregersen – Brainstorm Questions, Not Answers

Instead of exhausting yourself by forcing answers, sometimes it’s better to switch gears and instead ask questions about the problem. As Hal Gregersen pointed out in an article for Harvard Business Review, “fresh questions often beget novel – even transformative insights.” He recommends that the process begins with the selection of one challenge you want to focus on. Ideally, you should invite two to three other people with no direct experience with the problem to help.

The best questions, according to Gregerson, are open, short, and simple. As a group, spend about four minutes generating as many questions as you can. The only rule here (other than being a decent human being) is that no answers are allowed! Someone will need to record the questions exactly as they are asked without paraphrasing. 

After the meeting, the leader should study the questions and choose a few that seem especially intriguing. What will you do over the next few weeks to find potential solutions implied by the new questions? Gregerson recommends doing three rounds of the question burst exercise. 

Team members must be accountable for follow-up; is there anything more obnoxious than the person who asks tons of questions but never provides any solutions? 

Gabriella Goddard – Make Everyone Feel Safe

As anyone who’s worked in a toxic environment can attest, if people feel that they aren’t empowered or treated fairly, brainstorming sessions will be stifled and uncomfortable.  Goddard outlined her BRAINSTORM model in an article for Fast Company last year. She emphasizes being open and respectful of each other’s contributions, avoiding negativity, and sharing the floor to hear all ideas. She also recommends taking regular breaks and making your sessions fun by introducing short games and icebreakers. Goddard advises opening the session with some ground-rules about being open-minded, respectful, and inclusive.

Forbes Expert Panel – Managers, Step Back

In an article published by Forbes in 2020, several expert panelists brought up the problems caused by too much management presence during brainstorming sessions. Jill Hauwiller of Leadership Refinery recommends that managers contribute last so that their input will not influence which thoughts are shared by the group members. Similarly, the founder of Miranda VonFricken Masterminds and Coaching recommends allowing employees to brainstorm without management participation. She says that managerial supervision can stifle some employees’ input if they feel uncertain about themselves and worry about saying the wrong thing.

Forbes Expert Panel. 15 smart ways to facilitate better brainstorming from your team. Forbes. Updated July 28, 2020. 

Goddard, G. 10 ground rules for better brainstorming sessions. Fast Company. Updated August 3, 2020. 

Gregersen, H. Better brainstorming. Harvard Business Review. March-April 2018.