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How to lead a brainstorm

By Laura McClure on March 10, 2017 in Interviews


Brainstorming was invented in the 1930s as a practical idea-generation technique for regular use by “creatives” within the ad agency BBDO. The skill began to gain a wider audience in 1942, when Alex Osborn — the “O” in BBDO — released a book called How to Think Up and sparked the imaginations of his fellow Mad Men.

Since 1942, the method that began life in a New York creative firm has grown into the madness of Silicon Valley. Somewhere near Stanford, an introvert cringes every time the idea comes up of sitting in a roomful of colleagues, drawing half-baked ideas on Post-it notes, and then pasting them to the wall for all to see. (If this is you, watch David Kelley’s TED Talk on creative confidence, followed by Susan Cain’s on the power of introverts.)

I’ve run a lot of brainstorms over the years: with designers at IDEO, with Tom and David Kelley (I co-authored the book Creative Confidence with them), and with innovative educators at TED-Ed. I’ve come to believe that there’s no one right way to run a brainstorm. You have to be willing to modify the format, length and parameters of each session to match the mix of introverts, extroverts and creative confidence levels in the room.

Below, 9 tips on how to run a brainstorm:

1) Circulate the question or topic before you start. For introverts who generate ideas best without the looming presence of others, knowing the topic in advance is key. This allows them to come prepared with several creative options — and not feel stampeded by extroverts who prefer to riff.

2) Keep the following guidelines in a place everyone can see during the brainstorm: 1) One idea at a time, 2) Encourage wild ideas, 3) Build on the ideas of others, 4) Defer judgment (no criticism), 5) Stay on topic. The goal at this stage of the innovation cycle is to remix and add to others’ ideas — not filter or critique. Thus the default mode for a successful brainstorm is “Yes, and.” As in comedy improv, good brainstormers don’t waste time tearing down silly-sounding ideas. Instead, they either improve on the idea by adding something awesome to it, or generate a new idea quickly. Another way to phrase this is “build on the ideas of others.” This is one guideline I always mention at the beginning of every brainstorm, and reinforce throughout.

3) Seat the group at a round table (or in a circle). Hey, it worked for King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

4) Start at your left and go around the circle. Each person gives one idea at a time. No one gets skipped over. This will help you hear from all members of the group — and not just the ones with the loudest voices.

5) Aim for a specific quantity of ideas. 25 ideas, say. Let the group know the goal at the start, and don’t stop until you get to that number.

6) Number the group list of ideas as it’s generated. Skip the Post-its and just use big pieces of paper on the table, or a blackboard if that’s what you have. The numbering part helps people feel especially accomplished as they go. A mental pat-on-the-back.

7) Write down every single idea that’s mentioned, and take a neutral, respectful stance toward each idea. Consciously or subconsciously, others will cue off your lead. You want everyone in the room to feel heard, to have permission to speak their piece, and to defer judgment during the brainstorm. Pro tip: don’t attach people’s names to ideas.

8) Keep each session short. 10 minutes at the end of class is fine. If 10 minutes is too hard to find, one successful alternative to an in-person group brainstorm is to tape a large piece of paper to a wall near the door, write your question at the top, and include a pen that people can use to anonymously write in their answers. Leave it up for 5 days, then take a picture and transcribe it.

9) Share back the unfiltered ideas list after the brainstorm ends. You never know which idea might spark something great.

Like other idea-generation tools, brainstorming was invented to make creative success easier — which is why creators are still using this technique 75+ years after its invention. To learn more about how to use design and innovation methods in education, I recommend these three options: take a course at IDEO U, download the Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit, or join the Teachers Guild.

Art credit: iStock

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Tags: Brainstorming, Creativity, Design, Engineering & Technology, IDEO, STEAM, Teaching & Education