How to run the brainstorming meeting

By Scot Herrick | Job Performance

Dec 05

Don’t you hate brainstorming meetings? You’re supposed to come up with solutions to a problem. Easy enough. Except managers forget to define the prerequisites. They shut down ideas. They don’t use the ideas the people that are closest to the problem come up to solve the problem. Really, what’s not to like?

Running a successful brainstorming meeting requires a lot of organization. You can’t just wing the meeting because it’s a brainstorming meeting; there is work to get done before the meeting starts and when the meeting is done.

Basically, what a brainstorming meeting is all about is defining the work that needs doing to accomplish some goal. And that’s where the problems start.

Make sure the purpose is defined

Without a purpose — the “why” — brainstorming won’t have a focus around the meaning of the work that needs doing. “The purpose of the work is to define our department goals for 2013 and how we will pay our bonuses for achieving the goals.” Yeah, that’s a good purpose for me to pay attention.

Purpose helps focus attention and commitment to the process. Sharing this purpose at the beginning of a brainstorming meeting is key for engaging people in the meeting.

Ensure the outcome is defined

Purpose is one thing, but defining the outcome of the work — what it looks like when the work is all done — is key for a successful brainstorming session. It’s not enough to say we need to define department goals for getting paid. No, what is needed for people is a picture, a sample, and the rules around what the end result is for the brainstorming work.

“When we cross over into 2013, our department needs to have five major goals established. The goals are in the areas of expense control, revenue growth, and better cycle times. We need a total of five goals to achieve. We need to know how we will measure the goals. And we need to know how they are weighted.”

Now, it may not be possible to get all that in one brainstorming session. You might have to have one session to get to five goals. Another to get to how to measure the goals (no easy task), and a third meeting on how to weight them. But this outcome defines what people doing the brainstorming will focus on during the meeting. Without this clear definition of an outcome, brainstorming is almost impossible to effectively do.

Brainstorm one chunk of the work at a time

Instead of going for all five goals in all the areas, try brainstorming goals in the single area of expense control. If you have enough time, another set of goals in the area of revenue growth. Another set of goals in the area of cycle time. You’ll get tons of ideas in each of these areas because, paradoxically, people brainstorm best when there are constraints put on their output. Creating many goals in the expense area alone is a constraint.

Follow the brainstorming rules

Once you define the purpose, define the outcome and brainstorm one chunk of work at a time, the rest of the normal brainstorming rules apply. You know the rules as well as I do:

  • All ideas are good
  • Write down all ideas
  • No criticism of ideas
  • Organize the ideas into groups of like items
  • Have time limits for each section of the brainstorming
  • Define the best ideas in each category

There are others, perhaps, but those are the big ones.

Here’s the deal, though: none of the brainstorming ideas work without defining the purpose, outcome, and working on one chunk of the work at a time. We all miss that part so we brainstorm our hearts away while not caring about the outcome nor understanding the purpose. And if the moderator of the meeting doesn’t follow the rules above (or the manager shuts down ideas or only picks his or her own ideas for the solution), employees will justifiably become totally disengaged.

Focused brainstorming is great

You know what’s great about a good brainstorming session? Seeing good chunks of work come out of the brainstorming session that focus on solving the problem or getting to a solution. Having those brainstorming sessions get organized into logical chunks of work that everyone can see contribute to the solution. And having everyone contribute ideas.

Too often, though, brainstorming sessions go off the rails. As great as brainstorming sessions can be, bad ones really kill engagement and frustrate employees.

Run the meetings right. Cubicle Warriors do.