Whether you are looking to start an ideation session for a Design Thinking project or just need to come up with some ideas for a new ad campaign, there are several basic tips for running a brainstorming session that you can adopt from the Design Thinking process. These tips will help you tap the minds of your participants to generate some truly creative ideas. You don’t need to be an expert at the concepts behind Design Thinking to run a great brainstorming session. I’ll talk you through it and when we’re done, you’ll be ready to facilitate your own brainstorming session for any topic or project that you need.

Start with a Problem Statement

To generate ideas with meat on them, you want to focus your brainstorming by starting with a problem statement.

While our Design Thinking agency team works on a lot of Design Thinking projects to help clients innovate, from developing new CPG products to implementing new business models, here we will use our client Arizona Center as an example. For those unfamiliar, Arizona Center is a large shopping and entertainment destination in downtown Phoenix which opened in the early 90s. Our problem statement was that Arizona Center is struggling with awareness of their major renovation, following almost 20 years of low visitation. With the holiday shopping season around the corner, they need to find a way to make an impact.

As part of our brainstorming exercise, we focused on that upcoming holiday season. From that, our team came up with their game-changing question: How might we reimagine the holiday shopping experience at Arizona Center?

We took an issue or idea that we needed help with (our problem statement) and came up with a fundamental question to use for brainstorming (How might we …). This formula can be applied to many situations and will help you to focus your brainstorm on the topic you need.

How to Facilitate

Great brainstorming sessions don’t run themselves. To make the most of a session, you’ll need help facilitating it, which includes making sure you have all the supplies and materials you need, knowing when to jump in as ideas slow down, and more.

When it Comes to People, More Isn’t Always Better

While your initial thought might be to get a large group of people together, a very large group isn’t always your best bet. If there are too many people, there will inevitably be some that sit back and don’t participate. On the flip side, with too few people, you won’t get as much creativity that’s needed for others to build on ideas. In my experience, your group size should range from three to ten people. The final size will depend on your needs and the participants available.

Bring Supplies

If you want things to go fast, make sure there’s a stack of sticky notes and a writing utensil for each participant. That way everyone can write down their own ideas and post them to the wall, for the entire group to see.

Remove all Seats

Sitting down lowers your energy, which can lower your creativity. To keep things flowing, don’t let participants sit. Move all the chairs into a corner of the room and encourage everyone to stand near a central wall space to add their ideas.

Set a Time Limit

People focus better when they know there is a finite amount of time. Set aside a period of time for the brainstorming session, anywhere from 15–60 minutes, depending on the complexity of your problem statement.

Utilize Yes, And…

One of the most important tools is the improvisation concept of “yes, and.” As a theatre major, I became familiar with the concept of improvising. The golden rule was to never deny what someone else says or does, but instead, accept it and build on it. If you have ever watched “Whose Line is it Anyway?” or seen a comedy improv troupes like The Groundlings, that is where a lot of the comedy comes from as actors must take what they are given and build on it.

In a brainstorming session, it is important to maintain the positive energy to keep the ideas flowing. If you have a new group of people, you can easily start with a simple exercise to demonstrate the importance of the concept. For the exercise, have your group stand in a circle. Tell them that you are planning a party. One at a time, each person will put forward an idea for the party. The person next to them will say, “No, but” and then state their own idea. Go around the group at least twice so everyone gets a sense of what that feels like. Then, repeat the exercise, but this time have people say “yes, and” instead. It will dramatically alter the energy of the group and make everyone feel more involved.

Keep this principle alive during your brainstorm, sometimes even forcing yourself to say the words “yes, and” as a reminder. It will help keep the ideas coming and keep your participants engaged.

Apply Constraints (Flare & Focus)

“Research on creativity and constraint demonstrates that, when options are limited, people generate more, rather than less, varied solutions — apparently because their attention is less scattered.”

Bob Sutton, “Want some creativity? Crank up the constraints”

While at first it may seem counterintuitive to introduce constraints when you are trying to generate ideas, it is actually a very useful tool. You can generate a larger volume of ideas by structuring your brainstorming session to flare then focus, then repeat. Start with a wide-open gate and when you feel the ideas start to slow down, try introducing a constraint to focus your participants. Some popular constraints you can utilize include:

  • What if it had to cost more than $1,000,000
  • What if it had to get you in trouble with your boss
  • Every idea has to involve magic or fantasy
  • What if it was sponsored by Disney
  • How would Superman do it

Some constraints actually allow you to flare into big ideas while others bring you down to the smaller ones. Try using a few different ones in your brainstorming session.

Delay Judgement

Just like “yes, and” keeps the positive energy going, it is also important to delay judgement on ideas that come up. Don’t shoot any ideas down or choose not to put something on the board as you never know what idea it might spawn in someone else. There will be a time to review all the ideas, but that comes at the end.

Encourage Crazy Ideas

A crazy, big idea that involves billboards in Times Square or a global scavenger hunt may not be things that you can actually do for your client or on your budget. But, big ideas can be adapted on a smaller scale to create something that does work for you. Encourage participants to go big because you can always scale it back, but it it’s much harder to make it bigger.

Stay on Topic

When you get a large group of people together to discuss anything, it is very easy to lose focus and find yourselves very far from your original topic. As the facilitator, it is important that you keep everyone focused on the topic at hand. When they start to stray off the path, bring them back.

Build on the Ideas of Others

Great ideas don’t always come in one piece or fully formed. Often, we add and subtract things to get to the best solution. Encourage your participants to build on each other’s ideas in small ways and big ways.

One Conversation at a Time

It is great to have lots of ideas flowing, but it is important to let everyone share their ideas. Make sure everyone in your session gets a chance to share their idea before the next person shares theirs. When people start talking at the same time, two things happen:  1) the participants can feel like they aren’t being heard and could start censoring themselves or losing focus, and 2) an idea can get lost because no one heard it in the first place.

Go for Quantity

To be effective with your brainstorming session, you want to think quantity over quality since the larger number of ideas provide the greater chance of producing an effective solution. Set a high goal like 50 ideas in 15 minutes to remind yourself to focus on quantity and not get bogged down with fine-tuning ideas.

Selection Process

When the timer is up, you should have a plethora of ideas up on your wall. Now is the time to select the idea(s) that you want to move forward with. The temptation will be to immediately start thinking what is feasible but resist that urge. Instead, focus on the ideas the group got excited or intrigued by even if you don’t immediately think it is doable; it can still have aspects that are useful and applicable.

To help you narrow down your choices, here are three different techniques you can utilize.

Affinity Diagrams

Use affinity diagrams to cluster similar ideas together and find connections or themes. Often you will find ideas that are alike at their core or two ideas that tie together. This can help you see the best ideas or themes to select.

Rock the Vote

For this technique, every participant in the brainstorm gets three votes. They should look at all the ideas and put a star on the ideas that they are most attracted to, but they can only vote for one of their own ideas as people tend to be invested in their own ideas more. As facilitator, you can then see the ones that garnered the most votes to move forward with.

Three Categories

In this technique, every participant will get a total of six votes, but they will be broken out into categories. They will each select two ideas from the following categories:

  • An idea that is impactful but quick to execute
  • An idea that is unlikely to work, but would be game-changing if it did
  • An idea that is most likely to delight the end user

Combination

You can even combine some of these techniques, such as starting with an affinity diagram and then having your participants vote.

Conclusion

Brainstorming can be a lot of fun and even fast when you apply some of the steps from Design Thinking. Remember to keep the energy up, practice “yes, and,” and use constraints to keep things moving. With a focus on quantity over quality you will find some exciting new ideas that you would never have thought of before.