This article was published on June 4, 2012

How to moderate a brainstorming session and get results

How to moderate a brainstorming session and get results
Dan Taylor
Story by

Dan Taylor

Dan Taylor is a professional Photographer and freelance writer based in Vienna, Austria. Dan is a co-founder at Heisenberg Media and speci Dan Taylor is a professional Photographer and freelance writer based in Vienna, Austria. Dan is a co-founder at Heisenberg Media and specializes in conference photography. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter

Ah yes, ye old brainstorming session. We’ve all been there, and have had varying degrees of success with the process. But what makes for a great brainstorming session, and more importantly, what drives a session to produce some truly great results? I wish I could say that there’s a single, bullet proof formula for outstanding brainstorming sessions, however, unfortunately, there is none.

When effectively organized, a brainstorming session can bring some previously unheard/unthought-of ideas to life, sparking further creativity. Conversely, when poorly organized and not well directed, a brainstorming session can rapidly deteriorate into a colossal waste of everyone’s time.

So how do you end up with the former, and avoid the latter? It all begins days, weeks, perhaps months, before the session with some carefully thought out planning. As the moderator of such a session, you’ll need to be even more prepared for the group, offering up opposing points of view, directing the conversation, … but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get started with the planning!

Prep Cook

As the moderator, one of your most important functions of the entire process is to be well versed in the topic(s) to be discussed and have the bigger picture in mind at all times. In other words, know your stuff. If you’ve been appointed the moderator, congratulations, as your boss and/or colleagues view you as an individual that’s seen in an authority role, and is capable of dispensing advice and/or direction in a non-condescending manner.

When it comes down to what to prepare, I like to think of the moderator as a Chef in a fine dining kitchen. S/he is part of the cooking process, but also stands as the general traffic director for the kitchen. S/he is in charge of the menu, securing the ingredients for said menu, preparation, cooking, presentation, etc. As the moderator of a brainstorming session, you are the chef.

The first item you’ll want to secure for your brainstorming session is a dining room, err meeting space. Do not take this consideration lightly. A dark, cramped space at the end of the hallway is inspiring to no one. On the other side of that coin, a park with Frisbees and footballs flying all over the place might not be the most optimized to sharpen focus. Try to find a happy medium. You want your brainstorming participants to feel comfortable, inspired, and ready for work, but not so comfortable that they’re likely to be distracted by outside influences. And yes, this means shut the phones off!

Coming back to the “and get results” theme, you as the moderator should have overall goals in mind before starting your session. Are you hoping to get three new product suggestions out of the meeting? Perhaps you’re looking for a few new avenues to look into when it comes to the upcoming Q4 release? Whatever the desired outcome(s), be sure to have them in mind before diving in, otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for a meandering stream of consciousness, which, in some cases can be great, but save these free-flows for another time. We’re after focused brainstorming and results. Now that’s not to say that you should be dismissing ideas because they don’t line up with your perceived goals, but rather, ensure that everyone is staying on track and not wandering off topic or beyond the intended scope of the session.

A final note on meeting prep – alert your session participants of the meeting with as little time as possible. The reasoning here is that the longer participants know that they’ll be heading into this session, the longer they have to formulate ideas in their head about what should be done, effectively killing the spontaneity of a brainstorming session.

The Right Players

Just as the right mix of milk, butter, cream, and flour can produce a simple, yet delicious sauce, the same is true of your brainstorming session participants. The trick here is to get just the right ingredients to mix with each other at just the right moment. Granted, you’re trying to plan a moment of serendipity here, but careful planning and selection can get you a few steps closer than fate alone.

When it comes down to who to bring into the session, this is obviously a personal and professional decision, but there are a few things to keep in mind. Shy team members who are known to prefer email contact probably aren’t going to add a lot to the discussion. Similarly, overly gregarious team members might have the tendency to overpower the meeting and lead the group down the path to the dark side group thinking (see below).

Obviously, if this is a session dedicated to the new look of your website, you’ll want your design staff on hand. However, in line with the overall tenets of new idea discussion and creation, try including a non-designer in your session. James from Finance or Sheryl from HR are guaranteed to have a completely different point of view than your design guys and gals. Granted, James and/or Sheryl probably aren’t going to appreciate the finer points of gradients and drop shadows, but I’m quite certain that they can bring heaps of information/opinions from the “end-user”.

If your brainstorming session(s) involve larger aspects of the company, try intermingling your groups. There’s no rule that says the designers should design alone, and that financiers need to fiance alone. In fact, mixing up groups and responsibilities is a great way for others to stand in someone else’s shoes for a few moments and gain new perspectives.

House Rules

Space, check. Participants, check. It’s time to get down to brass tacks and get some brains a’stormin’! First things first though; before you even get to the first idea, it’s always a good idea to get the creative juices flowing. When greeting the group, remind them of who you are, and what the point of today’s meeting is. You’ll want to cover a few house rules before you get started:

  • There are no “Nos,” Only “Yes, and…” Judgment shall be checked at the door – it should go without saying, but in this brainstorming session, any and all, ideas will be considered, and none judged. In fact, the crazier the ideas, the better!
  • Review – if you’re headed into brainstorming mode, chances are there are already a few ideas floating around from either a previous brainstorming session, or at the very least, loose discussions regarding new ideas, projects etc. This is the only time where “That’s probably not going to work because…” statements should be allowed. These statements should be considered, and if appropriate used as topics of discussion during the session.
  • Time – a very important factor in your brainstorming session. Obviously, you want to leave enough time for an unrestricted free-flow of ideas, but you also don’t want to leave the clock open ended. Based on the scope of your session and what you want to achieve, your available time will vary. In general, try to keep your sessions under 2 hours in length. If necessary, break your creativity up into morning and afternoon sessions, allowing both you the moderator to organize and capture a snapshot of the bigger picture, and your participants the chance to rest their brains.

Now that the house rules have been established, let’s get to it! If you’re in luck, all of your group participants already know each other, and are comfortable being a bit vulnerable in front of each other. Yes, this is a dream scenario, and you’ll probably need to get the ball rolling. Before diving right into the heart of the matter, get your team up and working together via a warm-up exercise. This should be something related to the brainstorming process and mimic what’s about to take place. Something as simple as placing an apple in front of the group and ask for their word associations. Basically, anything that will get the group thinking, and more importantly, comfortable thinking together and in front of each other.

Moderate It

Phew…that’s a lot of prep work before the actual brainstorming begins! But now that everyone is assembled, don’t think that your job is over. In fact, it’s just beginning. As the moderator, it’s your job to keep the conversation and stream of ideas flowing, while at the same time directing (but not overly influencing) the conversation and ensuring that all team members stay on topic. You may or may not also be the scribe for your team.

So how to get things started? Obviously, you’ll want to present to the team to problems or topics to be tackled. Referring to House Rule #1, remind your team that they should be completely comfortable throwing out just about any idea, as all will be considered. When it comes to driving results, I like to think of a brainstorming session as divided into two sections, the Shotgun and the Laser Beam.

The Shotgun. Just as the name implies, this is the time when a wide scattering of ideas, options, opinions, etc. should be blurted out. Colors, sizes, shapes, processes, just about anything goes. Once you start collecting various ideas, you’re sure to notice that a few themes or approaches start recurring. Jot these themes down on a separate sheet of paper, but do not reveal them to the group. Hang on to these, as we’ll need them later for the Laser Beam.

The Laser Beam. As your brainstorming session pushes on, those recurring themes will surface again, and they should become the focal points of your session. These can either be the most recurring, or perhaps those thought in highest regard by the entire team. These will later be refined even further and become discussion points for the next brainstorming session, or action points if developer far enough.

Duly Noted

This is perhaps the single most important thing you can do as a moderator of a brainstorming session: Capture Everything!

There are a wide variety of ways to do this, ranging from the ever popular whiteboard and/or Flipchart to online note taking and sharing apps. Personally, I love the mind mapping method as it allows you to quickly and easily jot ideas down, all tied to a central theme, and most of these programs provide some type of sharing and distribution methods.

Whether you use an online solution, or break out the marker and eraser, not a single idea or topic should go by without being noted. Don’t think that three weeks from now you’ll recall that comment that Janet made about the new product, because you won’t.

In addition to being a collection point, this documentation can also serve as the very (and I do mean very early) project roadmap. Remember, there are no bad ideas, but what you can do with this visual documentation is further refine those ideas that bubble to the top, are most agreed upon, and are feasible.

With that said, as the moderator you have the choice to not only lead the discussion, but be the scribe as well. Remember, it’s your job to guide the conversation. If you’re furiously jotting down notes, you’re truly only half listening to what’s going on, and where the conversation is going. Personally, I’d assign the task to another group participant, however, keep a keen eye on this person and ensure that they are still an active participant in the discussion. There’s nothing worse than being assigned the job and then not having any creative input because you’re too busy taking notes.

As the moderator of a brainstorming session, it’s your job to remain in the leadership position at all times. Again, that doesn’t mean that you need to (or should) dominate the conversation, but you have specific goals in mind, and need to steer the conversation in this direction. If you see ideas showing up on the documentation that are waaaaaay out in left field, you’ve got a pretty good indication that something is off, and that you need to pull the focus of the group back to the task at hand.

Shelter the Sheep

This one is a bit trickier to manage, even accurately diagnose, but if you know what to watch out for, you can head off group thinking at the pass. What do I mean with group thinking? Wikipedia defines the phenomenon as:

…a psychological phenomenon that occurs within groups of people. It is the mode of thinking that happens when the desire for harmony in a decision-making group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives.

We’ve all been part of this phenomenon at one point or another, most often with good intentions. While this might be good for the “going with the flow” situation in many cases, when it comes down to brainstorming, this can be a deathblow to your creative exchange.

Positivity and encouragement are certainly welcome in any group setting, but not to the point where this encouragement and agreement impedes critical thinking, which ultimately leads to reduced quality and quantity of ideas.

Remember the outsider mentioned above? A great way to break up group thinking is to specifically pull this person into the spotlight and ask them a few questions. If they’re still stuck in the group think mode, snap them, and the group, out of it by shifting gears completely and discuss an unrelated topic. Personally, I think the Boston Red Sox are the greatest baseball team to have ever played. Now if you want to talk about breaking out of group thinking…toss that one out there and watch the wide range of opinions fly.

Likewise, as the moderator, you have the option to take any position you’d like. If you’ve got a heavy case of group thinking settling in, try the Devil’s Advocate approach and offer opposing points of very to this group thinking. After a round of rebuttals, you’re bound to get a few participants that see the light and will further push your opinions.

The Finish Line

Hopefully, your brainstorming session has had its ups and downs over the past few hours, the whiteboard is chock full of ideas, some streamlined, others pushed aside, and a room full of mentally exhausted participants. But how do you measure success? Did you accomplish the goals you set out? Do you now have three different options for the upcoming launch? Did you further hone some existing ideas and have a plan for the session? Perhaps more importantly, what is the overall feeling in the room? Is your team tired but energized? If so…congrats!

One of the key facets of moderating a brainstorming session is ensuring that participants feel as though they’ve accomplished something, and that the past few hours were not wasted time that they could have spent doing something else.

Great ideas shared and refined, and a productive and positive overall feeling accomplished, now what? Before wrapping up your brainstorming session, it’s vitally important to:

  • Recap what’s been discussed
  • A ranking of ideas as voted by the group
  • Relevant comments pertaining to the above mentioned ideas
  • Action items

It’s the very last item in this list that will ensure results. If your brainstorming session(s) needs a bit more time and a second, third, or forth review, make this your action item and set a time right then and there when to convene next. If your session has produced actionable items, dig in and start assigning them. By assigning specific actions to specific parties your assigning responsibility, and no one single team member will want to let the others down, particularly if your session has been overly positive and productive.

All in all, your job as the moderator of a brainstorming session comes down to two things: Leadership and Orchestration. Don’t worry so much about the leadership role; as if you’re driving the conversations towards a productive goal, your group participants will naturally see you in this position. What’s important to remember is that you’re there to facilitate a comfortable, no wrong answer environment where everyone can have their say, but that no one person has too much of a say.

Oh, and one more thing – nothing drives creativity more than fun. Be sure to have an extra helping!

Image Credits: Lead ImageCheese SauceFootball TeamHouse RulesModeratorWhiteboardSheepFinish Line

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