How to Make Brainstorming Work

Most educators have experienced brainstorming. Unfortunately, many of these experiences haven’t been very good.

It’s easy to serve the needs of the extroverts in the group, but also leave out the introverts. It’s easy for brainstorming to be energizing but not lead anywhere, or for it to start off strong and descend into a disorganized mess. For that reason, some research challenges the idea that brainstorming is effective at all.

And yet we keep brainstorming on teams. We all encounter challenges and opportunities in the course of our work, and we continue to need new ideas for how to take them on.

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As a facilitator and a school leader, I’ve found that good planning and scaffolding makes the process easier, more effective, and more satisfying. When I facilitate with a group, I usually try to follow many of the principles below. I’ll admit that I’m not always consistent about enforcing these norms in my day to day work – but it always goes better when I do. So I’m writing this article to remind myself what it takes for me to lead brainstorming effectively, and also to help others along the way.

A few notes on brainstorming:

·      Warm up. Your team may need time to practice skills before creating anything with real stakes. Improv games are one good way to get teams in a mindset that encourages spontaneity and building on others. A sample challenge, like “how many uses can you find for this paperclip?,” can also encourage people to contribute for quantity without worrying about being wrong.

·      Take the time to establish norms. As always, norms help to focus a group; not only does it let people know what’s expected, the mere introduction of norms serves as a transition from everyday life into a new space where new behaviors are expected and appropriate. These transitions help participants experiment with new behaviors.

·      Whoever holds the pen, holds the power. In many sessions, only one person charts the ideas of the group. But whoever has the pen has the power of deciding what gets captured, as well as the power to render the idea in the terms they prefer. By allowing everyone to chart – through a gallery walk or by simply handing everyone a stack of Post-Its and a sharpie – you distribute power more evenly and record more ideas.

·      Frame the question clearly. A well-designed question gives a group of jumping off point. “Ideas for faculty meetings” is not as well designed as “How might we design a meeting that teachers are excited to go to?” The latter is specific, and it has a point of view for gives people something to build on.

·      Focus ideas with provocations. Rather than asking for ideas in general, give your group a series of different questions that examine the same problem in different ways. Examples are, “How would Amazon solve this problem?,” “What would make our competition nervous?,” or “What would we do with an extra thousand dollars?”

·      Design for introverts as well as extroverts. Take time to develop ideas individually, before you talk as a group, to level the playing field between introverts and extroverts. This individual work time provides time for reflection and benefits those who process ideas differently. It also introduces a period of quiet and calm in the midst of an often noisy process – that’s something that’s good for most extroverts, as well.

·      Diverge before you converge. There’s an adage in brainstorming that you should go for “quantity over quality.” The truth is more complex – both quantity and quality are important, just not at the same time. Quantity is important first, then you’re generating a broad set of ideas from which to choose. Quality is important later, when you’re converging on a finite set of options to explore. Make sure to schedule time for both. And since most people prefer one of these modes over the other, make clear to participants when you’re doing which

·      Build better ideas with “yes, and.” Remember the old Reese’s peanut butter cup ad where a jar of peanut butter inexplicably collided with a chocolate bar? Like that advertising trope, great things often come from the collision of two or more items. Should we have snacks at the meeting? Yes, and maybe we could prepare them together, making it a teambuilding activity in the first ten minutes of the meeting. Doing this in a group could be as simple as physically connecting a new Post-It to another with a preexisting idea. One additional benefit of combining two or more ideas: you’ll build a sense of ownership from the group as a whole.


Greg Bamford