I led my first brainstorming session five years ago. I prepared for the session for weeks beforehand, from meeting with expert facilitators to planning activities and organizing logistics. The session itself pulled our entire team away from immediate tasks and took an entire morning. The brainstorm was undeniably helpful, but it banked on the luxury of time and resources. Over the years, I’ve seen that this type of session is rarely feasible. More importantly, it may not be necessary.
Brainstorms are successful in part because they create a safe atmosphere for ideas to be shared and received. During brainstorms, people are more open and collaborative. Often, rather than organizing a full-on brainstorm, it may be more effective to incorporate a brainstorm mindset into daily team activities.
My team recently designed assets for a final presentation to our client. With limited time to design and build, we couldn’t spend an afternoon doing a full-fledged brainstorm. Here are four ways our team approached our task with a “brainstorm mindset.”
1. Establish a safe place for sharing ideas
One of the most important rules of brainstorms is that there are no bad ideas. This rule encourages participants to share whatever comes to mind without the fear of being shut down by others. With this lowered barrier to participation, there are more ideas shared, and thus, more ideas for the team to work with.
While each member of my team was jamming away on our final presentation, one designer mused, “This may be dumb, but what if we created giveaways with the brand we’ve designed? Like mugs or sweatshirts.” Someone else on the team jumped in immediately: “That’s not dumb at all. We have the budget. We should definitely create something.”
The branded sweatshirts and mugs ended up being the biggest delighter of our presentation. Had we not established an atmosphere of safe idea-sharing, our designer who had the idea may have felt it “too dumb” to share aloud in the first place.
2. Encourage crazy ideas
Because brainstorms take us away from constraints we typically face, they enable us to consider seemingly far-out ideas that we wouldn’t otherwise discuss in our day-to-day. This is why teams typically turn to brainstorms when they’re in search of the next “big thing” for their project.
As we were aligning on physical prototype models that we would be sharing with our client, I commented, “These models look like artwork. How cool would it be if we created a museum exhibit for the presentation?” Given that our presentation was the following week, I intended for my question to be rhetorical. Instead, someone else chimed in. “We could create something like a museum exhibit.”
We ended up arranging large posters in an enclosed circle with a small entrance. We called it a gallery walk-through. What began as my wild idea transformed into design inspiration for something more feasible.
3. Go for quality and quantity
Because brainstorm sessions are often misconstrued as the only time to come up with good ideas, participants push themselves to come up with as many as possible. Instead of stopping with one way of accomplishing a task at hand, brainstorms inspire us to think of five, ten, or twenty ways.
Once my team decided on the “gallery walk-through,” my team designated me to design the posters for each of our models. I was to decide on the information that would be on the poster and how to lay it out. After the first few minutes, I had one basic format in mind. I wrote it down as “Option 1.” I didn’t stop there. I gave myself ten minutes to lay out a few more options.
I then shared my five favorite options with the team. Each person liked different parts of each layout design. We ended up taking components of each to create a poster. The final design was more informative and effective than any of the individual options I had come up with.
4. Take a visual approach
In brainstorm sessions, you are often encouraged to draw your ideas rather than write them down. This makes it possible for everyone to literally see what you have in mind. At the end of a session, when you have hundreds of ideas displayed, visual representations are much quicker and simpler to take in.
Before each member of my team went heads-down to work on the presentation, we sketched out what we had in mind on post-it notes. Despite the low-level of fidelity, our team was able to discuss and ensure that we were all on the same page before we got too deep into our work. Seeing how I had laid out the poster, another team member said, “Oh. Got it. I was impinging it differently. I like this. Cool, now I know what types of images to create.”
If I had simply stated to my teammate that I wanted to put images at the top of the poster, he would have spent hours designing images in one way that may not have worked with the layout I had in mind. Seeing an initial (and scrappy) sketch was all he needed to make sure we didn’t waste any time.
Brainstorms are an effective way for teams to think creatively. But sometimes, the best way to think outside the box is to brainstorm outside the brainstorm.