Better ideas and more of them

Seven practical tips to improve the design and facilitation of your next brainstorming or idea generation session.

Approximate reading time: six minutes

A brainstorming or idea generation meeting is one of the most common sessions people have to facilitate.  Here are seven tips to increase the quantity and quality of ideas they produce.

1. Specify the Job To Be Done

Open-ended blue-sky thinking has its place. But to accelerate more focused contributions in a brainstorming session or when asking for suggestions, specify the Job To Be Done. 

The JTBD is an innovation concept coined by former Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen.  It suggests that producing better innovations require organizations to understand what jobs end users want a product or service to do for them.

Applying this notion to facilitation, rather than asking for ideas—any ideas—ask for ideas that will produce specific results or value, the JTBD for any contributions.

Instead of:

We seek ideas to help new members get connected to our community.

Try:

We seek ideas to help new members make at least five relevant community connections within one month of joining.

I often work the group (either in advance via surveying or in real-time) to determine those results or value.  Be careful to not be so prescriptive with the criteria for idea submissions that you choke off all creative thinking.

2. Rightsize the Question

IDEO’s Goldilocks Principle for questions can help facilitators avoid overly restrictive framing that impedes idea generation and is similar in spirit to the JTBD.

According to IDEO, good questions are neither too abstract and systemic or too specific and uninspiring. Instead they are just right, allowing for “enough scope for surprising, unexpected, creative exploration, and define a space that’s manageable to explore and tangible,” says Tim Brown, IDEO’s CEO.

Brown further notes that “The question should include who you want to serve, and the impact you want to make, but should never hint at a solution.”  Notice how the reframed question in the JTBD tip fulfills these requirements.

3. Generate Questions, Not Answers: Q-Storming®

Sometimes the best answers are more questions.  That’s one of the beliefs behind the approach known as Q-Storming®. More prescriptive advice on using this technique can be found from the International Association of Facilitators.

The concept is simple: instead of brainstorming ideas or answers, brainstorm possible questions for the area where you seek ideas. Having a more expansive list of questions to answer inevitably leads to a more expansive list of ideas generated than if only one question is used as a catalyst.

The list of questions generated also may broaden and diversify the sources looked to for inspiration and examples to draw on when actually generating ideas.

4. Use Inclusive Processes

Inclusive processes should interrupt what Edgar Schein describes as the natural status differential and deference that sometimes occurs in groups: “Most of us are so thoroughly acculturated that we are unaware of these rules and how scripted we are” (Humble Inquiry, first edition, p. 69). 

Effective facilitation and the processes we utilize can help neutralize the power or status imbalances among participants, as well as their natural participation preferences, that might inhibit some individuals from freely contributing ideas.

Many facilitators have a default approach to brainstorming that heavily privileges extroverted participation: they pose a question and ask people to immediately shout out their ideas. If extroverts and/or those with status are first to share verbally, they may effectively mute others’ contributions.

At minimum, precede the verbal contributions with a brief period of silent reflection and idea generation that honors more introverted participants.  Once they’ve noted ideas in writing, they are more apt to fully engage verbally. 

Or skip the verbal process entirely. Have people note individual ideas on large index cards or Post-It ® notes and post them on a wall for others to review. Be sure to encourage participants to note and post additional ideas inspired by others’ contributions. 

This format can be done online using virtual sticky notes from sites like Miro, Stormboard, or Cardsmith; contributing to a shared Google doc or an open Word file in a Zoom meeting; or gathered anonymously from individuals via SurveyMonkey or JotForm.

5. Leverage the Concepts Behind Ideas to Generate More Ideas

What can a facilitator do when a lull in idea generation occurs or when participants seem to have no ideas left to offer?  I usually turn to the Concept Fan technique introduced by Edward de Bono is his book Serious Creativity.

The premise is simple: take a step back from any specific idea (or a question or JTBD framing) to identify the concept behind it.  Then brainstorm more ideas for that concept. The concept becomes new fodder for fresh thinking and more ideas.

Let’s look at the original framing from the JTBD example:

We seek ideas to help new members make at least five relevant community connections within one month of joining.

Taking a step back, at least three concepts in this framing are evident: (1) rapid onboarding of new members, (2) new members acquiring value quickly, and (3) accelerating peer connections.

Any or all three could now be used as framing to generate new ideas; i.e., How might we help members acquire value more quickly?

6. Use the How Might We Frame

It is not unusual in a brainstorming session for someone to preface an idea or question with “What if we?”  Unfortunately, doing so often leads others to respond critically rather than with additional creative thinking.

Beginning a question with “How might we” implicitly presumes that you are going to create the value or engage in the activity specified in the rest of the question.  What’s undetermined is how you might do so, not if you will. 

It is a subtle shift in language that usually stops any critical thinking from surfacing.

7. Separate Idea Gathering from Idea Evaluation

It seems so obvious: focus first on the quantity of ideas before evaluating them for quality. Yet the “there are no bad ideas” mantra of brainstorming is usually violated within the first few minutes.

Imagine participants have generated ideas silently on their own and you now want to gather those verbally.

Gathering is the listening skill that helps participants build a list of ideas at a fast-moving pace,” according to Sam Kaner and his colleagues in the Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making (p. 47).

In this case, participants are indeed shouting out ideas to be captured on flipcharts for subsequent review.  A few tips:

  • If you say anything in response to the ideas shared, mirror more than paraphrase. Mirroring restates what others share almost verbatim; paraphrasing approximates others’ contribution and they may feel the need to edit or react.

  • Use physical gestures to impart energy. If you’re going to use an extroverted process, you may as well facilitate in a more extroverted manner.

  • Have one (or preferably two people) flipcharting the ideas so that you can focus on drawing them out of participants without stopping to write.

  • Begin with (or strategically insert) a go around in which you collect one idea from each participant in rapid succession.  Individuals either share an idea or pass if they have nothing to contribute at the moment.

Bottom Line?

Increasing the quantity and quality of ideas a session produces occurs when it is better designed and facilitated. Examine and refine every aspect of your gathering to better support this most desirable goal.

Have other tips, techniques, or resources for doing so? I welcome them in the comments so others can learn from your experience.


© Facilitate Better and Jeffrey Cufaude, 2021. All rights reserved.

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