When I imagine a brainstorming session I often think of a bunch of people in a Google HQ-type setting excitedly exchanging ideas until suddenly their ideas merge to create one colossal genius idea.
Sadly, in reality brainstorming sessions can often be frustrating and fruitless. Many people who have sat through a “brainstorming session” will recount the pain of being held captive in a room with ten other people as the boss tells them they’re going to play a word-association game.
What makes this even sadder is that brainstorming sessions can yield breakthrough creativity. They are just often not done in a way that makes them conducive to active engagement by participants.
To prevent this fate follow these tips to attain the full benefits of a brainstorming session:
1.) Get the Hell out of Dodge.
And by dodge, I mean your office. If the weather is nice, go outside. The fresh air keeps folks perky and the passers-by, scenery and background noise all introduce new “data” into your brain.
2.) Go Big With a Small Group
There’s a reason that you’re more engaged in a five-person seminar than in a 300-person lecture. If someone has to yell to be heard, they are less likely to participate. If no one is paying attention to you it’s easy to drift into your own world and not focus on the topic at hand.
Boredom is contagious and spreads like an infectious yawn, so keep the group small to incite intragroup conversation and hold individuals attention throughout the session.
3.) Eat, Drink & Be Merry ≠ Cookies, Wine & Juggling
One of the most important things to provide in a brainstorming sesh is food and water. Fluid intake actually has strong effects on the brain. When we’re dehydrated, our concentration, productivity and alertness all suffer. Make sure there’s plenty of water that is easily accessible – people aren’t likely to get up to go to the sink and refill their glass.
We all know it’s impossible to concentrate when you’ve got a hunger headache. But providing the wrong food can sabotage your session. A bunch of cookies, chips or even those seemingly-nutritious bagels are going to spike people’s insulin. This means they’ll have a rush for about 20 minutes, followed by an hours-long energy crash. The same goes for fruit, even though it’s healthy, due to its high sugar content it yields similar effects.
So what munchies should you provide? Veggies and dip or hummus is a simple and inexpensive option to keep your group sustained and energized. “Tea Sandwiches” are also a great and protein-rich option for people to snarf up discreetly.
Finally, pay attention to placement of the food; rather than putting it all on one big platter in the center of your group, divide the food into smaller plates along the table. This way people don’t have to get up to get something to eat. This will help people feel less self conscious about taking food and it’s not distracting when they do.
4.) Make Cell Phones A Centerpiece
No matter how engaging your session, the siren song of a text “bing!” is just too strong for most to resist.
You’ve got to be a hard-ass on this one. You know how hard it is to disconnect from your devices, so you’ve got to nip this one in the bud. Tell the participants to power down their smartphones and put them in the center of the table. (And be sure to have people turn them off first!) There’s nothing more awkward than when someone’s phone starts vibrating and everyone looks around the room while you try to pretend you don’t hear anything.
Same thing with laptops – power them down to maximize focus.
5.) P.P.P. – Provide Pen and Paper
It’s inevitable. Someone finally says “Yes, Jen? You wanted to say something?” And that’s when your brilliant idea disappears from your brain as fast as a birthday cake at the office.
By giving people writing materials, you will avoid that “But I need my laptop to take notes!” excuse. (See tip #4)
Brainstorming really should be fun. It’s not only a time where people can talk about those ideas they didn’t feel were worthy of an email to the CEO, but also an opportunity for people to bond with the people they work with. Hey, who knew that gal from IT was so funny? And John in marketing plays the accordion? That’s awesome!
In addition to the social benefits, brainstorming sessions also come with intellectual benefits. Building on others peoples ideas is great brain exercise and can help you come up with increasingly creative original ideas. So get excited about your next brainstorming session and let your mind go to new places.