Whether your family is planning its next vacation or your workplace co-workers are trying to resolve a difficult management problem, brainstorming is an effective communications tool for getting everyone’s ideas on the table. The open environment does not distinguish the value of contributions based on the respective ranks of the speakers nor does it allow for judgment calls to be made until after all of the suggestions have been collected for review.

For brainstorming to work at its best level, however, some simple ground rules need to be established. This article will show you how to get the creative juices flowing.

CHOOSE A MODERATOR

Although the forum itself is free-flowing, casual, and inviting participation from all of its members, it still needs the structure of having a team leader to make sure that the chatter doesn’t get out of hand or escalate into an ugly debate. This person, in the role of a group moderator, is responsible for making sure that the objective of the brainstorming session is clear to everyone present. Let’s say, for example, that you and your staff are trying to decide the best use of an office that has sat empty for nearly six months. As the moderator, it’s your job to ensure that the meeting doesn’t stray to unrelated management issues, dribble off into a gossip session, or become a platform for personal agendas. It’s also your responsibility to allow each speaker to have his or her say without interruption.

DON’T LET THOSE GREAT IDEAS GET AWAY

The entire point of a brainstorming session will be lost if everyone’s ideas aren’t duly recorded as they are proposed. To accurately capture what each participant recommends, you’ll either need a blackboard, a whiteboard, large sheets of paper that can be taped to the walls, or an overhead projector set-up so that all members of the group can see the list. If that’s not feasible, provide each participant with some paper and a pen and specify that everyone writes down the ideas in the order in which they are presented.

It should also be noted that during the idea-tossing phase of the exercise, only the idea itself and not the explanation or justification for it should be advanced. For example, I think the spare office should be turned into a lunch room” versus I think it should be a lunchroom because the downstairs cafeteria is always too crowded to find a place to sit.” If the participants start tacking on their 105 reasons at the outset as to why their particular idea is best, it will not only take a much longer time just to get everyone’s input but also encourage premature favoritism of one idea over another.

SET A TIME LIMIT

At the start of the session, set a timer, and let everyone know that the group has the amount of time to pitch as many ideas as possible. The challenge of a ticking clock will always rev people’s motors as well as unify them against what symbolizes a common enemy: time. Moderators may even find it helpful to do a 5-minute practice session first on a subject completely unrelated to the matter at hand. For instance, you could toss out a question like, What’s the best comfort food when you’re depressed? or What was the best screen kiss ever delivered in a movie?

Within the rules of one speaker at a time, go around the room just as you will in your real brainstorming session and see how many answers the group can come up with. And remember no explanations or justifications are allowed. Another fun warm-up is to set a metronome on its slowest speed and with each śtick participants need to name one of the fifty United States. This forces your group to think quickly as well as pay attention to which states have already been named so as to avoid duplication.

EVERYONE GETS A TURN

As the moderator, you can either go around the room and ask each participant for an idea or you can ask for them to raise their hands and be called on. Whichever method you use, members can only offer one idea per round, and then patiently await their turn until everyone has spoken and a second or third round begins. While participants can decline a turn if they haven’t thought of anything yet, the team leader nonetheless owes each one the courtesy and respect of asking each time if they have something they’d like to add.

EVALUATION

Once all of the ideas have been pitched, it’s time to start narrowing the field. The first step in this process is to cross off those recommendations which are similar to something which has already been listed. This is also the time to assess which sets of ideas make sense to combine. For example, let’s say one of the ideas for that spare office is to turn it into a supply room. A second suggestion is to turn it into the mailroom.

Because supplies such as envelopes, shipping labels, tape, etc. related to the tasks associated with a mailroom, these two items could logically be put together. As you go through the full list, each person who proposed an item will then have an opportunity to explain in more detail their rationale for it. Again, set a timer and allow each speaker the same amount of time, ideally, 1 minute.

While participants can jot down notes, no one will be allowed to ask questions about any given idea until every participant has had a chance to clarify their idea. Following the question and answer session, ask members to individually write down what they think are the best 3-5 ideas presented. These are then read out loud and the ideas with the most votes are then subject to further discussion and analysis so as to eventually reach a consensus on the solution that best fits the needs of the group.

While participants

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