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How to facilitate a brainstorming session that sparks creativity
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How to facilitate a brainstorming session that sparks creativity

Discover the steps to facilitating a productive brainstorming session—and get more creative output and ideas.

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Great brainstorming sessions drive innovation. Just look at fitness app Peloton. 

Founder Ben Foley noticed that people loved to workout but struggled to get to the classes they enjoyed. Balancing demanding jobs and busy families, people simply couldn't find a realistic way to exercise at home.

With the focus on bringing immersive, achievable workouts into people’s homes, the Peloton team set out to brainstorm accessible, affordable ways to exercise without going to the gym. Fast forward to now, and Peloton offers a popular product that solves the exact problem its users were having. 

So how can you learn from Peleton’s example? Well, it’s all about creating the right environment. That’s one where people feel comfortable sharing, which is when creative ideas can flow. That's why you need to make people comfortable, encourage participation, and have the right stimulus to get winning ideas flowing—and ultimately increase productivity. 

In this article, you'll learn strategies to run an engaging and effective brainstorming session. You’ll also learn how to leverage tools like Switchboard to start generating ideas in a dynamic and accessible way. By the end, you'll know how to facilitate a brainstorming session that keeps every team member engaged and on task.

Get good ideas flowing—anytime. 
Switchboard rooms are always open—so you can hop in and work together or on your own time when inspiration strikes.  
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8 steps to holding a successful brainstorming session 

52 percent of US business leaders say they struggle with team engagement in meetings. And if your team isn't engaged in your brainstorming meetings, how do you expect to drive progress?

If your brainstorming sessions feel unproductive and uninspiring, you need to think about how to better facilitate idea generation. You can get off to the right start by following these steps for more impactful group brainstorming sessions.

1. Define your brainstorming goals

Clarity is crucial to a successful team brainstorming session. When you outline the topic or issue upfront, your team knows what they’re tackling from the get-go. This channels everyone's efforts toward a clear objective. 

Research shows that people find it tough to focus in meetings, so clear goals also sharpen the session's focus and help keep everyone on task. They provide an endpoint to aim for, making it easier to see which steps you need to take to get there. 

This is where SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) goals come in handy. Rather than vague, unrealistic aims, SMART goals offer precise targets that take into account your team’s resources and timeframe. 

Imagine a product team brainstorming ways to improve the UX of its app. Instead of addressing every UX challenge, they first focus on streamlining the checkout process. Here’s how their SMART brainstorming goal might look: "By the end of the two-hour session, we will identify and prioritize four UI improvements that reduce checkout abandonment rates by 15% in the next 6 months."

This is SMART because it’s:

  1. Specific about the session’s outcomes (e.g. reduce checkout abandonment)
  2. Sets measurable targets around these outcomes (e.g. four ideas, 15% reduction)
  3. Achievable within the timeframe, budget restraints, and skills your team has 
  4. Relevant to the problem or opportunity you want to address (e.g. UI improvements in the checkout process)
  5. Time-bound so the session doesn’t run over (e.g. within a two-hour brainstorming session)

Making sure everyone's on the same page with the goals ahead of time sets the stage for them to bring their A-game, and nail those outcomes within the available time.

Open resources on Switchboard room
Switchboard lets you share materials before the session, so everyone knows what to expect.

2. Share your brainstorming meeting agenda in advance

Contrary to what you might think, brainstorming isn’t always a free-for-all. So, when planning a successful session, you should create a clear brainstorming agenda so everyone understands the game plan. This helps keep everyone on track and avoid unproductive detours that eat into time. 

To create an agenda, follow these steps:

  • Start by sketching out what you want to cover: Mark out the time slots for each activity.
  • Activities to consider:
    • Introduction
    • Icebreaker
    • Sharing of prepared ideas
    • Discussion on proposed ideas
    • Collaborative brainstorming to combine ideas
    • Decision-making
    • Task delegation and next steps
  • Add key topics or questions to spark creative thinking: Include the main challenges you’re looking to brainstorm and note down questions to encourage engagement during the collaborative parts of your meeting.
  • Specify any tools and materials: Let your team know which tools they’ll need for the session and how to prepare. Outline how contributions will be documented, so everyone understands where you’ll record ideas.
  • Set expectations. Set the tone for active engagement and encourage preparedness among your team members. This helps you keep to your time limits and come up with ideas that add value. 
Pro Tip: Add your brainstorming agenda directly to your dedicated Switchboard room so everyone knows the objective ahead of time and can start thinking about ideas. 

3. Create a shared space where everyone feels comfortable

For a productive brainstorming session, you need a shared space that everyone feels comfortable using.  Every participant needs equal access and opportunity to contribute, regardless of their location. 

For some teams, this might be a cozy conference room. If, however, they can’t get together in person, you’ll need online brainstorming tools or a collaboration platform like Switchboard where you can get together in dedicated rooms—so everyone can contribute on an equal footing. 

When considering the perfect brainstorming environment, first weigh up the benefits of in-person versus online settings. In-person sessions can offer a tangible sense of togetherness and immediate interaction but they limit participation to those who can physically attend. On the flipside, digital brainstorming tools provide a space that anyone can access and contribute ideas. It’s well worth investing in these since, the more people who can attend the meeting, the more you benefit from a wide range of different perspectives and diverse ideas. 

However, traditional video conferencing tools can make for crowded conversations when there are too many participants. Plus, there’s no way to work side by side on things. 

Instead, a collaboration platform like Switchboard facilitates side-by-side work on any app, document, or file. This is more dynamic than one-way screen sharing and offers a range of ways for team members to contribute. The built-in whiteboard also means you don’t have to switch tabs to use one. It’s also got sticky notes, shapes, audio and video conferencing, in-app chat, and comment threads so you’re always communicating in context. 

This level of collaboration mimics the energy and spontaneity of in-person ideation. Plus, you can save and document everything so you can always find it again and pick up where you left off. 

Finally, if your team is spread across different time zones, you may not be able to run brainstorming sessions in real time. Fortunately, Switchboard saves your work, so you can also brainstorm asynchronously, letting team members access and contribute in their own time.

Switchboard multiplayer rooms
Switchboard’s multiplayer browsers make side-by-side working easy. 

4. Set brainstorming ground rules

If you want a positive, productive brainstorming environment, you need to establish ground rules. These elevate your brainstorming sessions by making sure every participant has the space to feel heard and valued. 

While you do want a free-flowing creative process, ground rules create a structured yet flexible framework and stop sessions from becoming chaotic. Otherwise, you risk dominant voices overshadowing others and your next big idea might never be put forward. Plus, a lack of rules can lead to a lack of productivity. Conversations become overwhelming; discussions veer off-topic; your team wastes valuable time shouting over each other instead of making progress. 

Ground rules help you engage introverts in brainstorming, unleash the most out-of-the-box thinkers, and let creative juices flow. All while keeping calm control so everyone gets their say.

Try these brainstorming ground rules to run brainstorming sessions that lead to creative solutions:

  • All voices heard. Try round-robin brainstorming, where you rotate speaking opportunities. Everyone has a chance to share ideas, knowing the rest of the group is actively listening.

  • Wild ideas welcome. Encourage your team to share all their ideas, regardless of how unusual they may seem. This nurtures a culture of innovation and creative risk-taking. Plus, it gives you a springboard for your team to build upon an offbeat idea or combine it with other contributions.

  • Respectful feedback. Provide space for constructive criticism, and train your team on how to deliver this sensitively. Focus on building upon the ideas of others, rather than brushing them aside. Encourage open-mindedness and respect for all ideas–no matter how unconventional they might seem–and remind people that there are no bad ideas.

  • Time-bound contributions. Restrict the amount of time each team member has to contribute. This keeps the session moving forward. It makes sure there’s time for everyone to have their say. If you’re meeting in Switchboard, you can use the meeting timer to keep contributions within the time limit. 

5. Choose a facilitator—but allow for individual ideation

Your meeting facilitator is key to orchestrating a successful brainstorming session that sticks to the agenda and moves forward on time. They also play a crucial role in maintaining focus and meeting the session's goals. 

A good facilitator also knows how to make room for individual ideation and creative thinking. Rather than dominating the meeting, they foster an inclusive environment where all voices can be heard. It’s their job to make sure each session remains collaborative, inclusive, and productive, harnessing the collective creativity of the group.

Facilitators can encourage active participation and maintain momentum by:

  • Setting clear expectations for conduct and outcome
  • Enforcing time management techniques so everyone sticks to the agenda
  • Mediating disputes to make sure every discussion is respectful
  • Encouraging quieter members to offer their input
  • Posing insightful questions to deepen creative thinking
  • Summarizing key points as you go to maintain focus

6. Document everything

This isn’t just about documenting the ideas you plan to discuss: you need to also note down every idea that emerges during a group brainstorming session. 

Documenting every idea also shows you value everyone’s contributions equally, which encourages people to share them: Team members are more likely to get involved when they know their input counts. Plus, documenting ideas gives you a detailed record to revisit if you need to switch strategies or refine ideas at a later stage. As Steve Pritchard, Director at It Works Media, explains, “Don’t dismiss anything and keep track of everyone’s thoughts by creating a document to monitor the ideation. [...] Sometimes an idea isn’t right at the time, but could be in the future.” 

If you’re using Switchboard, everything stays right where you left it after the session, so any team members who couldn’t make it can catch up with the room recording or by asking Switchboard AI to summarize room activity and materials. All your sticky notes, files, and whiteboards also stay right where you left them, so nothing gets lost. 

Switchboard AI brainstorming tools
Switchboard AI makes it easy to record and summarize brainstorming sessions.

7. Summarize and debrief 

As your brainstorming session comes to a close, it’s time to summarize and debrief. This helps you lay the groundwork and figure out the next steps for developing them into actionable solutions. Identifying common threads among ideas also lets you pinpoint the most promising direction to go in and avoid duplicating work after the session. 

Here’s how:

  • Break down the information and ideas that came out of the session into themes, patterns, or standout concepts. 
  • Read between the lines to see beyond the immediate suggestions. Look at the ideas as a whole and start to see the big picture that emerges. 
  • Highlight the most innovative and practical concepts that meet the session’s goals.
  • Discuss the feasibility of certain specific ideas, considering the resources you have available.
  • Acknowledge all contributions to encourage collaboration 

Now that you understand what you’ve achieved and where you’re at, you can start to set action items and assign responsibilities for the next stage of your project. This keeps the momentum going by translating your brainstorming sessions into tangible steps going forward. You also need to assign owners to action items and set deadlines so nothing gets missed. There are few things more demotivating than coming up with great ideas only to see them fall by the wayside through lack of action. 

8. Follow up

Follow-ups are crucial to transform your ideas into tangible results. These sessions keep your team moving forward so that ideas lead to concrete actions and developments. They also give your team a chance to assess progress, address emerging problems, and adjust tactics to stay on course.

Be sure to schedule these follow-ups and check-ins, keeping everyone aligned and focused on turning those innovative ideas into reality.

Productive brainstorming: It’s all about knowing how to facilitate the session 

The example of the Peloton fitness app shows what can come out of a good brainstorming session—and what you can achieve as a team when those sessions have clear, SMART goals and a good facilitator. You also need good preparation, a welcoming, inclusive environment, and good documentation and follow up. 

The right tools go a long way too, which is why you need an online collaboration platform like Switchboard. Collaborate side by side on any app, document, or file in real time or add contributions async—so there’s never any chance of missing out on the next big idea.  

Get good ideas flowing—anytime. 
Switchboard rooms are always open—so you can hop in and work together or on your own time when inspiration strikes.  
Sign up free

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Get good ideas flowing—anytime.

Switchboard rooms are always open—so you can hop in and work together or on your own time when inspiration strikes.