Brainstorming. Blue sky thinking. Thought shower (yes, it’s a thing).
Call it what you want, but the question remains – is it useful? Some might argue that brainstorming is a dying art or a waste of time. A room (or a video call in this current Covid-19 world) full of people, blank stares and awkward silences.
It’s a classic case of who, what, when, where and why when it comes to brainstorms. Get these right and you’ll have a productive session, which can add value to your campaign. In the Campaigns team here at Essex County Council (ECC), we find that brainstorm sessions are a great way to work collaboratively to generate ideas.
Here are eight things to consider when planning a brainstorm session for your next campaign.
1. Set goals for your session
Just as you would set SMART objectives for your campaign, the same can apply for your brainstorm. Make sure your goals for the session are focused, realistic and achievable.
Brainstorming names for a new product or service at the start of your campaign? Yes. Content ideas for social media mid-way through a campaign? Yes. A three-year strategy for sustainable travel? Probably less so.
The latter is multifaceted and time intensive and, as you’ll read shortly, timing is key for a brainstorm.
2. Invite a mix of people
I find that having a group of people from a mix of disciplines and experience works best. We tend to work in multidisciplinary teams (MDTs), so for example, a representative from campaigns, external comms, social media and design could be present.
They’ll all come with a different perspective and (hopefully) different ideas. Inviting a subject matter expert could also provide an interesting viewpoint. Make your brainstorm invite optional. You want attendees that are happy to be there and open to contributing. Keep the numbers manageable too.
3. Timing is everything
Too long and people may get bored, distracted or simply run out of steam. Too short and you could walk away with not much on the table (wall or screen). Keep things bitesize for optimal results.
Depending on your goal, I’d go for 30 minutes or an hour. Give yourself enough time for intros and remember that sometimes people need a bit of a warm-up to get their creative juices flowing (there must be a better way of saying that!).
I’d probably avoid Mondays, as let’s be honest, who likes Mondays? I’d also stay clear of just before lunchtime as rumbling stomachs could distract from the creative process.
4. How to deliver your session
Given the current climate, it’s likely you’ll be delivering your session virtually. Zoom, Teams, Google Meet – pick your favourite (‘video on’ not mandatory).
There’s face-to-face too (ah the good old days). In the office? Conference room? Or somewhere more relaxed, like a café.
Wherever you choose, make sure that there’s ample room for flipcharts or wall space if you’re using post-it notes. Comfy seating won't go amiss. Bribery - I mean courtesy! – snacks and sweets are usually well received, too.
5. Use tools
I’m sure most of you have heard the proverbial “no idea is a bad idea" when it comes to brainstorming. I’m a firm believer in this, because the beauty of a brainstorm is that one person’s so-so idea can be built upon to create something big.
Ask for ideas as a group, solo or a combination of both. For example, have everyone simply shout out their ideas for you to note down or give everyone a set time (say one to five minutes) to come up with ideas on their own and then share with the group. Or you could share a starter for ten of your own ideas to spur on others and to help avoid any of those awkward silences I mentioned earlier.
If you’re going virtual, there are online collaboration tools you could use, such as IdeaFlip, Mural and Miro, which are great for capturing and organising ideas visually. And avoiding those “What does that say?”, due to illegible handwriting. If you decide to go down this route, I’d recommend letting attendees know in advance and sending them some basic instructions so that they can have a go beforehand.
If you’ve opted for face-to-face (socially distanced of course), then I’d keep it simple. Flipcharts, post-it notes, smelly permanent marker pens at the ready. And ask everyone to write in capital letters only. You’ll thank yourself later when it comes to typing up the ideas.
6. Try different techniques
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to participate in the first Futures Academy cohort at ECC, led by FutureGov. They shared some handy top tips for brainstorming and ideation exercises (fancy name for the formation of ideas or concepts). For example, “Don’t fall in love with your ideas” and “Sharing your ideas makes them stronger.”
When coming up with ideas, try using:
- constraints such as “Your idea must involve an element of customisation”
- analogies like “What would Lego do?”
- ‘what if’ questions to iterate your ideas, like “What if you had 48 hours to deliver?”
These exercises help you to think vertically and laterally.
7. Turn your ideas into deliverables
So you’ve got hundreds of ideas (okay, maybe 10 to 20) on the table. What do you do with them all?
I opt for the voting approach. It’s tried and tested and helps to avoid any biases. Either do it straight away after everyone has exhausted their ideas or schedule a follow-up soon after.
Whatever you decide, be sure to set up some type of criteria for whittling down ideas. Does it meet your goals and objectives? Do you have the resource, time or budget to deliver it?
Once you have agreement on which ideas to take forward, map out next steps, allocate actions, owners and timings. No one really wants their idea(s) to sit on a flip chart or post-it note collecting dust or filed away in a Word doc on the shared drive. Ideas from a brainstorm could help to feed into the implementation plan for your campaign or inspire a new creative route.
And remember, just because an idea doesn’t make the cut at that given moment and for whatever reason, keep it. It could be useful later.
8. Ask for feedback and thank your brainstormers
Everyone has an opinion. Don’t be afraid to ask your attendees what they thought about the session. Did they enjoy it? What could be done differently? Would they participate again? Feedback can you help to improve your future brainstorming sessions.
I held a brainstorm session recently. The goal was to come up with tactical ideas for an ongoing campaign that was six months in (you’ve got to keep things fresh). Here’s some of their feedback (consent given of course).
Mega helpful having them because you feel like you're part of the process and actually everyone's ideas are considered, and you say oh that would work here but not there etc.”
“Definitely helpful having a starter for ten as it can be difficult if you're not feeling particularly creative that day! Good to bounce off other people and discuss/develop initial ideas together.”
“I love a good brainstorm. Sometimes my brain may be frazzled creatively but then can bounce off others’ ideas.
And don’t forget to thank your attendees. After all, they could have come up with an awesome strapline for your campaign or a gem of an idea that goes viral on social media. I’m a big advocate of giving credit where credit is due. Let them know how they’ve contributed so that they can revel in the fruits of their labour.
So, to brainstorm or not to brainstorm? - that is the question. My answer would be, yes. With the right approach, structure, tools and people, a brainstorm session can lead to a positive impact on your campaign. Oh, and a welcome break from emails.
Do you have any other top tips for a good brainstorm? Share your ideas in the comments – I’d love to give them a try in my next brainstorming session.