Brilliant Brainstorms

How to spark lively discussion—and tap ideas people don't even know they have

Written by Kim Hart Macneill

Keep your group to 10 people or fewer.

And make sure it includes both close and distant colleagues. A sociological study of successful Broadway musicals found that groups of complete strangers and highly connected participants produced less effective creative collaborations than groups mixing the two extremes.

Stick to groups generating ideas, not evaluating them.

Post this simple rule somewhere visible during the session: “No idea is bad, impossible or too wild to be considered.”

Choose a topic specific enough to keep everyone on task, but not so narrow that it limits creativity.

Phrase your topic as a question—What opportunities are we ignoring? How can we improve customer service?—and circulate it in advance to get the thinking underway.

Avoid a runaway meeting.

Schedule blocks of time for introductions, brainstorming and idea selection, and keep your session to 45 minutes or so to maintain high energy levels. “First thing in the morning, when people are fresh, is best,” says Maureen Clarke, a Courtenay, B.C., organizational consultant.

Create an icebreaker.

To get people talking, open with a topic unrelated to your main issue, like things that are red or uses for an empty cup, and challenge the group to generate 25 ideas in two minutes.

Ask participants to write down ideas.

Then, request that everyone hand in their best idea. “this gives people who tend to hold back an opportunity to contribute,” says Colin Holbrow, a Toronto executive coach. A Wharton study found that when participants brainstormed individually before vocalizing ideas as a group, a session yielded three times more ideas than group discussion alone.

Appoint a moderator.

This job is to keep the session judgment-free. “entrepreneurs are great problem-solvers, so they jump to solving the problem, which can be premature in a brainstorming session,” says Claudia Verburg, a Sherwood Park, Alta., consultant. Also, appoint a note-taker, whom all participants can watch document their ideas.

For more inspirational ideas on how to reinvent your business, read How To Cut Through The Clutter, Lose All The Baggage & Rethink Your Business Like It’s Brand New

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