6 Tips for More Productive Brainstorming Sessions

The generation of ideas, to any team, is no doubt important. For example, at Design Instruct, we meet and talk about future projects, we throw around ideas about artists we like and the work they do, we attempt to come up with fresh content ideas and new site features, and so on. Brainstorming is an important part of what we do.

Throughout the course of working closely together, we’ve discovered a few tips and tricks that often lead to great ideas after a brainstorming session. We thought we’d share some of them with you.

1. Create a Positive Atmosphere for Your Brainstorming Session

It’s easy to think of meetings as boring, dreadful, painful and anxiety-inducing periods of time. Oftentimes, as a meeting participant or facilitator, you wish you could be doing something else. Sometimes people get called out, put on the spot, and fingers get pointed. Meetings are frequently perceived to be boring because they’re repetitive and drudgingly systematic.

If you want to conduct an effective brainstorming session, it’s important that the atmosphere is fun, positive, welcoming and judgment-free. This way, the meeting participants won’t hesitate to share their ideas for fear of ridicule or reprimand from their peers.

2. Lay Out the Ground Rules

Clarity. It’s sort of become a buzzword around the office for us. Clarity is a virtue. It’s the starting point for most of what we do.

It’s often said that there are no bad ideas in brainstorming. This is true. But there are ideas that just waste time and produce no actionable outcomes at all. These are the "ideas" that people throw out there to be funny or to add levity with no real substance.

Remember this: Respect the process of generating ideas. Otherwise, you’re just wasting everyone’s time.

You have to keep brainstorming focused. Do this by clarifying the objectives and the goals of a new project, and have everyone start from that point of clarity.

If what we’re trying to achieve is clear, then every idea born out of a brainstorming session also inherits that same clarity.

At the end of your brainstorming session, you’ll be left with a few really good ideas, and the only decision you need to make is to pick out the best ones to move forward with.

3. Don’t Overlook Ideas that Aren’t Everyone’s Favorite

As long as an idea adheres to the objectives and the goals of the project, it should be considered as a viable option.

At the very least, you should look at an idea as a jumping-off point for other ideas. Or you can take all these not-so-good ideas and synthesize them into one really good one; a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of an idea.

4. Throw Away Ideas that Just Won’t Work

Sometimes we get attached to ideas we come up with just by the mere fact that we came up with it. I do it all the time. I fall in love with an idea because I think it’s clever or cool or I think it will be a hit, even if all indications point to the contrary.

However, again, be clear about what you need from the idea.

Not every idea you come up with will be a hit. That’s impossible. In fact, I think most of you will agree that most ideas you come up with aren’t going to be good. Therefore, you have to get rid of all of them. Throw them out there, put these ideas on the table and let them go. Let them float into the ether and be done with it. Those ideas were never yours to begin with. They’re just vague abstractions: Notions that may have seemed good in your head, but with no real substance or no real chance of being successful.

The only time you can claim an idea as yours is when it’s good enough for you to put it into action. That’s the only time an idea actually starts to exist. It only becomes tangible and concrete when there’s a chance of it being successful.

5. Don’t Tune Out When Things Don’t Go Your Way

Sometimes you won’t agree with the direction the idea-generation process is taking. And if you’re like me, your stubbornness and hardheadedness will tell you to just tune out, stop listening and stop contributing.

Fight the urge to shut off from the brainstorming session!

No good can come from shutting down. By not participating, you’ve just cut the team’s efficacy by one person. That’s one less brain, one less idea, and one less thoughtful insight.

Tuning out is not good for the brainstorming atmosphere. It isn’t good for morale.

Try this instead: Voice out what’s bothering you about the brainstorming session. It won’t matter if you get angry or too impassioned with what bothers you. In fact, it might help the group better understand the pitfalls of the direction they’re headed.

Think about it this way: If someone disagrees, it means that the idea in question isn’t completely solid. There are still holes to be filled. The fact that you disagree is ultimately good for the outcome of the project.

6. Pragmatism First, Vision (Immediately) Second

Let’s face it: You need to achieve something with your ideas. That’s what brainstorming is for. You address some issues and you formulate solutions. It’s immediate. Your project is the task at hand. Therefore, you have to treat it as such.

Don’t let your idea get bigger than it needs to be right now.

Most creative people have great vision. Ideas will sometimes get out of hand, and they become these big, world-changing, life-defining things that get cumbersome and unwieldy when you do try to move them into action.

Some of the biggest ideas today started out very small and simple. However, if you study these ideas (e.g. Google’s search, Apple’s products, etc.) you’ll see that they started out from a place of clarity. They addressed specific needs and objectives. They were simple. Start there with your idea and let it grow.

Vision is important, but it can’t be the driving force behind the actual work and the time that needs to be put into getting an idea off the ground.

Vision is limitless for many people, and that’s never helpful when you have real, immediate objectives and needs for a project.

Vision merely guides an idea. Pragmatism is the thing that pushes it forward.

Share Your Own Brainstorming Session Tips!

  • How does your company produce ideas in teams?
  • In your experience, what strategies and techniques yield better and more productive brainstorming sessions?
  • Did you apply any of the tips mentioned above in your last brainstorming session?

Feel free to discuss the topic of brainstorming/idea-generation sessions in the comments!

  • Great article! What contributes to good ideas, in my opinion, is that idea-generation is free from any constraints. What I mean, is that initially no idea is a bad idea.

    A brain storm is basically a session that’s the first step in a design/production process. That means you can either get inspiration out of it, or come up with a fixed plan after the session. A brain storm literally is a storm created by anything that pops up in the mind. Anything that pops up would be okay to capture on paper.

  • Daniel Muirhead

    Really great insight and practical advice for a function that does not necessarily come easy to some people. Thanks for sharing.

  • This is so well said. Nothing beats a great brainstorming session, it is also so much fun if you just put your heart into it. Thanks again for sharing this great article.

  • Hi Isaac,

    First conmpliments and thanks for the article. It is really helpful.
    I agreed with you on the importance of the brainstorming and its effectiveness but it’s really relavent what you say about the risk of wasting time if it is not integrated with pragmatism.
    I say that because my company applies literally your tips and we learnt to our cost the need to be focused on it.

  • great article 😉

  • Whiteboard walls and a projector… especially for designing websites. Project your site or project on the wall and go to town with some expo marketers. It is one of our favorite things to do when starting a project.

  • Mark Kwiatek

    I find that generally Blue Sky types of brainstorms lead to lots of vague ideas that generally dont come to fruition. I think its a great place to start but I think for success there needs to be a lot more criticism somewhere in the process to help focus the “everything is possible” ideas into something that can actually be delivered to solve the problem. I am testing this next week