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Tips for effective brainstorming

Like with almost everything involving people, there is a wide debate about whether brainstorming is useful or rather a waste of time. And like with any complicated matter, the answer is that it depends.
If the goal is to find solutions to an urgent problem, then you probably don’t want to bring ten people together in yet another meeting where participants end up going off the rails because everybody feels the need to say something, anything, in order to be noticed by the boss.
But if you are thinking about a new campaign, a new product, or simply need a pool of ideas for a future project, then a brainstorming, conducted effectively, might be of use. Some of the previously stated disadvantages still apply, but there are some ways of avoiding them, while getting the most out of the meeting.

The brief
It would be wrong to think about a brief as only something you give an advertising agency. Instead, think of it as a tool to organize essential information, so that participants don’t lose sight of why they are there and what they are trying to achieve.
The brief should include: the clearly stated objective of the meeting, the available resources, the principles to be considered and the parameters which the solutions need to fit.

The individual
As counterintuitive as this may seem, brainstorming can be improved by actually doing some thinking alone. That is because when we hear someone else’s idea, we tend to stick to it and use it as a starting point for our own, rather than coming up with original solutions. Not to mention that some participants might stop trying altogether, thinking that a solution has already been found.
That is why the brief should be sent out before the brainstorming, together with a request that everyone comes prepared with their own briefly stated ideas on which to do the brainstorming. Depending on the previous experience, the ideas might as well be sent via email before the meeting, to, you know, centralize them.

The moderator
Whether it’s the person requesting the brainstorming or someone else especially appointed, the meeting will be more effective with someone acting as somewhat of a moderator. The responsibilities would be to present the brief and the (previously received) ideas, to bring the discussion back on track when needed and to make sure that participants keep in mind the objective, resources and parameters.

And one for the road
There’s strength in numbers, but when it comes to effective brainstorming, the number is best to be a smaller one. The larger it is, the more the ideas will be and the longer the discussions will last. But when “a few” is rather “too many”, the rule of “how to eat an elephant” still applies: one bite team at a time.

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