8 Steps to a Better Brainstorming Meeting

We've all been there: sitting in a meeting, bored stiff, and checking your watch every 90 seconds to see when the misery will end. It's even worse when you're the one who called the meeting!

The time slot that was supposed to generate all sorts of ideas for future strategies and actions has quickly become another wasted effort as people's minds are more on lunch than on work - if the meeting is prior to lunch, they're probably thinking about where they'll eat; if it's after lunch, they're probably wondering why they at so much!

With these kinds of experiences so common among us, it's no wonder that Patrick Lencioni could write a best-selling book titled Death by Meeting.

To help you avoid that scenario, I want to offer 8 steps to a better brainstorming meeting:

1) Communicate the details.
All the expected participants should be notified ahead of time with the pertinent information. This includes the date, location, time of start, time of end, list of expected participants, the topic(s) to be discussed, and the objective of the meeting. With this information, participants can begin directing their thoughts toward that topic in the days leading up to the meeting.

2) Remind all participants that you are looking to generate a lot of ideas.
Post a list of the rules of engagement (silence the cell phones, no negative comments, etc.). At the top of the list should be something to the effect of, "No one is judging the ideas for effectiveness or ineffectiveness at this point." There are no right or wrong suggestions because the first goal is to produce as many ideas as possible.

3) Have participants conduct a personal brainstorm on the topic(s) for five minutes.
This should be done at the start of the meeting, NOT ahead of time. The reason is simple: many people remain in zones of constant distraction that keeps them from focusing on any one thing. Now, in the same room, with the distractions limited, their preliminary thoughts are more likely to translate into better ideas.

4) Have participants call out their ideas.
This can be done with one person saying one of their ideas and then moving to the next person in a clockwise direction. Or have a person say each of their ideas before moving to the next person. I think the first is the better option. The effect of this is two-fold: the fear of embarrassment (ie. sounding stupid) will ensure that you get people's best efforts during the time of personal brainstorming, and it allows others to add to the ideas "on the fly." Suggestions should be captured on a white board, flip chart, or post-it notes stuck on the wall (for all to see) for effective recall during the next step.

5) Combine similar ideas. Clarify unclear ideas. Eliminate irrelevant ideas.
Some of the ideas will inevitably be the same, but worded in different ways. Take the time to combine them and shorten the list of possibilities. Because the ideas are still undeveloped there may be some wording that is not clear which keeps the intent from being fully explored. All confusion should be cleared up so everyone knows what exactly is being suggested. Also some ideas simply won't be feasible, practical, or helpful; they should be marked off as well.

6) Refine the options.
There will be plenty of ideas now available for consideration. Vote on the top five ideas and solicit feedback for how they can be expanded upon and made better.

7) Gain consensus.
With five ideas on the table (or the wall), it is now time to decide on a course of action. If the brainstorm has worked properly, that course of action will likely be a conglomeration of several ideas presented earlier in the process.

8) End on Time.
People have other things to do and other scheduled appointments to keep. Respect them and their time by ending the meeting when you said you would.

Note: Do not give into the temptation to go further than this and develop a strategy for moving forward. That is beyond the scope of the brainstorming session. If these same people will be involved in preparing the strategy to implement the new idea/course of action, then coordinate with them about the next meeting - which will be used for planning the execution of the idea that was just developed.

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