I’ve been leading brainstorming sessions for over ten years now. Through those years, I’ve refined and tweaked the system to produce better results. Though I feel pretty good about where it is, I always welcome ways to tweak it and make it better. Before I get into how to lead a session, let me share some ways in which a brainstorming sessions might be used.
- To develop a sermon calendar. How do you go about developing what you preach about? Do you decide all by yourself? How are you best able to gauge what the needs of your congregation are? In this post, How To Plan a Preaching Calendar, I share the method I’ve practiced throughout the years to gauge what topics would be most relevant to my congregation and community. There is field work and brainstorming involved in the process.
- To generate new ideas. This point is related to the first and covers a lot of areas. Anytime you need to get new and fresh ideas on something, begin a session. It’s not enough to get a few people around a table and say, “so what do you think?” You will get vastly different results.
Make sense? Ok, moving on.
Here are some keys to leading an effective brainstorming process.
1. Make sure the right people will be in the room. Ideally, you have a good cross-section of people; creatives, people who have a business mind, introverts, or extroverts. Try to span different industries.
2. Have everyone wear a name tag and have a time of introductions. This team may be together for a few hours and need to feel comfortable with each other. Knowing each other’s names is a key piece of that.
3. Have them come into the gathering having already done some homework. You need to prepare people for what they will encounter. Send them an agenda ahead of time that includes the purpose of the gathering, expected goals, and what they need to bring with them.
For example, I recently led a process where we were brainstorming titles for a coming series in the fall. I asked each person to bring their best ideas ahead of time. There’s a few people out there who think really well on the spot, but most people do not. They need time to think, digest, and synthesize ideas.
4. Have the right tools. Each person will need a name tag, a stack of sticky notes, a pen, and you’ll need a room with a whiteboard and dry erase markers.
5. Have each person write down as many ideas as they can on individual sticky notes, so one idea per note. I usually give around 5-7 minutes for this process. If they’ve prepared ahead of time, then this timeframe is usually adequate.
6. Each person selects 5-7 of their best ideas. If someone has been very thorough with their process, they might have 15-20 ideas. Some of these ideas will not be very good, though, which is fine. They’ll be aware of that. They can choose their best.
7. Each person presents their ideas and puts them on the board in a column. At this moment, they should not be making a lot of commentary. They’re simply reporting what their idea is. When the next person reports, they simply start a new column next to the other.
8. After each person has shared and put their notes on the board, a selection time begins. In this next phase, people are encouraged to approach the board and take it all in. The goal for this step is for each individual to now select 3 of their favorite ideas, based on what everyone else has shared.
9. People now move into groups. Depending on how many people you have, you might have 3 groups of 3 or 3 groups of 4. I think groups should not be smaller than 3 or larger than 5-6. 3 or 4 is what you’re looking for. Again, these smaller groups should also be diverse. I usually number off 1,2,3, 1,2,3 and so on.
In this phase, each person in the group then shares their 3 ideas with the group. The purpose of this phase is to distil a group recommendation of 3 ideas. This is your chance to really debate and dialogue for the ideas you want to submit. Through whatever process, the group has to come to a consensus on the 3 ideas they will submit as a group. Perhaps each person will submit one of their ideas each. Or perhaps the group will coalesce around the ideas of one or two of the people.
If you have many groups, you should limit the number of ideas recommended to just 1 or 2. For example, if there are 6 groups of 3, each group should just recommend one main idea.
10. Each group now presents their top ideas on the board. It’s good to have some debate at this point. In other words, when a group has listed their 1-3 ideas on the board, and before they sit down, invite some debate. Let them defend and explain the reasoning for their ideas. Have people give objections. This is all part of the process of testing whether an idea is strong or not.
Once the different groups have each presented their ideas, you might have 4 or 5 ideas on the board. At this point, you have a few options. First, you can call for a vote where each person comes to the board and puts one dot on one of the ideas. That’s it. This will give you a clear sense of which idea is the favorite among the group.
Another option is to take those 4 or 5 ideas presented by the group and take them through a larger crowd-sourcing process. I recently did this on Survey Monkey. Our group process gave a clear recommendation, with a few other runner-ups, but I was curious what the sentiment would be beyond our group. So I put up a survey on Survey Monkey listing the 4 ideas and asked people to respond to which title they liked the most. I paid $100. It was quite fascinating to see results immediately beginning to come in. You can set over a dozen different filters as to who can take the survey. I left it without filters, as I wanted to get as broad an audience as possible.
That’s basically it.
Now I know what you’re thinking. That sounds like a long process! You can actually go through the whole thing in about an hour or less. It all depends on how much debate and deeper analysis you’d like to allow. You could actually do all of it in 30 minutes if you needed to move quickly.
One more thought.
People often think, “is that process really necessary? Why don’t we just get in a large group and share our ideas that way?” There are a few reasons why this is not a good process. First, a few loud voices will end up dominating and influencing the discussion. The quiet types will not speak up. This process helps to even out the playing field so each person can share. Second, this allows the group to hone and process ideas in a more intentional way. And there’s something about seeing someone else’s idea on a board that helps to spark your own imagination.
P.S If you just have 10-15 minutes for brainstorming, check out the process that Google uses. It’s not as thorough or democratic, but it’s quick.
So what about you? Any thoughts on the process outlined above? How would you do it differently? What has your experience been like leading brainstorming groups? To leave a comment scroll below or click here.