Three people brainstorming illustration
User-centered Product Development

How I failed my brainstormings and what I learnt

Read about our new project, a conversational interface that assists office workers and teams by handling administrative and repetitive tasks.

Have you ever had to organize creative workshops? Or to run brainstorming sessions?

If yes, then you might know how difficult and challenging it is. Who should I invite to the session? How do I design a creative process? What rules do I follow to keep the flow of ideas vivid?

As it is part of my work I know how messy, stressful, and frustrating brainstorming can be, both for the participants and the facilitators.

That’s the reason why I wanted to share a few learnings derived from my own experience and failures that will, I hope, save you both time and frustration when it comes to moving from the theory to the practice.

Know when to ideate: The first thing you need to do is to demystify creativity. Ideation is not a magic recipe for solving all kinds of problems, so try to be clear on what it makes sense to brainstorm on and why you are brainstorming.

  • Ideate when you have a real problem
    The most obvious reason to use creativity is for problem-solving. Schedule an ideation session once your user research is done and you know what users’ pain points to address. Do it when you know what marketing or technological issues you are dealing with.
  • Brainstorm for user research
    Idea generation is also a good starting point when you are doing experience research. For instance, you may want to understand how customers feel while using a product or a service. In this regard, ideation might help you empathize with users by mapping their experiences along the journey.
  • But don’t try a pure exploration without boundaries
    I used to think that brainstorming was a good way to clear the ground and move forward when facing broad and high-level topics. Trust me, the broader the scope is, the more difficult it is to come up with specific ideas, and the more frustrating your session can end up for everyone.

Select team members carefully: II’m convinced that everyone is creative, but I also noticed that not every team is. In fact, group-dynamics is delicate to understand: how do you ensure a cross-pollination of ideas?

  • Bring in a diversity of skills and personalities
    What skills will be required to solve your problem? Try to identify the unknowns as if it were an equation. Designers, engineers, or business developers may for instance tackle the same problem from different angles.
selecting the right team members for brainstormings
Picture your problem as an equation   ©Eva Le Saux Madezo

Then, ask yourself: do the participants represent a coherent combination of personalities? Will it fuel the session with creative energy? Not only diverse skills but especially diverse mindsets are critical to elaborate deeper and more creative concepts.

  • Know people’s strengths and motivations
    Why do you think that some people feel reluctant to do ideation? From what I’ve seen, it’s mostly because they mistrust their own ability to come up with creative ideas. They censor themselves as they believe they are not the creative people type. But let me be very clear : there is no creative type. No innate gift or talent. There is rather an ability to leverage self-confidence that comes with experience. I usually fight discouragement by reassuring the participants, giving positive and constructive feedback, and showcasing their strengths.
  • Ideate with true team-players
    Creativity is like a muscle. The more you use it, the more flexible and strong it becomes. The truth is that some people like to exercise it a lot, and some don’t. Try to ideate with the people who most enjoy it. The ones who are trained to follow the basic rules and willing to go wild and deep in creativity.

Stay clear and transparent: Something else I learned is that most people need clarity and transparency in the process. They need to feel safe. What a fool I was to believe that framing the challenge was enough to start ideating.

  • Don’t forget to give context and state clear objectives
    Start by explaining why and what you are ideating. Then explain concretely how the session will be conducted, what is to expect from it, and ask for questions before getting started. You may want to go into details for it will alleviate doubts and dispel fears as well as prevent everyone from being frustrated at the end.
  • Frame the problem rigorously
    In the same vein, you need to make sure that everyone perfectly understands the challenge and all underlying issues. As they say, whoever best describes the problem is the one most likely to solve it. Keep in mind that writing the right questions to launch brainstorming sessions is often trickier than it might seem and requires a lot of time. Here’s a good methodology with concrete examples on how to craft efficient “how might we” questions.
  • Structure your session into successive stages
    I’ve sometimes failed to keep participants motivated because the process wasn’t clear enough in my mind. One thing you want to avoid is showing signs of hesitation. For the more hesitant you are, the more likely the group is to lose confidence in the process. Structure your session into clear stages with tangible objectives.

Focus on how to spark divergent thinking

"Go for quantity, encourage wild ideas, defer judgement…"

You’ve probably heard about IDEO’s brainstorm rules. They’ve become a standard to manage group-creativity and allow divergent thinking. In practice, I believe a facilitator has to do a lot more.

  • Play. Laugh. Move. And warm people up!
    Breaking the ice is critical before starting the ideation. Especially if the participants don’t know each other. By playing funny games or getting people to move you make sure that they feel at ease to share ideas during the session.
  • Aim to inspire
    Creative ideas never come out of nowhere. Creative ideas come from the combination of existing ones, and this is the reason why you need to provide inspiration for the participants. Fuel the conceptual reflection with chosen examples from the past, from science-fiction or analogies to nature that enriches their thinking, build empathy, and facilitate a conversation.
  • The need to purge first ideas
    Even with multidisciplinary teams, diverse skills, and personalities, I’m still fascinated when I see how people tend to generate the same kind of ideas the first time they reflect upon a problem. Help participants empty themselves of their preconceived ideas or any idea they hold dear. From what I’ve learned, mindmaps are a powerful tool to open up minds and start generating unexpected, unprecedented, creative solutions. More on how to use mindmaps can be found here.
brainstorming purge
The need to purge   ©Eva Le Saux Madezoo

  • Combine both individual and collective thinking
    Most people believe that brainstorming is based on generating as many ideas as possible. Loudly and without any restrictions. I think that isolation is required in the first phase. I think that the power of brainstorming lies in the combination of both individual thinking and group sharing.
  • Manage time and use constraints
    I failed too many creative sessions believing that complete freedom of thinking was the key. That “wild ideas” would come by removing every constraint: feasibility, budget, physical laws. Once again, I was wrong. Creativity is fundamentally linked to the use of constraints. If you have ever participated in escape games before, you should know how pressure and time restriction can force your brain to get creative.

Make sure that the group truly builds on ideas: Why would we brainstorm otherwise, if not for exchanging and growing ideas together? Keep in mind that your job is to push ideas to their very limits.

  • Believe in each idea and build on it
    Critical thinking is necessary to rate and hone ideas. However, during the session, try to enforce the “yes and…” and monitor the “no, but…”, as you need to push ideas further and see them through to the end. You can’t push a basic thought to an elaborate, disruptive, and unprecedented concept if participants keep saying no.
  • Have the group react to each idea
    Channel your energy to bring the best out of the group’s opinion. Keep asking participants to clarify their idea, “what do you mean by that?” and ask for add-ons, “what new idea does that spur?”.
build on the ideas of others brainstorming
Build on the ideas of others  ©Eva Le Saux Madezo

Don’t forget to follow up on the session: Yes, ideation is about generating ideas. But creative facilitation also means acting on them afterward. So how to go from ideation to ideation?

  • Meet again
    Timing is critical. Trust me, you don’t want to bore people and push them too hard, too long. As soon as the creative mojo starts to falter, stop the session, and invite everyone to a follow-up session the day after.
  • Simplify and rate top ideas
    First, go through all the generated ideas, assemble and cluster similar ones. Second, evaluate the ideas to speed up decision-making. Have each participant vote based on specific rational criteria such as “desirable”, “viable” or “feasible”. Finally, put the ideas on a matrix to visualize their potential.
selecting ideas after brainstorming
The matrix of ideas  ©Eva Le Saux Madezo
  • Get feedback
    The best way to get better at creative facilitation is to ask for feedback right after each session. Ask participants how they felt, what tools they thought were efficient, and what they would have done differently.

Let us know what you think: What you just read comes from my own reflection and is nothing more than an attempt to identify patterns to nurture ideation in groups.

In my opinion, the role of the facilitator relates somehow to the Socratic method of questioning, also known as maieutics, which consists of bringing out the participants’ latent ideas into clear consciousness. What do you think? What are your techniques to facilitate creative sessions and help people deliver ideas? I would love to hear your thoughts and tips on the topic.

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