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Beyond Brainstorming: 5 Essential Tips for Smarter Group Ideation

Group ideation is too important to leave to chance. These key principles will help you balance both the art AND science of running productive, inclusive—and fun—ideation sessions.

Words by Janice Wong, Visuals by Allison Corr

Too often when it comes to brainstorming and collaboration, we tend to prefer whimsical, unstructured activities. Agreed upon best practices are few and far between.

Will too much structure restrict the free flow of thought? Who should be invited to participate? Is the more the merrier? How are we supposed to adapt when we can’t all be in one room together?

Based on a deep and long-standing interest in structured ideation, workshop facilitation, and how a service design mindset might be applied to improve workshop experiences, this article weighs in on these oft-asked questions. Here are five simple tips for improving the success of your ideation sessions.

  1. Run structured ideation sessions, not free form brainstorms.
  2. Be specific about the type of ideation effort required and who is best suited to participate.
  3. Run multiple small, short sessions instead of a single big, long one.
  4. Create and collect a rich pool of ideation inputs before every session.
  5. Use a mix of solo and group activities — ideally solo first, then groups.

In more detail…

1: Run structured ideation sessions, not free form brainstorms.

“Informality in the content of a group's thinking requires formality in the structure of that group's approach to its thinking.”

Edward de Bono, author of Lateral Thinking 

“Constraints amplify creativity. In the absence of such parameters, teams drift and drown in possibilities, veering from option to option — because without guidelines, everything is essentially optional and no one can tell you you're barking up the wrong tree.”

Ten Types of Innovation: The Discipline of Building Breakthroughs

Brainstorming is characterized by quantity over quality, wacky ideas, and informal, unstructured group thinking; however, output is often inconsistent. It’s unclear if great brainstormers are born or can be made, and as a process, brainstorming lacks mechanisms to keep unconscious bias from seeping into participants’ ideas. In contrast, insights-driven, structured ideation injects discipline into the process, in order to more reliably and repeatedly make everyone's time and effort worth it.

Often people worry that structure will restrict participants’ ability to think freely. Structure need not be enforced with an iron fist; rather, if someone has ideas ready to go, you can always encourage them to grab a blank sheet and express themselves. Providing structure, fodder, and inputs merely gives participants options for getting started if they need a nudge.

2: Be specific about the type of ideation effort required and who is best suited to participate.

There are lots of different ideation activities, for example: crowdsourcing for ideation inputs, idea generation, idea refinement, and idea evaluation. By being more specific about what a single session focuses on (i.e. instead of trying to do everything all at once), you can also be more intentional about pairing ideation activities with different types of participants.

Some questions you might ask yourself include:

  • Could I invite participation more indiscriminately when crowdsourcing for ideation inputs?
  • Is it better to engage those closest to the topic – regardless of their seniority – for initial idea generation and ask senior leadership to help with idea refinement and evaluation?
  • Do I need less time for idea refinement sessions than for idea generation sessions?
  • Is it possible for idea refinement and idea evaluation to happen mostly asynchronously? E.g. Do an async round of blind voting before meeting to discuss the results?

3: Run multiple small, short sessions instead of a single big, long one.

Smaller sessions (e.g. six participants instead of 20) yield more hands-on engagement from participants and also maximizes the “air time” each participant gets during their session. Research shows that as the number of people in a session increases, the productivity of ideas per person decreases due to social demands like waiting their turn to talk or due to free rider issues (i.e. not feeling as personally accountable to do the work because there are others who can).

Planning to have a series of coordinated sessions (e.g. four over two weeks) makes it easier to design a hyper-focused session that can be done in less time (e.g. 90 minutes instead of four or more hours). It’s also easier to fit into participants’ schedules when there is more than one date to pick from and the request is for a shorter amount of time.

Additionally, you can build on learnings and ideas from previous sessions. For example, you could focus on something slightly different in each session (and by doing so increase what you are able to cover overall), or you could refine how specific activities are facilitated based on seeing what works well and what needs improvement.

Perhaps the biggest reason of all to have multiple ideation sessions, though, is the fact that it enables you to engage a more diverse set of participants. The more variety you have represented across discipline, seniority, gender identity, race, age, ability levels, etc., the more confident you can be that you've thought about things from multiple angles and the better you can eliminate unconscious bias that might lead you to overlook opportunities.

4: Create and collect a rich pool of ideation inputs before every session.

“One of the cruelest things done to smart people is to ask them to innovate, lock them in a small room, and equip them with nothing but expectations – no principles, no methods, no tools to fulfill their mission... It's patently unfair and it rarely works. “High-protocol” innovation means that you equip your teams with smart tools and augment them with step-by-step instructions about what to do, in what sequence, to get a good outcome.”

Larry Keeley, co-founder of Doblin and co-author of Ten Types of Innovation: The Discipline of Building Breakthroughs 

Ideation inputs are the foundation for successful ideation sessions. There are three main buckets of content that should be collected as inputs for any ideation session: insights, inspiration, and guardrails. A breadth of insights and inspiration from varied sources is best because it gives your participants all the more fodder to work with.

ContentWhat is it?Why is it important?
  • - Relevant existing research or data
  • - Findings from desk research
  • - New research studies that might be conducted specifically in support of the ideation effort
  • - New data that could be requested and analyzed for the session
Research and data ensure that your ideas are based on more than just gut instinct or assumptions.
  • - Any additional fodder that will help participants consider things from different perspectives
  • - Use crowdsourcing activities to solicit input from a variety of people on things like pain points, challenges, opportunities, examples of a scenario folks have experienced, or descriptions (and pictures) of a particular item / process / environment, etc.
These details help you come up with well-rounded ideas that can work in a mix of different contexts and that dive deeper than surface level.
  • - Any known constraints (e.g. technical), objectives (e.g. business), evaluation criteria, output expectations, or context that must be considered
  • - Some examples: a specific time-frame (e.g. two years versus ten years out); topical themes that are of interest to leadership; a target customer group; deciding to focus on new/novel ideas versus solutions to known, enduring, unsolved problems; assumptions regarding the future you're designing for
The viability of ideas generated increases the more leadership goals and business and interests are baked into the ideation guardrails.

5: Use a mix of solo and group activities — ideally solo first, then groups.

“Several decades of research have unambiguously found that teams are demonstrably inferior to individuals when it comes to brainstorming and idea generation... By using hybrid, interactive meeting structures— characterized by [among other things] periods of autonomous work punctuated by periods of intense collaborative work, teams can start reaching their creative potential.”

Leigh Thompson, J. Jay Gerber Professor of Management and Dispute Resolution at the Kellogg School and author of Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration

Before coming together as a group to discuss and build on each others’ ideas, it’s important to allow time for participants to work on their own. Solo time lets people think freely and keeps the negative influences of groupthink at bay. Giving people that time means that everyone will have something to share with the group, which solves for any free rider issues and creates more comfortable opportunities for less extroverted folks to contribute. Solo time can be before the session or within a session you can simply allocate time for solo work before group activities or shareouts.

Especially as we continue to work from home, leveraging collaborative doc platforms like Google Docs or Quip in your remote workshops is a great way to let people articulate their thoughts for themselves. Sharing out and building on others’ ideas via comments is an organic, low-stress way to transition from solo to group work.

In summary

To get more value out of your ideation sessions, you need more than a one-size-fits-all approach. By taking the steps outlined in this article, you can:

  • Be more precise about the focus of each session, and accordingly, how long the session needs to be.
  • Be more precise about why each participant is necessary for each session.
  • Integrate novelty and variety, in order to increase the odds that your sessions will generate a large number of relevant ideas.

Additional reading

From hand lettering gig posters and related ephemera for POP Montréal to helping clients make things people want at Doblin to her current role as a senior design researcher for Amazon’s UX Lab, Janice Wong loves finding excuses to read more and talk to people. See more from Janice on Medium.

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