This is a guest contribution from Paige Wallace of Storycatcher Creative
“I encourage you to be brave” may be the best brainstorming advice, ever—and that was the very first thing I heard as I sat in on a recent brainstorming session. I attended as a guest, hoping to learn about brainstorming techniques to enhance my work as a marketing consultant and storyteller. I discovered even more than I expected, something I call Brave Brainstorming. These five simple steps will supercharge your brainstorming sessions to foster more engagement, better results, and a stronger team.
Monica Borrell facilitated this team building brainstorm for Daylight digital agency in Portland, Oregon. Borrell is CEO of Cardsmith, an online collaboration and organization tool based on sticky notes.
Borrell led the Daylight team deep into a discussion about accountability. During the session, I saw her subtly and repeatedly encourage the brainstormers to be brave. Sharing your own ideas in a public space can feel risky. If the brainstorming process goes awry, people feel alienated and you diminish the sense of team cohesiveness. We’ve all experienced that situation when one or two people monopolize the brainstorm. You’ve also probably noticed a sense of annoyance or dread as the next brainstorming session looms ahead—because we all expect more of the same.
When you facilitate bravery, you design a situation where everyone feels respected and valued, thus building up the sense of team and improving collaboration. Here’s how Borrell made that happen, in five simple steps that you can use to set your team up for Brave Brainstorming:
- Safe Sharing We all know brainstorming should be judgment-free, but it doesn’t always work that way. That’s why it’s important to start off with a reminder about this rule. Make sure your team understands that this is about showing respect for others. What you don’t need to say—but you’ll see it play out—is that this guideline creates room for everyone to speak their thoughts freely in an environment of safety and acceptance. The quieter people on your team, especially, need to feel this sense of security if you want them to contribute.
- Alone Time Once you’ve set up the guidelines and a topic or question to address, allow brainstorm participants a few minutes to contemplate their own ideas in silence. Then, when that set time is up, give each person a chance to share their thoughts without interruption. Starting off this way ensures everyone will have something to say, and that we get to hear from all team members at least once. This creates an atmosphere of inclusion. You may be surprised at the quality of responses you get from this step of the brainstorming process. I know I was impressed by the thoughtful and wide-ranging comments that came up around the meaning of accountability after each participant was allowed time to think and then speak.
- Clarifying Questions Asking clarifying questions allows participants to be really clear, with themselves and with the group, about what they mean. Sometimes Borrell would say, “Can you talk more about that?” Questions like this help the rest of the group understand that person’s ideas more fully. In turn, the clarifying questions may spark new ideas from the other participants.
- Don’t Rush It I was impressed watching Borrell stand silently at times, after asking a question or after someone shared an idea. There was no need to push forward and get to the next idea. The beauty of creating this quiet space is that it gives people time to develop their thoughts. Sometimes it gave the person who had just spoken the opportunity to continue and add insight about their previous comment. Sometimes it allowed another participant to share input when they might not have spoken up otherwise. This is especially important for the quieter, more introspective people in your group. Pauses give them a better opportunity to get their ideas out there without feeling like they need to fight to be heard.
- Find Common Themes “We are starting to get similar answers, and that’s a good thing,” Borrell noted at one point. She then began to group the ideas based on common themes. You can do this at points throughout the brainstorm, or wait until the end. If you’ve written down ideas on sticky notes, either in Cardsmith or on paper, this step can be very intuitive. Grouping will always help guide your next steps, but the most significant value lies in the team-building effect. I found it fascinating to watch this unfold each time Borrell noted emerging themes. I could sense the team recognizing how much they were in agreement about what it means to be accountable. As you group topics by connective tissue in your own brainstorm sessions, you’ll see the connection of ideas lead to a stronger sense that your group is, indeed, a team. In an era when individuals are spread across many locations, this becomes more valuable than ever.
As Borrell employed these Brave Brainstorming techniques, I watched the group open up with each other and engage in the discussion on a deeper level than I’ve ever experienced. She created an environment of safety, openness, and engagement which enabled everyone to reach agreement about what it means to be accountable. Their group connected in a whole new way.
Outcomes like this exceed what most of us expect from a brainstorm session. However, when you incorporate these simple techniques, it’s attainable. So go out there and brainstorm bravely!
Paige Wallace is an Emmy-winning video producer, writer and marketing consultant based in Portland, Oregon. Her business, Storycatcher Creative, helps companies connect with customers through creative storytelling. She loves to put herself in unusual places and write essays about her adventures. Follow her blog at storycatchercreative.com and @StorycatcherCreative on Facebook and Instagram.