How to Have More Productive Group Brainstorms: 10 Tips to Get Everyone Involved

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Carly Williams
Carly Williams



How many times have you uttered the phrase, "I wish I'd thought of that"?

It often seems that certain people have the power to formulate creative, inspired ideas, but the truth is, you and I are just as capable as the next person. 

Sure, unleashing your creativity isn't always easy -- especially when you're brainstorming in a group setting.

In order to keep your business competitive and have more productive brainstorms, you need to account for different personality types, points of view, and preferred ways of learning.

To help you hold more meaningful group brainstorms, embrace the following tips and tricks. From icebreakers to games to free tools, you're sure to find an approach that gets the wheels turning for your team.

How to Have More Productive Group Brainstorms

1) Allow people to submit ideas anonymously.

It's a paranoia shared by all human species: What will other people think? 

When it comes to brainstorming, sometimes our wildest, craziest, most unrealistic ideas happen to be our best ones. Unfortunately, many of them never see the light of day, as we are often plagued by our unproductive obsession with what might happen if we speak up. 

Best defined by the concept of evaluation apprehension, this all-too-common anxiety can suck the innovation right out of your group brainstorm. To combat it, consider asking members of the group to submit ideas anonymously before the meeting.

If you're looking for a handy tool to help simplify collecting anonymous suggestions, check out Free Suggestion Box. This easy-to-use website lets you set up a suggestion box, share the box's unique URL with your teammates, and collect their honest feedback without revealing their identities. Check it out:


2) Ask people to come prepared.

While it may seem obvious, often times people come to brainstorms without having put much thought into the topic at hand. This can lead to a lot of awkward silences and a lot less creative thinking. 

The solution?

"What the most creative companies do is tell the members of the group to come up with lists of ideas before they come to the brainstorming session. What the group is really powerful for is exchanging ideas and then having ideas bump up against one another and merge in surprising new ways that any one person might not have thought of on their own," notes creativity expert Keith Sawyer.

In other words, by asking group members to bring a few ideas to the table, you create a launching point for more ideas to surface. To enforce this, you might want to pass around a spreadsheet for collecting ideas prior to the meeting. 

3) Gamify it.

Move over brainstorming, there's a new technique in town: Gamestorming. 

This new way of looking at brainstorming opens up an opportunity for people to have fun while surfacing results. It's visual, messy, loud, and innovative ... just like brainstorming should be. 

Interested in trying it out in your next group brainstorm? Here are a few exercises:

  • Squiggle Birds: Want to stretch your visual thinking muscles? This activity will help you do just that. [Learn How to Play]
  • Draw Toast: Need a fun way to get people warmed up and thinking systematically? Ask them how to make toast. [Learn How to Play]
  • Carousel: If you're looking to come up with a fresh solution to a problem, this quick exercise will help you gather and share insight from all points of view. [Learn How to Play]

4) Start with an icebreaker.

When you're jumping from meeting to meeting, getting in the right frame of mind to think creatively can be challenging. You're thinking about your social media engagement, budgeting issues, and unanswered emails, all while also trying to bring something constructive to the table.

Depending on the focus of your brainstorm, there are a ton of interesting icebreakers you can kick off your meeting with. For example, if you're brainstorming idea for a particular demographic, PR Daily suggests that you ask the group to pretend that they are planning a party for the audience you're looking to reach. They should determine specific details -- venue, playlist, menu, theme, etc. -- in order to get in the mindset of the group you're targeting.

Another option? Word association. Help your group start thinking about the bigger picture by creating a word web of terms that relate to your challenge or promotion. From here, you can identify patterns and trends that will prove useful when developing ideas.

5) Invite an outsider.

There are a ton of cognitive biases that influence the decisions we make, and failing to recognize your own biases is a bias in itself -- it's called blind spot bias.  

Considering it's much easier for people to recognize cognitive and motivational biases in others than it is to identify them in oneself, it's a good idea to brainstorm and come to decisions with the help of a group. But not just any old group will do ...

In an effort to take a step back from the situation, try inviting someone from a different team, department, or level of the organization to join your brainstorm. By having an outsider in the room, it'll be easier to minimize biases, as this person can serve as a devil's advocate for your ideas. 

6) Host the brainstorm online. 

Whether some of your team members work remotely or you sit side-by-side, choosing to hold an online brainstorm could be the solution you've been looking for. 

study on electronic brainstorming and group size found that larger groups were able to come up with more unique, high-quality ideas when they used electronic brainstorming versus verbal. Not to mention, members expressed more satisfaction when participating in this format. 

Why? The research concluded that electronic brainstorming has the ability to reduce production blocking, in which waiting your turn interferes with the cognitive process of generating ideas. 

7) Set a fleeting deadline.

As many of us know all too well, sometimes all it takes is the looming threat of a deadline to ignite action. 

Much like leveraging the Pomodoro Technique -- in which you work in brief, 25-minute stints with breaks -- limiting the time you spend on a group brainstorm could serve as a helpful kick in the pants for all involved. 

Rather than giving yourself too much time and space to come up with ideas, creative Nicole Steinbok suggests you hold a 22-minute meeting. The way Steinbok sees it, this limited deadline typically provides just enough time to accomplish an intended goal -- without having to deal with all the banter. Here's a look at how the ideal 22-minute meeting should play out:


8) Opt for a change of scenery.

Are you holding your brainstorms in the same meeting room every time? Switch it up. 
According to an article on study habits from The New York Times, our brains make subtle associations between what we're focusing on and the background sensations at the time. For example, a 1978 experiment found that students who studied 40 vocabulary words in two different rooms performed better than students who studied the words twice in the same room.
"What we think is happening here is that, when the outside context is varied, the information is enriched, and this slows down forgetting,” psychologist Robert A. Bjork suggests.
The lesson? Go outside, try a new room, stand in the hallway, go out for lunch ... just get out.

9) Avoid letting the leader start. 

Having a brainstorm with a mix of executives, upper management, and their reports? It's often best to ask management to save their suggestions until others have had a chance to toss around some ideas. 

"Participants who are easily intimidated will hitch their wagons to the boss’s ideas, probably at the expense of their own creativity. And more rebellious participants won’t come near the boss’s ideas, even though those ideas might indeed have merit," explains Sam Harrison, author to several books on creative ideas. 

It's also important to note that anchoring bias -- our tendency to rely heavily on the first piece of information offered -- also plays a role in this type of scenario. If you allow the leader to speak first, it can become difficult for other group members to look beyond their initial judgment, and ultimately hold them back from offering new ideas. 

10) Provide visual tools. 

Considering approximately 65% of the population are visual learners, it'd be limiting to reserve brainstorms for just verbal communication. 

Some ideas require a diagram or a doodle. Others require an elaborate map that stretches from one side of the white board to the other. In order for everyone in the group to truly understand one another's ideas, it's important that you provide the means to explain things visually. 

Don't have access to a room with a white board? Create a kit that can be used whenever someone at your company holds a brainstorm. This can be a box filled with paper, markers, scissors, clay, string, wire, Legos, tape, etc. 

Sure, it sounds a lot like arts and crafts, but these types of tools allow for hands-on brainstorming -- which could be the key to unlocking your team's creativity. 

How does your team approach brainstorming? Share your favorite tips and tricks in the comments.

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