How to Lead a Brainstorming Session: Tools for Jump-Starting Project Solutions

How to Lead a Brainstorming Session: Tools for Jump-Starting Project Solutions
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Get Those Creative Juices Flowing

When project solutions are getting stale or project team members are at a loss for creativity, brainstorming offers project managers a collaborative way to generate new ideas. The power of brainstorming lies in the synergy created by people interacting with people as ideas are generated. It’s a powerful tool for dealing with creative blocks, and it ensures that all project team members can offer input.

The project manager’s role in a brainstorming session is to maintain a non-confrontational and risk-free environment for generating ideas, to guide participants through the process and to inspire action based on the best solutions. Here are some tips for how to use brainstorming as an effective project management technique.

Setting the Scene

The right environment is an important factor in the success of a brainstorming session, so choose a location and arrangement that allows everybody to engage in the process equally. Be inclusive in your choice of team members to be involved in brainstorming--sometimes those workers less familiar with project details can actually offer the freshest perspective. Provide a large dry erase board, chalk board or flip chart on which to record brainstorming ideas. Be sure to have plenty of pens or pencils and paper on hand for both visual and verbal thinkers. Designate a brainstorming recorder to write ideas legibly for all to see. Also, prepare a set of brainstorming goals ahead of time so that you can maximize your time.

Successful Techniques

There are a number of ways project managers can conduct a brainstorming session, but these three techniques are good options for generating project ideas. You may consider trying each option within the same brainstorming session.

1. Word Association. This technique of presenting a word or concept and asking team members to share their first response is a good way to get creative juices flowing and establish a risk-free tone for your brainstorming session. The goal in this technique is to avoid over-thinking, but to identify key assumptions and responses.

2. Individual Timed Brainstorming. This technique involves presenting a brainstorming goal and asking team members to quickly write down as many ideas as possible. Then, individual responses can be shared with the group and evaluated. Setting a time limit on this process is important to discourage team members from getting caught up in evaluating their own ideas. The individual brainstorming method has drawbacks because people inherently edit themselves, so there will be a tendency for them to critique their own ideas before sharing with the group.

3. Group Brainstorming. This technique is perhaps the most effective means of generating creative ideas during a brainstorming session. It involves presenting a brainstorming or project goal to the entire group and asking for the free verbal sharing of ideas. The goal of this technique is to generate as many responses as possible without editing or critiquing. By sharing ideas in a group setting, team members can use the thoughts of others as a springboard for new solutions.

“Rules” of Brainstorming

When conducting a brainstorming session, project managers should establish these “rules” to achieve the most effective results.

  • Every idea is valid. From the practical to the far-fetched, no idea is rejected in brainstorming. There will be time later for evaluating and editing the list of ideas. Nothing, including costs or resource availability, should be a deterrent from listing an idea.

  • Everyone has an equal say. Think vertical, rather than horizontal, in your approach to choosing brainstorming participants. Team members at all levels of responsibility and involvement in a project will generate the breadth of ideas needed to foster real solutions.

  • Ignore drawbacks or impossibilities. Reject the notion of feasibility, at least for your brainstorming session. The goal is to spark new thoughts, innovative solutions and creative ideas. A seemingly impossible idea from one participant might prompt a more creative solution from another. Don’t put up roadblocks.

  • No criticism allowed. Criticism of ideas establishes a climate of risk, squelches creativity and is counterproductive to your brainstorming goals.

Photo courtesy Peter Kaminski (