Organizing Brainstorming Sessions: Before, During & After

“All great deeds and great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning.”
— Albert Camus

As analysts, we often encounter difficult problems where no clear solution exists. Osborn, the father of brainstorming, suggests that we think of as many ideas as possible, regardless of how ridiculous they may seem at first. Creative thinking requires a technique like brainstorming to come up with useful ideas. It has the capability to stimulate lateral thinking (discarding obvious approaches and thinking outside the box) and free association.

There have been many debates on the pros and cons of brainstorming. Some pundits hold the view that individuals are more creative on their own (See Susan Cain’s article on The New GroupThink); some directly question the effectiveness of brainstorming (See Jonah Lehrer’s criticism of brainstorming); while others argue that a large quantity of creative ideas can only be achieved through brainstorming, if done effectively (See Scott Berkin’s article in defence of brainstorming).

While acknowledging that 1) individuals can be creative on their own, 2) brainstorming is not the only way to generate ideas and 3) brainstorming has its shortcomings, I do believe that brainstorming can deliver significant benefits if done properly. This post points out the steps that can be taken to ensure that brainstorming sessions deliver the much-touted benefits.

To get maximum results from brainstorming sessions, 3 things should be considered: what is done before, during and after the brainstorming session.

I once attended a supposed brainstorming session in which only 3 of the 8 participants got round to contributing to the discussion. They had prepared a list of recommendations based on their findings and all they did was reel out their discoveries. A meeting should not be incorrectly tagged as a brainstorming session if it's not going to be conducted as such.

To Criticize or Not to Criticize

Brainstorming should never be about who is right or who is wrong. If the objective is to generate as many ideas as possible, criticism is unnecessary and can be detrimental to achieving this objective. Sifting through ideas can always be done at the end of the session.

Business analysts can use brainstorming sessions to generate ideas on the features of an upcoming system, identify possible solutions to tackling a business problem and solve practically any problem that can benefit from the infusion of several unique ideas.

Here's a list of steps that should be taken before, during and after each brainstorming session:

Before the brainstorming session

Engage an experienced facilitator – Facilitation takes skill and experience; bad facilitation can easily stifle creativity. Where necessary, seek the help of an experienced facilitator.

Select Participants Carefully – Asking complete novices to deliberate on “ways to make a computer program run faster” can quickly turn into a futile exercise. You’re not likely to get many useful ideas from participants who know nothing about the subject and are probably not even interested in it. Also, the number of participants invited is a key predictor of how effective the brainstorming session will be. BABOK recommends a total of 6-8 participants. It’s also important to consider the preferred mix of participants. Participants could be from the same background (homogenous) or from different backgrounds (heterogeneous).

Prepare Participants– Participants should be informed of the subject of the brainstorming session before the day. They should be given the opportunity to deliberate on it so that they can come up with useful ideas.

During the brainstorming session

Introduce the ground rules -  If there are any rules you would like participants to abide by, the beginning of the session is a great time to bring these up. Are participants going to provide ideas spontaneously or will this be done in a round-the-table format? Will ideas be written on the board or on post-it notes? Will they work in groups or will each person work on their own? The rules should be stated clearly from the start. Participants should also be informed of how their ideas will be used.

Begin with the end in mind -  Participants should be informed of the objectives of the brainstorming session and what will happen to the data collected. If everyone knows what they are supposed to work towards and how their ideas will be used, they will be more motivated and challenge themselves more to provide valuable ideas. Clear objectives also ensure that everyone works towards achieving the same goal.

Get everyone comfortable – Participants will not contribute 100% if they are afraid or reluctant. Ranks should be left at the door and everyone given an equal opportunity to participate.

Encourage wild ideas – the objective should be to generate as many ideas as possible, no matter how exaggerated they seem. Encourage participants to go beyond any self-imposed limits.

Combine brainstorming with other techniques – You should plan to use complementary techniques especially where requirements elicitation is the objective. Brainstorming can be combined with techniques such as prototyping, affinity diagrams, MoSCoW technique to elicit, sort and prioritize requirements respectively. Depending on the circumstances or what you would like to achieve, it might be best to wait until after the session is over to apply these techniques.

Don’t evaluate ideas on the spot - the brainstorming session is not a platform for evaluating ideas for credibility or practicality; this can impede individual contribution and cause digression.

Keep things visual – the issue being discussed as well as the ideas brought forward should always be kept visible. Visibility can spur increased contribution.

After the brainstorming session

Assess ideas in another session – At the end of the session, consider inviting the same group or another group of participants to rank and assess the generated ideas. Because the objective of the brainstorming session is to gather as many ideas as possible, trimming down of ideas should be done at the end of the session or postponed till another day.

Use the results - A brainstorming session is not just about gathering data. It should not be an end in itself since its outcome can potentially signal the beginning of a much-needed project. If participants get the impression that their ideas have gone down a black hole, they will be less likely to participate in subsequent sessions. The results of the brainstorming session should be used as an input to action plans, which in turn should be monitored till completion.