Facilitated Ideation Sessions for group brainstorming

By / April 29, 2013

Before working at Bridgeable, my experience with group brainstorming was something like what is drawn above; an uncomfortable and somewhat unpleasant situation where you feel pressured to come up with a good idea in a timely fashion. Half of the group does not contribute in fear of looking silly in front of their peers (this describes me) and a few people are not even paying attention to the task at hand. In my opinion, this type of unstructured meeting is what makes group brainstorming a daunting and unproductive experience that stifles creativity. However, when planned and prepared for properly (read this blog post by Susan Bartlett), getting a group together to ideate can yield unexpected and creative results. This post describes how we typically perform facilitated ideation sessions at Bridgeable so that you and your team do not find yourselves in a similar situation as the one described above.

The facilitated ideation session team

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Jonah Lehrer describes the importance of a diverse group in participating in the ideation session. For us, this usually includes the project team itself, client representatives, and others from either outside of the company or employees who are working on different projects. We are lucky to have a multidisciplinary team at Bridgeable, bringing different experiences and perspectives to the table.

Beginning the session

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We find it important to begin each session by clearly stating the objectives of the meeting, which helps keep the team focused and on-task. We state the objectives in the following way:

  • To – the expected outcome of this meeting
  • By – things we will do in the meeting
  • So that – the larger objective that we will be closer to on account of this meeting

Since our projects often involve either ethnographic or physical sciences research, we follow the objectives with a research summary so that all participants have the required information about the project to begin ideating.

Warming-up

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Although everyone has the ability to think creatively, the task comes more easily to some than to others. This is why we usually do a short warm-up activity or ice-breaker. This gets the creative juices flowing and encourages communication. A Bridgeable favourite, “Collective Lines” (shown above), gets the participants to build off of the ideas of others. This is done by providing each person with a blank sheet of paper and a list of items (download example here). They have one minute to draw the first item before passing both the drawing and the list to the next person. The work is finished after each item is drawn and the team is left with some potentially hilarious images and are loosened up for the real ideation work ahead. The book Rapid Viz is also a great resource for fun warm-up activities.

Generating initial ideas

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Time to generate some ideas that address the objectives. It is important to defer judgement; encourage quantity over quality. Sometimes the most radical ideas can lead to a highly successful concept under further development and refinement.

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Provide sticky-notes and markers of various colours. Have everyone write draw their ideas on sticky-notes and post them at the front of the room with a brief verbal explanation. These can then be grouped by likeness in theme or technological implementation thereby forming several distinct basic ideas.

Idea development

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Divide and conquer. The team can then be divided into smaller groups with each group choosing one or two of the sticky-note groupings to develop further. Provide a template such as the one above (download a starter template here). This will make it easier for the group to think about how a particular idea addresses the project’s KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), learning objectives, budget, and timelines.

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It is a good idea to have the smaller ideation groups composed of at least one client, one design team member and one or two others. This will ensure that each idea benefits from the multidisciplinary nature of the original brainstorming group. Provide craft materials such as coloured paper, scissors, glue, and smelly markers; it is easier to think creatively when provided with and inspired by the right materials.

Presentation and refinement

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By the end of an hour or so, each small group should have a couple of ideas sketched out. To end off the ideation session, each group should present their developed ideas to the others. This is when further refinement can happen as everyone else in the room can contribute to each concept. At Bridgeable, we start constructive comments with “Yes, and…”, which builds upon the preliminary concept in a positive way.

At the end of the ideation session, your team should be left several fleshed-out project ideas and a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. The key to successful group brainstorming seen here was facilitation. When provided with guidance, templates, craft materials, and diversity of thinking, group brainstorming (or facilitated ideation sessions) can be a highly successful, productive, and enjoyable experience.