How to Lead an Effective Brainstorm

Think an open-forum, no-holds-barred brainstorming session is the best way to surface innovative ideas? There’s a good chance most of your team would disagree. It’s great in theory, but unstructured collaboration is full of insidious group dynamics like unconscious biases, groupthink, dominating voices, and fear, which cost your company time and money in miscommunication, misalignment, false starts, and uninformed decisions.

The problems with collaboration are so commonplace that some people don’t notice them, and most people don’t think they can be solved—but they can. Here are five ways to do it.


1. Ensure diversity.

Deliberately cultivating a team with varied personal and professional backgrounds gives the group a collective edge. Be mindful about whose input you need: Gather a group that represents your customer base in terms of race and ethnicity, gender, and experience level to ensure you are surfacing the most relevant, poignant ideas. 


2. Remove group biases (as much as you can).

Unconscious biases are called so for a reason: Many cognitive tendencies are wired into our brains and are incredibly difficult to weed out. While we can’t avoid our worst impulses altogether, there are proven techniques to keep them well in check. For example, anonymity, at least in the initial ideation stages of a brainstorm, can be helpful: It allows introverts and new hires to voice their ideas without fear, and it levels the influence of each idea, regardless of who submitted it. Balloon, a tool that uses collaboration to encourage insight mobility, or the concept of allowing great ideas to rise through the strata of a business, regardless of where they came from.


3. Build in constraints and guidelines for your brainstorm beforehand.

Even if the topic your team is discussing is broad or the questions are open-ended, preliminary structure is always helpful. (In fact, there is significant research that constraints boost innovation.) Before you begin the brainstorm, set the stage with time limits and imbue your team with inspiration by giving the group some context for why this problem is pressing and how a great solution could change the game for your company. As a leader, providing a solid framework within which your team can generate their most creative ideas is your primary role during a brainstorm.


4. Sharpen your questions before asking your team.

The questions you pose in the beginning of a brainstorm can make or break the entire session. Try these techniques to get your team thinking in new ways.

  • Employ divergent-thinking methods, like random association or trying on different personas, to unlock new questions and new ideas.
  • Pose questions that are open-ended but specific (versus closed, like a yes-or-no), short, and simple. If a question becomes difficult to word because you’re trying to include too many factors, split the question into several.
  • Use a combination of descriptive questions (“What’s working?” “What do you want to see in the new launch?”) and speculative questions (“Why?” “Why not?” “What if?”)—but remember that descriptive questions should almost always precede speculative ones!
  • Respond to every idea with an open mind, even if your instinct is to disagree. This creates a culture of psychological safety, without which your team is unlikely to come to you with their most out-of-the-box, game-changing ideas.


5. Leave time for asynchronous collaboration, or consider solo brainstorming entirely.

Not only is asynchronous work often necessary as many teams are now remote, but solo brainstorming can actually surface more ideas than working in a group. Psychologists Paul B. Paulus from the University of Texas at Arlington and the late Vincent R. Brown from Hofstra University summed up the idea in their research on brainstorming, which was published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science: There is “much literature on group brainstorming has found it to be less effective than individual brainstorming.”

“In face-to-face settings, the opportunity to fully share information and knowledge is limited by the fact that only one person can express his or her ideas at one time,” Paulus explains. “While waiting one’s turn to share ideas, a person may forget what he or she meant to say or get distracted from one’s own ideas by the sharing process. There may be rather uneven participation as some individuals may dominate the discussion.”