A key tool in any learning professional’s toolbox is a good old-fashioned brainstorming session.
Whether it's brainstorming topics for a learning deliverable, coming up with novel ways to engage learners, or concepting strategies for performance support, idea generation is part and parcel of the learning function's work.
But there's more to effective brainstorming than simply throwing out ideas in a group setting. Have you ever been part of a brainstorming session that devolved into detailed discussions about a single idea, or shifted to deciding on the best possible solution? If so, that wasn’t a true brainstorm.
Optimal brainstorms accommodate two key principles for leveraging creativity: deferring judgment and reaching for quantity. Yes, quantity—not quality. But because many of us have been taught, from elementary school on, that every problem has one correct solution (vertical thinking), it may not feel very efficient to spend time generating multiple possible solutions (lateral thinking). If creativity and innovation are the goals, however, a proper brainstorm is at least one good way to get there.
Here are eight brainstorming best practices to help generate ideas for your training programs.
1. Manage the Group Size
The magic number seems to be four or five participants; when there are more or fewer, energy tends to be low. In order to optimize participation by all, manage the size of the group. You may feel tempted to invite every single SME to the session, but consider instead a cross-section of SMEs. If you’d really like more than five people to participate, break out into smaller groups and compare notes later.
2. Consider All Brains Equal
It’s not true, of course… some brains are better than others. But in a brainstorming session, any brain can add value. Sometimes the best ideas come from those we least expect. Likewise, sometimes the brightest and most informed participants don’t deliver anything fresh. The important thing is not to spend too much time qualifying who will participate by an estimation of what they may or may not bring to the table. In fact, strive for diversity in experience levels, areas of expertise, and backgrounds. Allow for some spontaneity and you are likely to be pleasantly surprised.
Start with a topic that isn’t the specific problem you're trying to solve, but rather something related and maybe even a little bit silly. Need to produce ideas for a sales training course? Start by spending five minutes brainstorming a list of things a salesperson should never wear. Reinforce that the goal is quantity, not quality. Challenge the group to come up with as many ideas as possible. The point is to get people warmed up and talking, detached from the actual problem and willing to throw anything out there. By warming up, your group will improve the efficacy of the brainstorm you conduct for the actual problem you’re solving.
4. Ban Criticism
Abstaining from criticism sounds easier than it is, but the point of a brainstorm is not to evaluate, weigh, debate, or detail—it's to generate lots and lots and lots of possible solutions. Remind the group that there will be plenty of time for criticism and quality control later. Similarly, during a brainstorm, try to prevent folks from offering too much persuasion or convincing when that first compelling idea is surfaced. Again, there will be plenty of time for that later.
5. Encourage Wackiness
Countless stories exist about inventions or innovations that began as seemingly silly ideas. Sometimes it’s the most ridiculous ideas that end up morphing into brilliance. But getting people to offer silly ideas can be a challenge in ego-fraught workplaces. Brainstorm facilitators must lead by example—it’s the only way. If you put a nonsensical idea or two in the ring, others will follow. Similarly, facilitators can reinvigorate a quiet group with a silly question like, “What if this learning experience was a tree. What kind of tree would it be?”
6. Keep Ideas Ownerless
This is also tough in our modern workplaces, where knowledge workers feel compelled to give and receive credit. But during a brainstorm, attaching a participant’s name to an idea ("Jane’s idea for XYZ") can create a few obstacles. First, it curbs the generation of wacky ideas. Second, it introduces politics based on organizational rankings, and nothing slows down creativity like hierarchy. Lastly, attaching a participant’s name to an idea has the effect of “trademarking” a suggestion, rendering it immune from iteration. If you are concerned that some participants may defer to a manager or experienced SME in the group, consider using anonymizing tools, such as Post-it Notes.
7. Get Everyone to Participate
Just as the point of a brainstorm is to generate as many ideas as possible, the point is also to hear as many voices as possible. Try to get everyone involved. Do this by recording ideas on a visible list that everyone can see, such as on a whiteboard or easel pad. Keep your own contributions brief. Don’t self-censor and qualify your ideas; just shoot them out there, add them to the list, and wait for someone else to do the same. Minimize your airtime even while actively participating, setting the example for how others should behave, as well.
8: Keep It Short
Genuine brainstorming sessions are not long. In fact, if a session goes much longer than about 15 minutes, it’s likely the group has exhausted its store of ideas on a particular topic. A good brainstorm facilitator will both inspire and observe group energy, so that when it wanes, the brainstorm can be officially concluded without anyone feeling bad about ideas having run out. A good brainstorm is fast and fun.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from these eight tips: a brainstorm is not about making decisions, it’s about generating lots of choices. As an L&D professional, use brainstorming to its best advantage, and keep an open mind about possible solutions to your learning challenges.
Tammy Dietz is a learning solutions manager for Caveo Learning. A writer, instructor, instructional designer, and editor, Tammy has worked in learning & development for 15 years and has provided services to clients such as AT&T, Microsoft, Netflix, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Bellevue College. She holds a master's degree from Pacific University.