How to lead a brainstorm… err… idea session

Brainstorm is a loaded word. They take time. They give you a warm, fuzzy feeling but don’t have tangible outcomes. Some call them a trojan horse of mediocrity. TLDR… they’re useless. Eye roll.

While a poorly led brainstorm…err…let’s call them idea sessions can be all of these things, a well-executed one can

  • Plant the seed to get people thinking about problems
  • Uncover different outlooks by bringing together diverse perspectives
  • Expose gaps in communication and strategy

You might ask “Why do these sessions matter?” Idea sessions set aside time and space for your team to examine problems and explore unorthodox solutions. They give people permission to think.

This post outlines tips for how to run an effective idea session. It’ll guide you on what to do before, during, and after the session and how to increase your chances of creating those “magical moments.”

The network effects of an idea session are strong, so let’s get the ball moving.

Before the Session

1. Define your goals

What are you trying to achieve? Are you looking to solve a specific customer problem? Are you looking to increase sales by 500%? Or are you just looking to get a pulse on what’s top of mind for different teams at the company?

For example, at Ravelin, we rely on our users to provide labelled data to improve predictions from our machine learning algorithms. A user will review a customer’s information to decide whether they are fraudulent and label them as such based on their decision. The higher the quantity and quality of our labelled data, the better fraud detection results we can provide our clients. Thus, the goal of our session was to generate ideas for how to make it easier for a user to accurately decide whether a customer is fraudulent.

Your goals don’t need to be product-oriented — for example, you may want to expose gaps in communication across teams — but you should take time to write them down.

2. Decide on your question

Now that you have clear goals, what question (or two) will you have people think about to achieve this goal?

In the example above, we asked two questions:

  1. What steps does an analyst take to decide whether a customer is Fraudulent?
  2. How can Ravelin make it 10x easier for a customer to decide whether a customer is Fraudulent?

The first question built a framework for the current state of the world which we could later validate against our users. The second question generated ideas for improvement.

If you’re looking to expose gaps in communication, you might ask a question that is more general like “How might we make Ravelin 10x better for its customers?” However, if your question is general, be sure to set aside time in your agenda to warm up and discuss foundational questions:

  • What do we include in our definition of ‘Ravelin’? eg. only product? Or people, process, and product? I’d nudge you to consider the latter.
  • How do we define ‘better’? eg. AirBnB’s 10 stars

It’s easy for the discussion to stay high-level if you don’t debunk assumptions and agree on definitions, so take time to align the team.

3. Pick who’s in the room

Who do you want to attend? People from different teams? Only the same team?

Sessions with members from the same team are great for discovering gaps in communication and process, as well as figuring out what matters most to that team. Cross-team sessions are a great way to “cross-pollinate” and expose people to different points of view.

In general, i’d recommend keeping your session to a maximum of six people.

4. Set your agenda

This is the fun part. What’s the layout of your session? What exercise are you going to do to explore your questions? The world’s your oyster, but you need to have a plan.

My typical agenda:

  1. House Rules
  2. Warm up
  3. Exercises
  4. Closing Discussion

I’ll dive deeper into the ‘House Rules’ and ‘Warm Up’ sections later on. For ‘Exercises’, my go-to is a good old fashioned post-it note exercise. Crazy eights is also a favorite.

Post-it Note Exercise:

(Pre-session) Gather supplies. Post-it notes, black Sharpie markers, colorful dot stickers, stopwatch (aka your smartphone), a comfortable room with a blank wall.

  1. Distribute supplies. Everyone grabs a pad of post-it notes and a marker.
  2. Ask. Ask your question and make sure it’s visible, either on a piece of paper on the wall or a slide projected on a TV.
  3. Generate. Everyone writes down as many ideas a possible, one idea per post-it. Encourage people to think in “newspaper headlines” or less than 7 words per post-it. Give people no more than 10 minutes.
  4. Stand up. Everyone stands up and gathers around the blank wall.
  5. Present. Each person presents their ideas to the group. Stick each post-it note to the wall and group like ideas with each other. As the facilitator, carry post-its and a pen to write down new ideas from the discussion.
  6. Organise. Ask the group to identify similar ideas. What themes emerge? Write these down on a colorful post-it note and paste it over a group.
  7. Vote. Give everyone 3 stickers. Ask them to choose their top three ideas.
  8. Recap. Recap the discussion. What were the common themes? What were the most voted on ideas? The least?

During the Session

1. Mix it up

Thinking is messy — and doesn’t fit nicely into the daily course of business. The conference room you’re sitting in reminds you of that sales call you just had or the white boarding session for the next version of your API. It’s distracting.

So mix it up. Bring something for people to play with — Legos are always a hit — or play music — Bruce Springstein’s “I’m on Fire” is a personal favorite. Encourage people to walk around or relax on bean bags. Anything that takes people out of their work zone.

2. Establish House Rules

Remember in kindergarten when you were told to “listen to the speaker” and “raise your hand to speak”? Ok, well maybe we’ve graduated from raising our hands, but you get the idea. People will default to their typical office etiquette, so remind people to be on their best behaviour.

My go-to house rules:

  1. You’re here, you’re committed
  2. There are no “bad” ideas
  3. Everyone in the room is equal
  4. One person speaks at a time
3. Warm up

I repeat, thinking is messy. Your brain needs time to get its gears spinning, so give people that time.

If you’re diving into a question that’s foreign territory, people also need context. How can you give them this? Is there a recording of a customer support call that you can play to sum up a customer pain point? Is there a task in your product that people can complete to put themselves in the user’s shoes? Anything that gets them thinking about the question at hand.

In the example above, we had people go into our dashboard, review a customer, and decide whether they were fraudulent or not. We also looked at support cases where our users were uncertain about their decisions.

4. Go with the flow

No matter what you do, the session will be different than expected. You’ll prepare a slide deck only to find that the discussion goes in the opposite direction. As a facilitator, if the conversation starts to go off track, gently course correct it. Connect ideas from different people to keep the discussion flowing. If someone looks like they have something to say, prompt them to share with the group.

Your main task is to ensure that everyone in the room goes home with a “balloon,” a new idea or realisation that they didn’t know prior. This could be little. This could be big. But i’m confident that whatever it is, it’ll surprise you. So run with it.

After the Session

1. Stick around

So the session’s over. Everyone just gets up and walks back to their desk, right? No. People linger. Conversations carry on. This is where the magic happens, so stick around.

Here at Ravelin, we’ve had some of our best ideas emerge after the session’s “ended.” We’re standing around a table for 20 minutes deep in debate. We’re standing when there are chairs right in front of us. It’s crazy. But it’s magical.

These are the moments you’re striving to create, so don’t miss out.

2. Write everything down

This may sound basic, but it’s important. If you used post-it notes during the exercise, transcribe them into a document. If you have sketches, take photos. Write down thoughts and quotes from the discussion, as well as any higher-level thoughts or concrete next steps that come in reflection. Schedule time to do this immediately after the session while you’re still in the zone.

3. Follow up

Next, take time to analyze your notes. What themes emerge? Where do you see opportunities? If you’re a product manager, how will this influence your roadmap?

Share your takeaways and next steps with those who participated, as well as your broader team or company. This could be a simple google doc of notes or a more thorough slide deck that weaves in other sources of data. The goal is to let your team know that you heard their ideas, are acting on them, and value their time.

When will you lead an idea session?

If your team’s feeling stuck, unheard, or like they’re in “reactive” mode 24/7, it could be the perfect time to run your first session. Running a session takes time and effort but you’ll be surprised by the dividends it pays!

Have you ever run a brainstorm? What tips do you have? I’m listening! Respond here, Twitter DM @natsandman, or email me — natalie.sandman[at] or natalie.sandman[at]

Thanks to Meg Sandman and Shannon Goggin, as well as the product team at Ravelin for reading drafts of this post.


This post was originally published on Medium on February 5, 2018.