Fuel for Thought

Planning for a Successful Brainstorm

In my last post I shared three simple guidelines for a successful brainstormGenerate Heat, Pump Oxygen into the Room and Fuel for Thought.

In this post, we’re going to take a deeper look at the concept of Fuel for Thought and discuss how proper planning can allow you to generate bigger, bolder ideas as a group. Though planning can seem tedious, if you take the time to do it, your brainstorm will yield better results.

Planning begins by thinking about the emotion, objectives and artifacts needed for a successful outcome.


Why does emotion matter in a brainstorm? Because, we’re all busy —running from meeting to meeting and tending to the demands of the day. It’s often difficult to pause, shift gears and open up to be creative after a series of meetings or answering a slew of emails. Emotional energy is incredibly important. A room full of fearful, pessimistic or overwhelmed individuals is not only difficult to lead, they’re also terrible at coming up with good ideas.

Spend some time thinking about the energy you want to generate and then come up with things to help facilitate it. An easy way to do this is through music. Ask participants ahead of time for a couple of energetic songs from their playlists—and have that music playing during the session. Another is food. Candy, pizza, alcohol (in moderation) all help people relax and feel less stressed.


This is the not-so-simple act of defining what you want the brainstorm to accomplish. Most brainstorms fail before the first idea is ever generated. Not because we can’t come up with “good” ideas, but because we fail to define the session’s objective for our participants. We skip right to idea generation without articulating the session’s purpose. Before we know it, the session spirals out of control— ideas go onto tangents far outside our intended focus. We walk out of the meeting frustrated. Know what you want to accomplish in the brainstorm AND make sure everyone participating knows it too.

Defining the objective can be as simple as: “The purpose of this brainstorm session is to (fill in the blank) _______________. Examples could be identify new ways to improve customer experience at retail OR expand into new markets. The important thing is that you define the objective and communicate it to all participants.


This is the “stuff” that comes out of the brainstorm. Yes, we want to come out with “ideas”—but ideas in what form? Are they tactics? Concepts? Themes? Whatever your objective, think about your desired outputs before you schedule the brainstorm. Not only will it help you decide the right people to include in the session (some are great innovators, others conceptual thinkers or problem solvers—invite the right ones), it will also help shape the exercise(s) you do. For example, if you are solving a customer experience problem, it might be helpful to leave the meeting with ideal experience flows. In this case, you’d design an exercise that asks teams to sketch out the steps in the ideal customer experience. However, if you were interested in leaving the meeting with a bunch of tactics for next year’s marketing plan, you might design an exercise that asks teams to generate many ideas on index cards so later you can sort them by marketing strategy.

The “Night Owl” an example of one exercise I like to use that can lead to really amazing results:

Emotion: Fun, fast-paced, high energy

Objective: Introduce new approaches to solving the problems that keep our client up at night.

Artifacts: Note cards with the idea title and a brief description of how it will solve a client challenge.

Methodology: Prior to the brainstorm, generate a list of key challenges facing the client. Collaborate with other teammates through email to get an edited list of 7-10 relevant and actionable issues.  For the session, write each issue on large flip-chart sized paper. Then, on individual note cards, list brands or companies that you believe are the best at what they do – brands that people know and admire (e.g. Apple, T-Mobile, Patagonia, etc.).

On the day of the brainstorm, hang up the client issues on the walls around the room. Make sure you have whatever stimulus you are using to create emotion, and be prepared with supplies such as flip chart markers. Once your participants arrive, get them settled in and share the objective of the brainstorm: introduce new approaches to solving the problems that keep our client up at night.

Divide the group into teams of two. And ask each team to select one of the issues hanging on the wall and stand next to it. Next, have each team select a notecard listing an aspirational brand or company. Their job is to solve the problem as if they were the brand on their card. This approach allows the team to divorce itself from thinking about solving things the way they’ve been done in the past. Give participants 2-3 minutes to come up with an idea, write it on a notecard and post it and their aspirational company on the wall. (Tip to Generate Heat: use an hourglass timer from a board game to keep time and put some pressure on participants.) At the end of the allotted time, have the teams rotate. Continue this process until all teams have had a chance to solve all the issues on the wall.

After the rotation is complete, ask teams to present their approaches – keep extra markers and note cards handy to build off their ideas.

Try some of these tips the next time you create a brainstorm for a challenge facing your business or a client’s business.  I’d love to hear how it goes!


You May Also Like – The Struggle of Creative Thinking

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