Your brainstorming session needs a ‘warm-up’.

A client recently asked me to help them design an ideas generation session to run with their colleagues:

“When I ask for ideas from my team, there’s just silence. No one wants to say anything”.

It’s a common complaint of brainstorming sessions. The format seems to be designed for extroverts – those that form their ideas by discussing them first, and are comfortable speaking up in a group – and for people that already see themselves as creative. For others, brainstorming rarely seems to be an enjoyable exercise.

Many problems with brainstorming come down to it being misunderstood as a technique. It’s often seen as the entire ideas generation process when it’s actually just one tool that was created by Alex Osborn for a specific output. Brainstorming is for divergent thinking – coming up with as many ideas as possible, and not necessarily the best ones – to stimulate further thinking and discussion. So if you suddenly announce “let’s brainstorm, give me your best ideas for X”, your team are likely to get rabbit-in-the-headlights syndrome. They won’t know where to start, and because they feel pressured to come up with great ideas straight away they will immediately start self-censoring.

I’ve found that brainstorming, or any type of ideation session, is much more effective when there’s a lead up to it. You can see it as “context-setting”, providing the right foundations to build ideas upon. It’s about breaking down barriers, and warming people up to creative thinking rather than jumping straight in cold.

These can be exercises such as: taking more time to define the problem, exploring where you’d like to get to (visioning), pros and cons of existing solutions or sharing some influences and inspiration.

When teams start off by exploring the context of a challenge before generating ideas, they start to see the bigger picture and understand why there’s a need for new thinking. Any kind of reflection can help people feel more connected to the problem they’re trying to solve. These types of ‘warm-up’ exercises provide an opportunity to align a team on their current situation and can uncover assumptions or points of conflict early in the process. Initial discussions can also provide stimulus to help with ideas generation later, rather than forcing teams to start from a completely blank canvas. When I ask teams do types of these activities first, I find they are able to think more broadly and effectively, than if they were asked to brainstorm straight away.

The next time you run a brainstorming session, don’t just jump straight to ideas generation. Warm up your participants with a context-setting exercise first.