5 Tips for Brainstorming Solution Ideas

collaboration identifying options
Group of three people brainstorming ideas using sticky notes

By Julie Springer

September 6, 2022

One of the most common pitfalls when developing strategies and plans is jumping to a solution, without considering all of the possibilities. If you don’t have good processes and tools in place for generating solution ideas, it’s easy to fall back on making assumptions, listening to the loudest voice in the room or choosing the most obvious solution. When you are under pressure to deliver, this is especially likely to happen.

Generate Creative Solution Ideas

To avoid this, include brainstorming as a regular part of your planning process. The step of generating solution ideas comes after discovery and before deciding what to do. You bring a group of people together to share their ideas and get creative in how they look at the problem. Ideas can come from anyone who is interested in solving the problem, including stakeholders, leaders, and the team that will be doing the work.

Including team members is important because teams are more motivated and engaged when they have a voice, and they bring valuable knowledge about customers and the product. Also consider including people from different areas, such as representatives from technical, operations and business teams, to get a wider variety of perspectives.

Develop Facilitation Skills

To get the most value out of brainstorming, develop facilitation skills and techniques so that you hear from everyone and generate high-quality ideas. These five tips will help you to get started with running effective brainstorming sessions.

Tip 1 - Establish Norms

The first tip is to start the meeting by setting norms. Norms are working agreements where everyone agrees on what behaviors they hope to see during the meeting.

After you cover the purpose of the meeting and the agenda, ask the group to come up with norms and write them down where everyone can see. If you are in-person, this can be on a whiteboard or poster paper, or in an online meeting you can use google docs or an electronic whiteboard

Start by writing down what the group comes up with. Make sure to include things like:

  • One person speaks at a time
  • Keep an open mind, and
  • Stay focused on the purpose of the meeting

If you have issues with unhelpful behaviors during the meeting, like people talking over each other, you can return to the norms and even update them, if needed.

Tip 2 - Group Size 

The second tip is to use a mix of group sizes when brainstorming. This helps to support people with different communication styles and allows you to shape the way you gather information. The way you design interactions in the meeting creates varying degrees of structure, thinking and discussion. 

Full Group Shout-Out

The least structured approach is to gather ideas from the full group, through an open “shout-out.” You simply ask for ideas and capture them as people share. This works best for simple problems, with a group that works really well together and when they don’t need time to think. Because it is the least structured approach, it is easy to have it go off-track, so if you decide to use it, be ready to shift to another approach.

Small Group Discussion

Another option is to break into small groups for generating ideas. You can do this by physically moving into groups or using webinar breakout rooms. This helps people to feel more comfortable, because they are not speaking up in front of the whole group. It allows time for discussion, so that people can develop and build on ideas.

This works well when you have a lot of people and gathering everyone’s ideas individually would take too long or provide too much data. If possible, have a facilitator for each group, to help the group stay focused and support open discussion.

Individual Brainstorming

A third option is silent brainstorming, where each person takes time to write their ideas down before sharing them with a breakout group or the full group. This is a good approach when you want to give people time to think, which is important when you are solving complex problems.

This also helps to level the playing field between those who are quick to come up with ideas and those who take longer, as well as between the more vocal and quiet members of the group. If you have people who don’t feel comfortable speaking up at all, gather the written ideas and read them for the group.

Use a Mix of Group Sizes

Depending on how much time you have and what you are working on, you might use several approaches in the same meeting. For example, you could:

  • start with a group shout-out to come up with norms,
  • do some silent brainstorming to come up with solution ideas,
  • break into small groups to share and come up with a refined list of ideas and
  • have each group share their ideas with the larger group.

Tip 3 - Clear Ideas

As people are sharing ideas, you need to have a good process for recording them. It's important to keep the ideas clear and separate. If you have multiple ideas combined together, it will cause problems later, when you are trying to organize and evaluate the ideas. To avoid this, have participants write each idea down separately.

For example:

  • If you are using sticky notes, ask participants to add “one idea per sticky note.”
  • If you are gathering a list of ideas, have each idea bulleted out separately.
  • Look for long sentences with the word “and” in the middle and break them into separate ideas, if appropriate.

The ideas don't need to be completely thought out - refinement can come later - but make sure they are clear enough to be understood after the meeting. Take the time to rewrite an idea, when needed. Do this with guidance from the person who shared the idea, so that you don't lose their perspective and intent. 

Tip 4 - Postpone Evaluation

Avoid evaluating ideas during the brainstorming process. When people start judging ideas or deciding whether they will work, it blocks creativity and will cause some people to shut down. Sometimes the best solutions come from out-of-the-box thinking. You want it to be safe to share anything that comes up.

It can be helpful to include this as a norm at the beginning of the meeting and to provide gentle reminders as you go. Make a plan for when and how evaluation will take place and share it with the group, so they know that it will be coming soon.

Tip 5 - Organize Ideas

The final tip for brainstorming is about how to organize the ideas. It can be overwhelming to deal with all of the information that comes out of brainstorming, but with a few simple techniques, you can quickly start to make sense of it.

To begin with, try to cut down on the noise by asking that people only share new ideas that haven’t been shared yet. When you get a potential duplicate, ask the group whether it is the same as the ideas that has already been shared. If so, keep only one version of the idea. If not, ask the group to more clearly describe each idea.

Group related ideas together and label them with a theme. For example, if you are brainstorming solution ideas for how to improve team dynamics, you might group the ideas together under themes like communication, conflict, process and tools. This makes it easier to understand the information if you come back to it later, and to generate insights about what the group came up with. You want the information to tell a story, and not just be a bunch of random data points.

Experiment and Learn What Works

Now that you have some techniques for how to guide a group through brainstorming, spend a few minutes before your next meeting and come up with a plan for how you will use them. A little pre-planning can make your meeting go much more smoothly. Make sure to bring the supplies and tools you need, such as sticky notes, markers, breakout rooms or an electronic whiteboard.

After each session, ask the group for feedback and take some time to reflect on what worked well and what you will try next time. With experience, you will get better at knowing how to apply the tips and adapt to different situations.

If you would like to enjoy the benefit of expert facilitation to generate solution ideas and develop a strategy, contact us to discuss your needs.

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