Team brainstorming activities: Boost creativity & collaboration

Team Brainstorming Activities: How figure-storming transformed a dreaded meeting into an Oprah-inspired brainstorming bonanza

Jennifer dreads team brainstorming sessions. A rather reserved person, she gets self-conscious about sharing ideas with a group – not believing she has much to contribute. Being presented with a topic on the spot makes her brain freeze in panic, and all that comes to mind is, “Don’t sound stupid.”

So when Jennifer receives an email about an upcoming group brainstorming session, she opens it half-heartedly. To her surprise, it contains a line saying, “Brainstorming topic: Getting customers excited about our company. I guarantee this won’t be boring.” This is the first time her manager sends the subject beforehand, and the last sentence intrigues her.

Jennifer’s creative juices and curiosity bubble for the next few days. She walks into the group brainstorming session feeling more optimistic than usual. Her boss announced that they would try a brainstorming technique called figure-storming today. They will choose a prominent person not in the room and speculate how this individual would tackle the subject.

After some laughter, the group chooses Oprah Winfrey. The whiteboard writer can barely keep up with the ideas flying around: “You get a car, and you get a car.” “Start a book club.” “Make an annual list of your favorite things featuring only our products.” “Open a school for girls in South Africa.” Jennifer and other introverts contribute more thoughts than usual. After all, it isn’t them speaking, it is Oprah!

While everyone agrees that distributing Pontiacs is not in the budget, team members build on some themes. What giveaways might work? Would a greater philanthropic presence help the company’s image? Conversation even continues into lunch that day.

The benefits – and pitfalls – of brainstorming

Practical brainstorming sessions energize teams. Morale soars as people feel part of something greater than themselves. More solutions and fresh ideas are produced with teamwork than one person could muster on his own. Sparks get fleshed out into feasible possibilities as team members build upon each other’s thoughts.

Besides quantity, brainstorming aids with quality. With their personalities and backgrounds, group members approach problems from unique perspectives. These different angles promote creative solutions and discourage one-sided thinking.

Many organizations include innovation as part of their mission statement. Day-to-day demands, though, often push the concept aside. Brainstorming sessions provide a dedicated time built into the schedule.

When brainstorming goes well, sessions feel magical. Sessions that fail, though, can feel quite uncomfortable. The pressure to produce intimidates some employees, especially those who are not quick thinkers. Others stay silent out of fear of ridicule from co-workers. If the loudest, most aggressive staff members dominate the conversation, quieter folks may have difficulty contributing. Sometimes, groups get so caught up in exploring the first ideas produced that potentially great ones never make it to the evaluation stage.

Brainstorming activities

No team leader desires a brainstorming session of awkward silences and stale ideas. Likewise, team members do not wish to walk away feeling slighted or that they just wasted their time. If this routinely happens, consider trying different brainstorming exercises.

  • Round-robin brainstorming

Want to make sure everyone gets a chance to be heard? This brainstorming method involves going around the room at least once for each in attendance to voice an idea before anyone else can present a second idea or critique what has been said. This strategy also gets lots of ideas out on the table for consideration rather than devoting too much time to the first ones generated.

  • Brainwriting

Quieter team members often shine when using this group brainstorming technique. Each person receives a blank piece of paper and writes down three ideas related to the topic. After a set time limit, pass the paper to the person next to you. The receiver builds off those ideas. This process of passing and adding continues until every participant has seen and added to every paper. Then, the group reviews the generated ideas and decides which ones to pursue further.

  • Brain-netting (sometimes called online brainstorming)

Brainstorming activities need not be done in person. Create a virtual space to collect ideas on a given subject, and anonymously input them if desired. This setup allows contributing when inspiration hits instead of on-demand and proves especially useful in organizations with remote teams.

  • Mind mapping

Do you have a staff that likes visual brainstorming? Put the question to ponder in the center using a whiteboard or a software template. When a participant offers a suggestion, draw a line from there outward with the idea written at the end. As people build upon these ideas, create more branches from those points. Soon, you will have captured a variety of possibilities to explore and add to. Using color can assist with organization and look.

  • Eidetic image method

A new product or process often emerges from improvements to an existing one. This brainstorming exercise involves the group facilitator asking everyone to close their eyes. She then provides a prompt for people to visualize, such as a pair of sneakers the company already sells. Taking that image, what could be done to make the shoes more appealing or comfortable? People then take turns presenting what they envisioned.

  • Step-ladder technique

The team leader presents a brainstorming topic. Then, all but two people leave the room. This pair brainstorms for a preset amount of time before a third person is invited back. The newcomer contributes what he came up with while out of the room before then hearing what the duo generated. One by one, other participants join the group in the same manner. By the end, everyone has shared their thoughts and learned those of others – without group influence taking over from the get-go.

  • Reverse brainstorming

At first, this method may sound odd or geared toward the pessimists in your group. Reverse brainstorming, sometimes called negative brainstorming, involves coming up with ideas on how to make a problem worse. It gets creative juices flowing by approaching a subject in an unexpected way and without the pressure to come up with a “solution.”

Steps include:

–Identifying the problem or challenge (such as “How could we attract more customers?”)

–Reversing it (“How can we attract fewer customers?”)

–Generating ideas on how to answer this reversed question

–Flipping these negative ideas into positive solutions

–Evaluating these potential solutions for usefulness in answering the original question

  • Rapid ideation

When you want to generate several ideas in a short amount of time, try this brainstorming process. Within a set amount of time, the group of people participating contribute all ideas that come to mind without stopping to edit, evaluate, or discuss feasibility. Creative inhibitions lift when people do not fear judgment, and the fast-paced nature encourages the volume of possibilities produced to grow rapidly.

  • SCAMPER method

Encourage people to think about an existing product or service from a different perspective. After defining the topic, create seven stations around the room, each devoted to a different letter in the acronym SCAMPER. Each spot can contain a sticky notepad of a different color on which people can write. At each letter, ask them to think about the topic in a certain way:

S = Substitute (What could be removed and replaced with something else?)

C = Combine (What individual things could be joined to make something new or better?)

A = Adapt (How could we fix something to eliminate an existing problem?)

M = Modify (How could we alter size, shape, etc.?)

P = Put to another use (What purpose could the product or service have besides its usual one?)

E = Eliminate (What might we remove in order to simplify or get back to the original intention?)

R = Reverse (What would happen if something looked the opposite of its present state or operations took place in a different order?)

  • Six thinking hats

Using the brainstorming session to come up with a sound decision? Explore different ways of examining the problem by wearing different “hats.” As participants put on each one, they approach with a distinctive style:

Blue = organizing and planning

Green = creativity

Red = feelings and instincts

Yellow = optimism and benefits

Black = critical judgment and risk assessment

White = knowledge and information, both existing and what needs to be still gathered

  • SWOT analysis

SWOT is an acronym that stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. When using this brainstorming method, start with a clear goal or question. Then, ask participants to focus on one perspective at a time. Write down their ideas. When finished, the group can analyze each of the four quadrants to look for patterns, connections, and actionable insights.

  • Starbursting

This brainstorming exercise proves helpful when the team has selected an idea and wants to think about execution. Draw a six-pointed star with the idea at the center. At each point is a critical question: Who, what, where, when, why, and how. The group works together to explore possibilities for each. Because people approach from different angles, multiple viewpoints are considered.

Seven general considerations for better brainstorming

Regardless of the brainstorming method used, team leaders can do various things to promote creative thinking and help participants relax.

1. Develop a psychologically safe environment

Prioritize the notion that great ideas can come from any person at any time. Do not tolerate ridiculing or silencing. Demand professional, respectful behavior. Make it clear that you want to hear from everyone and that no idea is “dumb.”

2. Ease expectations

Promote brainstorming as a starting point for generating ways to tackle specific challenges. Employees should not feel pressure to solve company problems or innovate on demand magically.

3. Avoid “cold” brainstorming

As with the case of Jennifer in the opening, knowing the subject matter beforehand makes heading into a brainstorming session less scary. Send out the topic ahead of time to allow some forethought. Pass along potentially relevant information such as budget limitations or competitor actions. Covering basics before the session saves time and may lead to insightful observations.

4. Get specific

General brainstorming questions often feel too vague or overwhelming. If asking, “What new product does our company need to develop?” leads to blank stares, try something like, “What is one enhancement we could make to our existing Product X that would make customers rave?”

5. Outline parameters

Are you brainstorming for creative ideas or practical solutions? Your purpose may influence what gets presented. If you want input without limitations, convey that so participants will not feel constrained. If budget, time, or other factors should be considered, present these boundaries as part of the problem-solving challenge.

6. Alter the environment

Brainstorming does not need to take place in a conference room. Head outside or lounge on the comfy chairs in the break room for a change of pace. Also, consider asking some new people to join in. Fresh blood from a different department can energize the room.

7. Talk about outcomes

People value brainstorming more if they know that management takes results seriously. Explain the next steps. What will the company do with these ideas? When might they be enacted? If the team decides to shelve some items for later consideration, make that clear. Likewise, don’t be afraid to tell employees when you reject an idea.

Everyone needs to get comfortable thinking of brainstorming as idea generation rather than a guaranteed solution. And when brainstorming ideas yield growth, profits, efficiency, better policies, and other positive outcomes, tout the success!