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How to brainstorm

The Brainstorm workspace is for collecting or generating a list of ideas, opinion or facts. Items can be discussed, marked up with Sticky dots and sorted into folders. 

You only have to specify the Brainstorm question (or instruction) and the workspace is ready to go. You may, however, want to

before you open the workspace for participants. Once the instruction and the settings are clear, brainstorming usually follows the following steps:

  1. Open the workspace for participants
  2. Brainstorm the list of ideas (or opinions, or facts etc.)
  3. Sort ideas into folders (optional)
  4. Review and clean up the list (optional)
  5. Close the workspace

Elaboration of this process is, of course, possible, for instance, by enabling Discussion of ideas at some stage and asking participants to add their comments or questions or by marking up ideas with Sticky dots. Most Facilitators prefer, however, to prioritize ideas by Rating and then focus further effort on the contributions most relevant for their purpose.

For what works best, also check out the 'Golden Rules' at the bottom of this page.

Step 1 - Open the workspace

To start the brainstorming, Facilitators must open the workspace for participants either with the red 'open/close' switch of the Brainstorm toolbar (recommended) or on the workspace item. Unless you have other workspaces open in parallel, opening will auto-navigate (pull) participants from the Lobby to the Brainstorm workspace.

Step 2 - Build the list

Participants enter and post their ideas (or whatever you asked for) with the input box which sits at the bottom of the screen. Contributions are immediately visible to all. You will notice how - within minutes - the flow of ideas inspires new ideas which is exactly how brainstorming should work. As the Facilitator you may want to

  1. Intervene if participants merely dump single-words instead of making themselves clear
    Say something like 'I see a lot of single words which don't mean a lot to me. Click on your idea and edit it. Write a full sentence so everybody can understand what you mean.
    Tip: Consider 'seeding' your list with one or two well-formulated ideas. Participants are likely to follow that pattern! 
  2. Wait for the last 'drop'
    Ideas come in waves. If you can afford the time, do not shut down the brainstorming on the first sign of things slowing down. Unless your happy with a dump of the obvious, give your people some time to read other contributions, reflect and then take off at a tangent.

Check out the 'Golden rules' compiled at the end of this page.

Step 3 - Sort ideas into folders (optional)

Brainstorming with MeetingSphere is fast and can give you pretty long lists of ideas! Sorting ideas into a set of folders often makes sense for understanding the wealth of contributions and, if you want to eliminate duplicates or otherwise clean up the list, chop a long list into several shorter lists which are easier to manage.

Before you and your group can sort ideas, you must create the folders. To create folders,

  1. click the 'folder' button  in the toolbar which opens the left-hand 'folder frame'.
  2. enter and post the names of new folders in field 'new folder'
  3. make the folders visible  to participants, and review the list with them
  4. ask participants to sort the list by dragging ideas from 'Unsorted' into the appropriate folders

When you create the folders depends entirely on the situation. If the categories (or themes) are clear from the beginning, you can add the folders ahead of the meeting and reveal them to participants just in time. If you find the time while participants are brainstorming the list, you can add folders as you see themes emerging on that list. If you are busy brainstorming with your team stay with that. Then make the (empty) folder frame visible and ask something like 'Please look at the list. Any categories or themes that jump out to you?' and build the list of folders with your team.

Note that only the Facilitator can create and edit folders.

Note further that while fast, sorting still takes some time. You may want to save your participants that time if you do not need to process that list further in that meeting (by e.g. Rating) and you or a colleague could do this just as well after the meeting.  

Step 4 - Review and clean up the list (optional)

Facilitators often review the the results of brainstorming with the group. For this, they

  • either share their screen and walk the participants through the folders
  • or talk participants through the folders using the toolbar's 'focus' button . 'Focus' pulls participants to the item or view the Facilitator has selected.    

Try this out and find your style.

The review can serve many purposes but most common are the purposes of (1) getting a shared overview of the material produced and (2) getting the list into shape for a subsequent step in the collaborative process.

Getting a shared overview. For this, it is often sufficient for the group to go through the folders and look for ideas that sit clearly in the wrong folder. Since categories (folders) usually overlap and many ideas will consequently fit more than one folder, it is rarely a good use of time to argue in which other folders an idea could also sit. It hardly ever makes sense to copy ideas to multiple folders.

Cleaning up the list. Cleaning up usually means that you want clarify what is unclear and eliminate duplicate contributions. Clarification of unclear ideas may involve anything from simple editing to, if a contribution can mean two things, creating copies and then editing that contribution one way AND the other. Sometimes you may even have to split a contribution if the contributor has rolled two ideas into one post. Eliminate duplicates by dragging the 'duplicate' onto the 'original'. Confirmation of the 'merge' dialogue will turn the 'duplicate' into a comment on the 'original'.

You can do this ad nauseam, which is usually a bad idea, so keep the time and your purpose in mind. Fortunately, you can kill all three birds with one stone while walking (or talking) participants through the folders. Simply say something like "As we go through the list, look out for ideas

  1. that must go to another folder,
  2. which are unclear or
  3. are a duplicate of (the same as) another idea.    

Shout out the number and what's wrong with it. We'll then agree what to do."

Tip: Merging duplicates is much faster than deleting because it is less contentious. Still, some participants enjoy to argue which is seldom worth the time. Speed things up by applying the veto rule: If one participant thinks that two ideas are not the same, they are probably different. Simply keep in mind that out of that long list, if you follow up with a prioritizing 'cut-off' vote, most ideas will not make the short list and be left behind. Save your time for the items on the short list.

Moreover, when discussing ideas, their place and their differences, not only keep an eye on the time but also on anonymity. It is good practice to talk of contributions as if no one in particular has written them. Participants owning up with something like 'I've written that idea' is bad form. It puts pressure on the other participants to 'out' themselves, too, which undercuts the assurance of anonymity which is so powerful and important in getting the right kind of contributions and keeping an open mind.

Step 5 - Close the workspace

Close the Brainstorm workspace with the green toolbar switch. By default this will auto-navigate participants to the Lobby.

If you want to continue your work in another workspace, you may consider the following: Leave participants in the Brainstorm workspace while you copy  the ideas from that workspace to, for instance, a Rating sheet. When done, open the Rating sheet for participants. Since participants are in another workspace (Brainstorm), you will be asked whether you want to close that other workspace and auto-navigate (pull) participants directly to the newly opened workspace (Rating).

Try this out and develop your style.


Golden rules

While there are very many very specific scenarios for using the Brainstorm workspace, there are some general rules to consider:

Think of and give example items. Will your instruction (question) produce the contributions you require? Ideally give an example as a "seed" item on the list so that participants can emulate the pattern. Example: You are asking for reasons why something is the way it is. Your example item might read "BECAUSE Sponge Bob lives in Bikini Bottom."

Do not prejudice the outcome. If you are shooting for a fresh view, for what people really think or for creative, out-of-the-box thinking, do not tell people (in an introductory presentation) what that view should be, what you expect them to be thinking and what you would consider out-of-the-box. Give them an open question and a blank page. Then hold your breath and shut up. If you have ideas of your own, and you think they're good, enter them to the list just like everybody else.

Provide anonymity. If you want spontaneous contributions and others to build on them without personal prejudice, provide anonymity. While anonymity will not guarantee full disclosure it is invariably a prerequisite for truthful contributions. Ask for people to put their names to contributions only if you really must know and you are willing to accept lying by silence and window dressing as the inevitable price.

Protect anonymity (discourage 'outing'). When discussing the meaning of a particular idea some participants may identify themselves as the contributor. Discourage such "outing" as this undermines anonymity and puts (subtle) pressure on other participants to do the same. When it happens, say something like, "Thank you. But for the sake of anonymity and a smooth process, let's keep our authorship private. Even if a contribution is yours, discuss it as if it were somebody else's."

Think of categories up front. Often groups will rely on the Leader to have an idea how a long list of items can be broken down into categories. This is in order as the Leader should have an idea what he is asking for, what contributions would look like and what type of categorization would be useful.

Do not over-engineer category folders. In most cases, the purpose of categorization is limited to (1) helping participants understand an idea ("Ah, this is about communication"), (2) grouping related ideas in the same folder and thereby (3) facilitating the identification of duplicates. If the above is all you are trying to achieve, resist the ambition to find a set of categories that are all at the same level of abstraction and that do not overlap. Instead, work on content or take a break!

Do not create duplicates. Most ideas will fit into more than one category. Create duplicates only if, for instance, you want to deal with "Marketing" ideas separately from "Sales" ideas i.e. when you would miss the item in the further process unless you create the duplicate. If your participants are bent on clean categories, say something like "We sort ideas, to better understand them, not to achieve perfect categorization. For instance, most quality issues are also cost issues or people issues also communication issues and many communications issues are also systems issues. We do not want to copy items to multiple folders as we would merely produce duplicates. We don't want those in the subsequent Rating."

Avoid Rating methods vulnerable to duplicates. If you do not have the time to diligently eliminate duplicate items in Brainstorm, do not rate the outcome with Rating methods vulnerable to duplicates. Rating methods "budget allocation", "rank order" or "multiple selection" require the diligent elimination of duplicates in a preceding Brainstorm. Fortunately, rating by "numerical scale" does not. Here, similar items will simply sit next to each other in the results table. Relevant duplicates can then be merged quickly in the next activity or are left behind on copying. In short, do not waste time on eliminating duplicates of items that do not make the shortlist and can therefore be ignored.