How to Set the Stage for Ideal Brainstorm Sessions


The opening session at last month’s (April 19-20) International Association of Conference Centers–Americas’ annual gathering in New York focused on “Innovation in the Meeting Experience” and, not surprisingly, the subject of brainstorming came up.

In fact, the speaker, author Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg, pointed out just how ubiquitous brainstorming has become at senior-level management meetings—to the point where such meetings have come to resemble a virtual “brainstorm island.” Participants are encouraged to “be open, focus on the future and think big,” he noted.

All true, whether the brainstorming is devoted to a proposed new business plan, sales approach, product launch, social media strategy or advertising campaign.

Veteran planners in the room, meanwhile, well know that conducting a successful brainstorming session can be more easily said than done—that the situation has to be carefully thought out for the outcome to be truly productive. In other words, being charged with generating new ideas on the spot can be exhilarating, but, if the stage isn’t set properly, it can also be disappointing.

Take into account these eight considerations:

Opt for couches and pillows. Do away with standard issue meeting room tables and chairs. Likewise, a traditional meeting room setup will communicate business as usual, when the behavior you’re trying to encourage is out-of-the-box thinking that will stimulate creativity. Letting participants lounge on couches and floor pillows are a better bet.

Cap the number of participants. Too many people in the room can hamper idea generation. What you want to foster is a sense of trust that will allow people to take risks in their thinking. Eight to 10 people plus a facilitator might be the magic number.

Try a team approach. Remember it’s always possible to conduct more than one (8- to 10-person) brainstorming session simultaneously, each with its own facilitator. Then after a predetermined amount of time, all the teams can assemble together to review and consolidate the results.

Go with a lunch light. Most meeting agendas have general sessions in the morning, followed by smaller breakout groups after lunch. Brainstorming is typically relegated to an afternoon slot. Accordingly, plan a lunch light on red meat, potatoes and pasta, but heavy on fish, salads and green vegetables. The objective is to avoid brainstorming participants falling into a mid-afternoon food coma (i.e. the death knell of the spontaneity required for successful idea generation.)

brainstormKeep an eye on the thermostat. Likewise, an overheated meeting room isn’t helpful. The cooler the temperature, the better. Similarly, fresh air is preferable to air conditioning, which unfortunately is likely to be in short supply in most new build meeting facilities.

Encourage views of the outside. When it comes to the debate as to whether or not such views distract participants, you can make the argument that views of the beach or mountains or even city skyscrapers stimulate creative thinking, not stifle it. At the same time, this doesn’t mean moving the session itself outdoors (abundant fresh air notwithstanding). Brainstorming on the beach might seem like a good idea, but it’s too hard for facilitators to retain control of the process.

Make breaks part of the process. Keeping participants in close proximity to one another serves one objective, but a mid-session break, while it dilutes the energy in the room, serves another. People need a brief break to refuel intellectually, but more important, breaks allow for casual one-on-one communication between participants that can spur new lines of inquiry.

Banish iPhones from start to finish. People have become addicted to them for one reason or another, but allowing them to continually consult the Web on their phones (no less make a call, check their email or text) can be a distraction from which the group dynamic simply can’t recover. Better to call it a day and head to the spa.


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Bruce Serlen

Bruce Serlen

Bruce Serlen is a veteran travel writer, based in New Jersey, who has written extensively on meetings management and hotel operations. Most recently, he was executive editor at Hotel Business.

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