How to have better brainstorming meetings

Coming up with ideas for initiatives or projects is usually thought to be the most exciting part of working with a new team; it is indeed an exciting prospect to interact with fresh minds bubbling with unique insights. As it turns out, however, that environment brimming with ideas can be as much of a liability and source of frustration as it can be an asset, if things go awry.

It is not uncommon for teams to feel frustrated, dejected, and directionless after a brainstorming session that sapped so much energy yet produced so little.

During a brainstorming meeting, the onus is on the team lead to ensure that the creative energy of her team is effectively channeled to generate concrete, actionable results. I would like to share with you an approach to team brainstorming that has been reasonably effective in my work as head of the speaker’s team at my university’s TEDx event.

The objective of ‘brainstorming meetings’ at TEDxNITTrichy is to find TEDx-worthy ideas that could be presented on stage. However, I feel this framework can be applied to a variety of brainstorming situations, say ideas for new articles to be published, new products to be released, new publicity/ marketing strategies, etc.

Divide, Aggregate, (and most importantly), Filter

1.The first step is to divide. We need to divide two things: (i) the domain of ideation and (ii) the team

Each sub-team is allotted a part of the domain prior to the brainstorming meeting. They are expected to meet as sub teams before the main meeting

2. The second step is to aggregate. During the brainstorming meeting, each sub-group presents their best ideas to the entire team. The team then asks questions and provides feedback to the presenting sub-group.

3. Filtering is the entire team taking a collective decision on which ideas to proceed with.

I discuss some of these ideas in detail below-

Segmenting your domain 

Why should you segment your domain? For the simple reason that specific topics give your team a direction and allows them to focus their research.

Take TEDx for example. Our domain of ideation is quite literally everything. TED talks range from balloons to bacteria to cats to catastrophes. It’s not difficult to imagine why a team member would draw a complete blank when asked to simply come up with a TEDx talk idea from scratch.

To avoid poker faces and awkward silences, we might split the domain of all potential ideas into, for example, science, technology, agriculture, health, and so on.

Similarly, if you were looking for new publicity ideas, you could perhaps split domains into online publicity, print media, on foot, associations with other brand ambassadors, etc.

If you were looking for new product ideas, you may choose to split into industry segments, customer segments, cost segments, etc.

How you decide to create subdivisions ultimately depends on the nature and diversity of the ideas being sought. The challenge is to ensure that your segments are specific enough to give your team members a sense of direction and at the same time wide enough so that their creativity isn’t significantly throttled.


Segmenting your team

Why should you segment your team? Well, for four main reasons:

(i) Shy team members are more likely to speak up in a smaller group setting

(ii) Ideas are more likely to be thoroughly discussed

(iii) You can avoid the ‘bandwagon’ effect: where people agree with a perspective just because a quite a few other people agree with it as well

(iii) It’s a good opportunity to build one-on-one relationships between team members, especially if you’re working with a new team

The most effective strategy in my experience is to limit the sub-team size to 2-3 people. Having too large a sub-team really defeats all the purposes listed above.

An interesting approach to creating team segments is to ensure that there as much diversity as possible in each sub team. Sub teams in the TEDxNITTrichy team consist of people in different years of study, with different intellectual interests, from different cultural backgrounds, with differently personality types.

The more varied the perspectives that go into an ideation meeting, the richer are the ideas that come out of it.


Aggregating and Filtering

It is imperative that the entire team understands and is comfortable with the structure of the brainstorming meeting. Team members need to understand that they are contributing just as much when they are listening to other sub team’s ideas and critiquing them as when they are presenting their own ideas. The entire point of the brainstorming meeting is to cross fertilise ideas and judge their feasibility from a variety of different perspectives.

This can only be achieved if the meeting is intricately moderated and the rules are rigidly enforced. You have to ensure that divergent perspectives don’t get snuffed out, everyone gets an equal opportunity to voice their opinions, and people don’t get distracted while the meeting is in session.

Ideally, after each sub-group is done presenting their ideas, the entire team should come to a consensus on the most valuable/profitable/feasible ideas, depending on what you’re aiming for.

As a team lead, you should be able to take your team forward comfortable in the knowledge that you’re working with the best possible ideas they’ve produced.

Key takeaways-

  1. Segmenting your ideation domain gives your team members a direction and adds depth to their research
  2. Segmenting your team allows you to bring out ideas from otherwise shy members and build relationships within the team
  3. It is vital that the main brainstorming meeting is structured and moderated well, and that team members are aware of their responsibilities in that time.


Mayank Mallik

Volunteer Organizer, TEDxNITTrichy

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