Brainstorm: The 10-Letter Word

10 tips for more effective and actionable brainstorming sessions.

by Patrick Murphy

January 8, 2018 at 11:14 am

If you inwardly groan when you get a meeting invite to a brainstorm, I get it. Something that in theory should be inspiring and stimulating instead turns into countless hours in conference rooms spitballing ideas that end up plastered to a wall and later logged in a virtual document graveyard, never to be reviewed or used again. Not exactly a great use of time or resources.

brainstorming tipsThis past November, I was tapped by our CEO to conduct a four-hour brainstorming session for our 2018 strategic plan. I sighed in resignation before realizing that I could actually make this into a useful process, if I went about it a more constructive way—and I was right.

Here’s my big eureka moment: brainstorming, while often used as a casual exercise, really needs structure to be truly effective. Without it, we’d likely have spent 4-6 hours talking in circles and not coming out of the room with clear and actionable next steps.

Let me save you some time, brainpower and sanity with these 10 tips for more effective and useful brainstorms.

1. Assign A Moderator

A moderator should always be assigned to any type of brainstorming session. This person’s responsibility is to keep track of the time and maintain order and structure throughout the process. A moderator can also put more difficult subjects aside and making sure they are addressed in the most productive way possible.

2. Determine Your Method

At OMA, we’re big fans of behavior design and its focused methods for brainstorming and prioritizing. As part of this approach, we use two exercises—“Magic Wanding” and “Focus Mapping”—to develop clear and actionable ideas and gain consensus quickly. Whatever methods you use, make sure you prep your team in advance on what that process looks like.

3. Create Some Rules for the Road

Rules for brainstorming are important. There’s always that one (or two) people who have the loudest voice, but putting rules in place creates a safe space for all to contribute and allows for a more fluid process. For example, when focus mapping, one of the key rules is no talking. That’s right—when we brainstorm, ideas are written down on large post-its and read out loud, but without anyone else talking. This way, all ideas have a chance to be heard equally.

4. Determine Your Objective(s)

Start every session by articulating the meeting’s objective. Without clarity here, you may spend a lot of time on off-target ideas that won’t have a meaningful impact on the objective(s) at hand.

5. Get Crystal Clear

Make sure the ideas that are presented are clear and well articulated. Your moderator should encourage those sharing ideas to add a person, verb, timeline or technique to make things less vague more actionable.

brainstorming6. Keep It Moving

Don’t let your team get caught up on the details. Brainstorming sessions aren’t meant to solve everything, but serve as a way to give a team ideas which can be further developed outside of the room or session. Moderators shouldn’t allow discussions around an idea to go on for more than 30 seconds. Tag those ideas and ask for action to be taken on them by those who are most passionate in the room.

7. Assign Owners, Action Items and Next Steps

Before you leave a session, decide who in the room will own particular ideas and what actions they will take next.

8. Regroup and Report on the Action Plan

Schedule follow-up time and determine any additional help that might be needed to fully develop the ideas discussed. In the case of our annual planning brainstorm, we took two weeks to prioritize and determine action owners and support teams to build plans around these ideas.

9. Start with the Easy Stuff

Starting with small successes makes it easier to tackle more challenging and difficult tasks; otherwise, you may end up hitting too many roadblocks and losing confidence. For example, if a part of your organization’s annual objectives is to improve efficiency, starting with a task like change your project management work flow might be too difficult. By starting smaller with something like improving one point of the process—such as the project brief stage—you’re more likely to have success and, in turn, boost your confidence level to take on a more difficult task in service of the objective.

10. Track and Report on Success

Our company tracks and reports the progress and achievement of each task in service of our annual objectives. We break them down into 30-, 60- and 90-day goals which gives us some flexibility by quarter to carry over any unfinished tasks. It’s more than just a way to keep everyone on task—it appeals to that innate satisfaction we have when marking something complete.


My hope is that these 10 tips will save you from more agonizing, non-productive hours of brainstorming, and transform ideation sessions into truly valuable, actionable meetings people actually look forward to attending.

January 8, 2018 at 11:14 am

Patrick Murphy