Brainstorming Activities

7 Tips for the Best Brainstorming Activities

BrainstormingActivitiesBrainstorming activities are much, much more than just an act of desperation for when, say, your research paper is going nowhere.  They’re essential to leading a student organization.  Indeed, when brainstorming activities are done well, they truly become the beating heart of the meeting room.  Brainstorming activities are where all great ideas begin, and they are also a way to draw your members closer together, getting them involved in planning events, and in general, making your meetings more productive and enjoyable.  But first, you need to know the secrets for using brainstorming activities.

What’s the Right Setting for Brainstorming Activities?

As we mentioned above, you rarely see brainstorming activities outside of a classroom.  The association people see between brainstorming activities and the classroom will sometimes produce resistance to doing brainstorming activities.

At the start of the meeting, get your group in the right mood, i.e., prepared to talk, discuss, and interact with one another.  You can encourage them to greet one another and get comfortable talking.  Ask somebody to share a funny anecdote or something that happened over the past week.  Then you can segue into the topic at hand and any brainstorming activities you’re including.

It takes a very specific atmosphere for brainstorming activities to work their full potential.  Before you begin your brainstorming activities, you need to make one thing clear: at this early point, any idea is valid.  You need to create an affirming environment so that your team members are willing to let their ideas loose.  At the brainstorming stage, you’ll explain to them, we’re not going to worry about whether an idea is good or bad, realistic or unrealistic.  For brainstorming activities to work, everything must be on the table.

Put simply, you and your team are already quite certain of what’s possible and what’s not—the point of good brainstorming activities is to shake up those assumptions in order to uncover new ideas.

There are a couple of other important ground rules.  You should identify a facilitator to keep the group on task and to take down what others say (for the purposes of this article, let’s pretend it’s you).  Ideally, you’ll be in a space where everyone can see the record of ideas, such as a room with a blackboard, whiteboard, or computer linked to an overhead.

Finally, you should set a time limit to keep your group on task, and to introduce a fun sort of pressure to the situation, such as 10-15 minutes for smaller projects and 20-25 minutes for bigger projects.

“How did they think of that?”

The most common brainstorming activities go something like this.

The facilitator asks the group a problem-question, for instance, “Who can we get to sponsor this event?”  The group then throws out answers, and once there’s a large enough pool, they’ll come up with a plan of action.

This approach is a fine place to begin, but here are some techniques to make straightforward brainstorming activities more enjoyable—and more productive.

Rapid Responses

Have your group members shout back their responses in rapid fashion, stopping only to give you enough time to write them down.  If they’re having trouble getting started, ask them to give the most ludicrous responses they can think of first, and then work your way back to reality.  This will help create the affirmative environment we mentioned, and also get the group engaged and active.

Rephrase the Problem

Sometimes your initial problem-question won’t be specific enough to set your group’s minds to work.  Some useful brainstorming activities include having the group look at the question differently.  Start with the question above, “Who can we get to sponsor this event?” Ask the group:

  • What’s another way to state the question?
    • Will anybody sponsor this event?”
  • What’s another problem related to the question?
    • “Is our event worth sponsoring?  What can we improve?”
  • Why bother with this question in the first place?  Why does it matter?
    • “Do we even need sponsors?  What could they specifically help us with?  What have we planned so far?”

By introducing some complication to the question, you encourage the brainstorming session to move in all kinds of directions.

Hit the Mute Button

Rather than shouting out rapid responses, try the opposite: silent, individual writing. Hand out a couple sticky notes or index cards to each member and have them write down some suggestions for a problem-question you’ve posed.  Give them five minutes, and then collect the responses, posting them on the blackboard or gathering them up.

Pairing Off

Silent brainstorming activities ask people to work individually, but there’s a lot of power to splitting people up into twos.  Letting each pair bounce their thoughts off one another generates some sophisticated ideas for the group.  Set a time limit and have each pair report back.

Splitting Up

Our last of these brainstorming activities continues in the same vein, but instead of forming twos, you’re forming teams.  If your group is big enough, have people count off by threes or fours to form several teams.  Give each time 5-10 minutes to come up with a proposal for resolving the problem-question, and then have each team present to the others what they’ve come up with.  Use their findings to mash together a final solution

Creating the Menu

You should have plenty of options on the blackboard by now.  Of course, not every one is workable.  As a group, start narrowing down the list by eliminating the joking contributions while combining and consolidating similar ideas.

Then, with your group, establish some criteria by which to judge the remaining options.

  • Cost – how much?
  • Fun – will people enjoy themselves?
  • Involvement – how many people will be into it?
  • Exposure – will this give our group or cause more publicity?
  • Lucrative – how much money will our group raise?

With criteria like these, you can create a scorecard and check off each of the criteria the option satisfies.

Finally, give the democratic tradition its due.  Put the final decision to a vote, but give each person three votes for the three best ideas.  There are more creative ways of handling the voting than simply counting hands.  You can give each member a token or a sticker and have them place these in a jar or on the easel with each idea they vote for.

Brainstorming activities get best ideas out in the open and advance your group’s intellectual capital.  But brainstorming activities can also be a fun, inviting way to include new members and build team spirit among returners.  In general, brainstorming activities make your meeting much more interactive, so while you always should use them to make major planning decisions, don’t overlook the social aspect of brainstorming activities, which is just as important.

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