By show of hands, who thinks the brainstorming process is easy?
If you answered with ambivalence (or less) you’re not alone. Brainstorming sessions can be a wonderful tool to marshal the creative thoughts and common priorities of a collaborative group. However, it can be difficult for leaders and participants alike to make meaning of the notes generated and use them to map an effective path forward. Buried under a pile of ideas after a brainstorming session, it is easy to feel over—and under—whelmed. Often, it can feel easier to proceed with a preconceived plan of action than to take the recommendations of the group.
This is a common stumbling point for networks and collaborations. Raw data, like brainstorming notes, does not readily allow readers, or the group, to draw immediate conclusions. Likely, the answers are there but are obscured by variances in language, context, approach, and myriad other differences. Network leaders are often left frustrated, entering the meeting hoping to get a clear idea of the network’s interest, and instead leaving with homework that requires some time to complete.
But take heart. There are steps you can take to help the brainstorming analysis process be less daunting and more productive. So let’s borrow from both ICL’s experience, and our friends’ in academia, to make the process more energizing. What follows are tips to help turn your brainstorming notes into insights that can be shared and built upon with collaborators.
Tip 1: Chart the entire process before you begin
If you haven’t already mapped the steps you will take to get from brainstorming to your final product, stop what you’re doing and complete this step. Decide in advance what the goal of the brainstorming session will be, the final outcome you are aiming for, and the process required to get there. Details to be decided are how many meetings will be dedicated to this effort, the goals and outcomes of each meeting, and the activities/steps in between. This will bracket your efforts and give the entire analysis process direction. You may not know what people are going to say during a brainstorm, but you should know in advance what you are going to do with the information, as well as how you will involve the group in drawing meaning and conclusions.
Tip 2: Embrace deeper analysis
Grouping like ideas and naming the themes that are represented are important first steps of analysis. Sometimes clear answers to the question posed emerge, but often the answers are not obvious. Most often, people get stumped after collecting and theming the topics generated. “There’s no clear answer!” some say. So where do we go from there? Here are some questions to help deepen your analysis.
- Themes – What does each category represent? Are they program ideas? Operational ideas?
- Logic – How do each of the themes uncovered relate to the question you asked? How do they relate to each other?
- Connection – How do the categories fit together? Do some enable others? Are some a precondition of others?
- Objections – Do any of the categories contradict or work in opposition with one another? How might this be addressed?
- Outliers – Are there any “outlier ideas” that offer a creative strategic edge or fresh approach?
- Questions – What follow-up questions are raised? These can be asked of the group.
Asking such questions will help deepen understanding, contextualize themes, and reveal deeper insights.
Tip 3: Don’t go it alone
If you have undertaken a brainstorming process, you have tacitly framed the solution as one that requires some level of buy-in and group consensus. To that end, it is important to find ways to include the group in reviewing the data and making meaning out of what is found. You can decide to have 1) one or two leaders do it and bring it back to the group, 2) a small group review the information and bring their findings back to the group, 3) have the full group struggle with it (multiple small groups analyze, and small groups compare what meaning they made), or another arrangement. However, including multiple people will help avoid potential confirmation bias among the organizers and ensure that the analysis is inclusive of the diversity of perspectives represented in the group.
Tip 4: Have patience
The responsibility of consolidating and making meaning out of dozens of individual suggestions takes time. It’s necessary to read all of the pieces independently and then read them again as you start to sort them and group like ideas/suggestions. This is a critical first step, one that might feel a bit time consuming, but it cannot be skipped or rushed. So have patience with this and the stages of the process that follow. Don’t shortchange the time spent and ideas generated by your collaborators by only skimming their contributions.
Tip 5: Share the findings and invite comments
Often, those who complete the analysis are nervous that they got something wrong. Don’t be – because you are going to present findings to the group for their comments, revisions, and/or suggestions. This requires you to pull it all together and share back with the group the major themes from the brainstorm and how those notes fit together. Share the findings with the group—including, what was surprising, what was relevant—then ask for further comments, objectives, and/or insights.
To make it easier, use relevant frameworks to help the group to contextualize and prioritize the findings of any analysis. Whichever method you use, make sure it matches the intended final outcome of the process. Examples include:
- Impact Matrix: Assess solutions for their relative impact given the effort required
- Eisenhower Matrix: Allows users to prioritize ideas according to immediate importance and time taken to implement
- Timeline: Structures and orders activities according to time to be enacted
- Checklist: Specifically enumerates tasks to be completed
Ultimately, the goal of most brainstorming sessions is to marshal the thoughts and opinions of a group towards a common outcome. Oftentimes, the most critical piece of effective brainstorming—making meaning out of the notes generated—is glossed over. While brainstorming itself may feel easy, there’s great power for the group in considering synthesized ideas and thoughtfully moving to shared understanding and closure. Using these tips, you’ll lead the group toward productive next steps and forward momentum.
We offer these additional resources to further help you make the most from your of your brainstorming sessions: