Need a great brainstorm facilitator?

Hello, I’m James Allen. I set up Creative Huddle in 2011 after identifying a need for better business brainstorms. I had spent 15 years working in agencies, often leading client pitches and responsible for devising client strategy. However I soon encountered the same problem as countless others in my position – and perhaps you’ve encountered this too – brainstorms are fraught with problems.

Most of us will have participated in a brainstorm at some point in our career. People’s experiences and opinions range – some find them essential and stimulating, others have found them to be turgid and demotivating.

Maybe it’s the name that’s the problem – in fact an English county council once banned the term ‘brainstorming’ and replaced it with ‘thought showers’.

Whatever you call them (might I humbly suggest ‘Creative Huddles’?) I’ve spent the past seven years perfecting the fine art of being a great brainstorm facilitator: helping groups collaborate effectively to generate brilliant ideas and solve tricky problems.

Where brainstorms go wrong

Brainstorms have come in for some significant criticism in recent years. Group activity can encounter problems such as ‘social matching’, where the group’s quality of thinking gravitates towards the level of the average member – meaning that only average results can be expected.

‘Free riding’ can be another problem, when participants use the session as an opportunity to kick back and relax, or make jokes. ‘Evaluation apprehension’ occurs when participants are afraid to voice their ideas because of fear of judgement, or peer pressure.

‘Blocking’ means that some ideas are left unsaid, perhaps because others are already speaking, or the leader is slow at taking down notes. 

In addition, research has shown that solo idea generation can be more productive – having a room of ten people coming up with ideas individually can result in more ideas than those generated by a group brainstorm.

Fixing brainstorms

If you’re mindful of these issues, however, there’s no reason why a brainstorm shouldn’t succeed. I believe it can be most effective to hold carefully facilitated group sessions where activity is alternated between collective discussion and short, focused bursts of individual creativity.

Having a great brainstorm facilitator to organise the process and keep the momentum can make all the difference. A facilitator can act as a catalyst to spark a group’s creativity by maintaining energy levels, introducing creative thinking techniques, ensuring group cohesion and providing the necessary support in terms of equipment and recording.

A brainstorm facilitator should ensure that everyone in the group is perceived as equal – removing any hierarchies. In the same vein they should refrain from adopting a teacher-like manner – sitting amongst the group rather than standing at the head of the table like a conductor.

They should be ready to keep up the pace of the brainstorm – if the room goes quiet, be ready to restart it with a creative technique or prompt.

It isn’t necessary for a brainstorm facilitator to have a deep understanding of the company, or its industry – in fact sometimes it can be a distinct advantage to have someone guaranteed to bring a fresh approach.

Brainstorming techniques

Beginner’s Mind

If you’re stuck for fresh thinking and original ideas, it’s possible that your knowledge and experience is holding you back. It’s time to empty your cup and view your problem as a complete newcomer.

Constraints

We could all use more budget and more time, right? Maybe not. Constraints are often the source of our best ideas. So rather than remove constraints, let’s welcome them and add more.

Idea Collisions

Take two or three ideas that you’ve come up with for a project, and see if you can join them together. How could the aspects of one idea merge with or be added to the aspects of another idea?

Perspectives

Looking at a problem or brief from different angles or vantage points can change how it is perceived and interpreted. This might mean taking on a different persona, or changing your thinking style slightly.

Details

Zooming in brings into focus new and interesting details, previously overlooked. These details can provide fresh stimulus and insight to provoke new ideas and solve problems.

Revolutionary Thinking

Traditions often block new thinking because people are reluctant to change from what they already do, and have done for years. Think of the rules and traditions you follow, and try breaking them.

Prompts

Don’t sit back and wait for inspiration. Take a proactive approach to idea generation through the use of clever prompts, provocations and questions to kick start your creative journey.

First Principles

Originally advocated by ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, this approach is now championed by Tesla founder Elon Musk. Boil things down to the core elements and then reason up from there.

And many more…

Perfectly sized, and in your comfort zone

Brainstorms work best for teams of 12-20, however they can accommodate more if you have a spacious venue.

Three hours is a good length for a brainstorm – long enough to generate brilliant ideas and formulate action plans; short enough to keep the energy high and enable you to get all the day’s other important tasks done too.

However we can also run full day brainstorms if you have a big topic to tackle – we have plenty of activities and tricks up our sleeves to keep everyone upbeat and productive.

If you have a suitable space within your offices, that’s great. Ideally, a room with natural light, plenty of space to swing a cat, not too many tables, flipcharts and a projector / large TV screen. Alternatively we can suggest some great creative spaces.

We come armed with reams of post-its, Sharpies, worksheets and props – including a rubber brick and ping-pong balls! – to help stimulate creative juices and problem solving powers.

“After the session, my colleague and I couldn’t stop talking about the new ideas we had generated in our heads, all of which happened in such a short period of time. I would recommend Creative Huddle to any company who have reached a creative stalemate.”

Heidi Swain, University of Sussex

“James has great integrity, is down to earth and a really nice guy too. He brings a practical and clear approach to creativity tools and techniques, and strips out the mystique and the b*llsh*t which is no small accomplishment.”

Roland Harwood, 100%Open