March 09, 2016
How to Keep Small Group Brainstorming On Track


If you are planning to lead any kind of ideation or brainstorming session in the near future and will be dividing the group into sub-groups, here's one thing to keep in mind:

No matter how clear the instructions you give or how much you reinforce the ground rules of brainstorming, there is a 95% chance that the small groups will default to any of the following instead of brainstorming: conversation, debate, storytelling, schmoozing, philosophizing, venting, and question-asking. Bet on it.

WHY does this happen? Because there is precious little time, in most organizations, for people to simply get together and TALK about their issues, problems, and concerns in a meaningful way. Too many people work alone and don't have enough opportunities to get input, information, non-threatening feedback, and the perspective of others.


Bottom line, most people are subject to their own version of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (i.e. physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, self-actualization).

In other words, before diving into the "higher octave stuff" (i.e. creative thinking), people need to deal with the basics of their business life -- the stuff that is "on their minds."

If you only have a little while for a brainstorming session, you, as facilitator, of course, want to "cut to the chase" and get people ideating, but THEIR need usually involves something else, something more immediate that needs expression and an audience.


1. Create more opportunities, on the job, for people to share their experiences, information, and perspectives with each other.

2. Schedule longer brainstorming sessions, so people have the time to "stretch out."

3. Include some "hierarchy of needs" time early in your session (i.e. small group sharing that had nothing to do with ideation).

4. Before dividing into small groups, be very upfront about this non-ideation phenomenon. Let people know their deliverable is ideas, not conversation, venting, or storytelling.

5. Ask each group to identify a "brainstorm facilitator" to keep things on track. Explain that role clearly.

6. State the brainstorming ground rules very clearly and project them onto a big screen for all people to see.

7. Create a "venting wall" where people can post their gripes and complaints on post-it notes before the brainstorming groups begin.

8. Give people a measurable goal for their small group brainstorming sessions (i.e. each person needs to jot down at least 10 new ideas).

9. After the brainstorming begins, wander around the room and observe the groups. If they are getting off track, remind them of the goal. (PS: Before the brainstorming begins, alert people people to the fact that you will be doing this, so they don't feel "singled out.")

10. Train a select group of in-house change agents how to facilitate effective brainstorming sessions.

Idea Champions

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at March 9, 2016 08:49 AM


Hi Mitch,

Great post. I love the way your blogs always focus on practical tools and tips and not just theoretical guesses at what works in real life. These ten tips are a great supplement to a number of other "best practice" brainstorming tips. Another bunch of similar great brainstorming rules was put together by Harvard Researcher Robert Epstein (e.g. Shifting) which have been shown in a number of studies to be very effective.

Evan Shellshear

Posted by: Evan Shellshear [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 12, 2016 05:05 AM

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