7 Proven Successful Steps

Whether your organization is looking to answer a question, solve a problem, generate fresh ideas or inform product development, planning or strategy, gathering a carefully selected group together for a brainstorming session can be an incredibly valuable exercise to drive and foster innovation through creative thinking.

Throughout my 25 year career – previously at private and public companies including Tourism Canada, Tourism Calgary, the Walt Disney Company, Parks Canada, Brookfield Residential, and recently as a consultant for my company, honeycomb solutions – I have planned, participated in and facilitated all types of small, large, structured and unstructured brainstorming sessions.

From my years of experience, I can tell you that the following seven steps to ensure creative brainstorming sessions …have not failed me…they are not only effective but also result in actionable takeaways:

1. Clearly define the purpose

In a nutshell, “What are you trying to accomplish”? It’s important to get specific. Narrow down the goal as much as possible instead of trying to tackle a complex problem or come up with an entire strategy all at once. Staying focussed helps ensure that the ideas that come out of the session can be reasonably and logistically executed without having to introduce a whole new way of operating or a net-new business plan. (If you don’t get this right your session will not deliver the results you expected or hoped for.)

2. Clearly define your audience

That tried and true marketing adage, “Know Your Audience(s)”, is a critical factor to a successful outcome of any brainstorming session. In my experience, consumer insight is often underutilized and/or underestimated. Thankfully it is relatively easy to solve for by using the quantifiable and qualifiable data you likely have at hand to answer some or all of the following questions, depending on the nature of your business:

  • What problem are we resolving for WHO? (What’s their obstruction/pain point)
  • Who’s the customer/consumer? What are their needs, wants and values? What channels are they active on? How do they make decisions? What action do we want them to take?
  • Who are the decision-makers? What do they need in order to move forward?
  • Who are the main competitors in this space? What are they doing that we are not? What are we doing better? What is our competitive advantage in the marketplace? Where do growth opportunities lie?
  • How are existing customers experiencing our brand? Where are we losing customers (churn)? Do we have insight as to why and to whom?

3. Choose your participants

Once you have the answers to the questions above, it’s time to consider who should be at the table. Diversity is key and willing participants, people who are there not to condemn the process but be a part of it!  Ensure you have people involved who truly represent all your stakeholder’s different perspectives, internally and externally, you have a greater opportunity to generate truly innovative ideas that will resonate with your targeted consumer(s). You will also better able to learn about and understand all the different perspectives and experiences that make up your brand. (ie: if you’re brainstorming a tourism strategy – don’t fill the room with ‘corporate suits’…add a chef, cab driver, experience providers, even your travellers etc…)

As far as the ideal number of participants, there is no hard and fast rule. I would suggest that no fewer than four and no more than seven people is ideal to generate the most and best ideas in the least amount of time. Any more than that and you run the risk of losing momentum and the willingness for individuals to speak up.

4. Plan the ideal environment and select the ideal format

Your environment is key.  Choose a space that supports the purpose and the audience. (ie: when we did facilitation for Parks Canada, we went into the parks where people experience the product firsthand).

Some administrative points that need to be mentioned: Don’t forget, ensure the space is connected and ideally has existing whiteboards, projectors, etc., if you need them. (seems easy but how often this has failed).  A timer is also a good tool to help keep the session on track. On that note, try to keep the session to no more than two to four hours (with health breaks). This should be achievable if you have clearly defined and narrowed your purpose in step one.

To help participants loosen up, get their juices flowing and feel at ease, plan an icebreaker kick-off activity and one or two other energizers you can use throughout the session as needed. Toys, trinkets, candy, stress balls, post-it notes, and markers should also be readily available. And be sure to provide healthy food (fruits/veggies) and refreshments!

Lastly, choose the format – world café, round table, free flow brainstorm etc. – that you are most comfortable with and that will put your participants at ease.

5. Brief participants in advance

I can’t recommend this highly enough! Many people feel that ‘going in cold’ is a good way to get the most creative, out-of-the-box thinking from participants. This is not the case in my experience.

Get your participants thinking in advance by sending them briefing information at least two days prior to the session. Include the goal of the session and any background or contextual information that would be useful. This tends to trigger the “on” switch in people’s creative brains and gets them percolating with productive thoughts and ideas before coming together.

6. Running the session

I’m not always a fan that you need an outside/professional facilitator.  At times you need them but remember, some of the best talent is under your nose, on your team, in the office or in your industry.  Give them a chance!

Many times, being facilitated by our peers that we respect, results in greater ideas. (depends on the purpose of course)

After you welcome everyone, have them introduce themselves (I love an ice breaker) and then you need to set the ground rules. For example:

  • No idea is a stupid idea
  • How and when to chime in? E.g. Is interrupting okay, or not?
  • Let participants know if you will be recording the session (recommended) and make sure they are okay with that

While the most important job as the facilitator is to listen to and record ideas, you are also there to link ideas…build upon what’s being said…align back to the purpose.  Your role is also to step-in if participants get stuck or momentum falters. Work through that by taking an energizer break and/or asking questions.

One of my favourite questions…ask “What if?” E.g. What would it look like if…? Imagine if…? If there were no barriers, how would we…? If you could put an anonymous suggestion in your organization’s suggestion box that relates to our topic, what would it say….? (In the latter question, if you sense a reluctance to speak up have participants write their suggestion(s) on a sticky note and collect them after the session so the authors can remain anonymous).

And…I often get asked…where’s the metrics, why didn’t we start with measuring success…in my humble opinion – a creative brainstorm is exactly that – innovating ideas.  This is not the time to define metrics…once you have your top ideas…take them…they will need further ideation, budget crunching, etc…

7. Post-session presentation and follow-up

Present an IDEA, not a PPT.  After the session has ended, ensure you have an hour or two to flesh out notes and categorize feedback and ideas into themes – and/or rank them. This should be done immediately if you have time.  It’s great to do this with participants….if not, within the next two days -no later. Your session will be gone from their minds. (and yours) Trust me! What seems crystal clear immediately after the fact can lose detail and nuance within hours.

Follow up with your participants within 24 hours to thank them for their time and invaluable contribution. Highlight contribution “moments” that stood out for you.  (Isn’t it nice to be heard and remembered for what you said?)  You may want to send your session notes at this time to ensure you didn’t miss anything and to provide an opportunity for further input or comments before you present your analysis and recommendations to your organization. People often come up with something brilliant after the session has ended!  I’m a fan of don’t send a PPT…send imagery, images, snapshots of posties…show your results/ideas vs tell it in a PPT slide.

As you saw in my background, I spent time with the Walt Disney Company.  My former VP of Public Relations is now taking his ‘tips’ and ‘expertise’ around the globe.  If you are interested in learning more about running a creative brainstorm session, I highly recommend attending the upcoming Calgary Marketing Association (CMA) masterclass workshop featuring Duncan Wardle all about design thinking innovation on April 9th from 5-7 PM. The skills I learned from Disney and Duncan have been used throughout my career and provided me with an excellent foundation for facilitating successful creative thinking sessions. Check him out – it’s well worth the investment in your own career development and if you can’t attend – you can find Duncan on Ted too.

There you have it! Tips from an ol’ marketer…with some tried and true steps.  I hope they add value to your next brainstorming session and spark some fire in your creativity!

All the best,


About the Author:

Gisele Danis is Co-owner of Honeycomb Solutions. Building company and/or personal results through stronger brand storytelling.

Find her on:

Twitter @giseleincalgary

Linkedin: @giseledanis