You need ideas for something—an event, a Lenten theme, new online outreach, a new ministry. And you need help coming up with ideas. So you decide to hold a brainstorm session. But during that session, people are pretty quiet. They’re just not saying anything, or the ideas they do share are too specific or narrow. Where’s that big idea you’re looking for?
People are full of ideas, whether they tend to think analytically or creatively. In the right environment, they’ll truly be themselves and let you know what’s going on inside their minds. So in a brainstorm session, establishing the right tone is essential to getting ideas flowing. Here’s how to create that tone so creativity is stimulated and people feel comfortable sharing all their wacky, dramatic, and big ideas.
Meet in person.
There are so many tech tools out there that make it easy to collaborate with people when you’re not geologically close to them. And these tools are wonderful! But sometimes they can be an impediment.
You know how communication is 90% nonverbal? That’s why nothing beats conversation, hearing someone’s ideas and watching their face light up when they get a good one, and then piggybacking off their idea with one of your own. It’s way more exciting than just watching words appear on a screen. If it’s not possible to get your group together in person, Skype or Google Chat so you still get people’s facial expressions when they talk.
Get out of your normal space.
Rather than going to the regular meeting room, go to the fellowship hall with some snacks. Get out and go to a coffee shop. If it’s a nice day, sit outside on the lawn. Moving to a different physical space can help people move into a different mental space as well—one that isn’t narrowed too much on daily tasks and is thinking in a more relaxed way.
Maybe don’t even call it a meeting or a brainstorm session. Call it a “brain dump” or “thunderstorm of the minds.” You might get some laughs at the name, but laughter is what you want. It means you’re reaching people in a different mental spot and tapping into some emotion, and emotion is really what gets minds going.
As the leader, listen more than speak.
People feel valued when they’re listened to, so make other’s voices the priority by giving them most of the time to speak. Giving the group the floor will make sure the brainstorm session feels like a collaborative effort rather than a lecture. If you’re the one writing down the ideas (see below), you’ll be pretty busy just keeping up with what people are saying anyway!
Avoid implying that any idea is bad.
In freewriting, the idea is to turn the part of your brain that is judgmental and just let stuff out, no matter how “good” or “bad” it might be. Shutting off the critical part is essential to opening up the creative part of our minds.
In a brainstorm session, this means not saying anything negative about ideas people bring up. Of course, there are overt phrases to avoid like “no, I don’t like that idea” or “that’s not what I’m looking for.” But there are subtle ways to constrict creativity as well that one might not even realize have that effect. Phrases like “I’d like something more like this” place a boundary on what group members are allowed (or supposed) to say. Then for every idea that bubbles up, they’ll think, “Is this an acceptable idea to share?” People will stop blurting out ideas and feeling relaxed. The room may become quieter and people’s ideas may become narrower; no more big ideas.
So what should you say? Try encouraging things like “that sounds fun!” Or say neutral things that simply acknowledge you heard the person speak, like “ok!” or “thanks for the idea!”
Write all ideas down in a place everyone can see them.
Get some big surface to record the ideas on so you can review them later. You can type them up on your computer and project your screen in front of the group, use a smart board or a big sheet of paper, or if all else fails, use some erasable surface and take a picture of it before you erase everything.
Make sure to write down every idea that comes out of people’s mouths. To someone sharing an idea, having the idea not written down can feel like a rejection, like the writer/leader is thinking, “This idea isn’t going to work” or “That’s a bad idea.” So even if you’re brainstorming ideas for a Holy Week social media outreach and someone says, “Hey, we could talk about the Easter bunny and how bunnies can’t even lay eggs,” write it down! Yeah, you might not use that specific idea. . . . But what if it later morphs into the idea, “Holy Week myths and what really happened according to the Bible”? From something seemingly crazy can come something brilliant. So embrace the crazy!
After the brainstorm session, evaluate the ideas privately and choose some that are more what you’re looking for.
When the brainstorm session itself is over, you can flip the judge-y switch in your brain back on and start evaluating ideas. Make sure you’re away from the group so no one has to see their idea get crossed off or rejected.
If you have enough ideas now to make a decision about your project, great! Go ahead and choose the ideas you prefer, or take some of the ideas and run with them to develop new ones. But if you still haven’t found that big idea . . .
Hold a second brainstorm session to dig into a handful of ideas that were shared in the first session.
In brainstorm session number two, present a handful of ideas from the previous session and say you’d like to brainstorm more ideas along those lines of thought. Be careful to not give the connotation that some of the previous ideas were bad or not acceptable. Rather than saying, “These were some of the best ideas from our first brainstorm session,” try saying something like, “These were some ideas I identified after our brainstorm session that we could develop into our Holy Week social media project. Let’s brainstorm ideas that center around these concepts.”
With something like this, you avoid sounding like you’re judging any of the previous ideas. You’re just shifting the focus a little. This brainstorm session can still be as creative and fun and crazy—again, write down every idea!—but afterward, you can evaluate the ideas privately and get even closer to finding the one that works best.
Need help getting the discussion going? Download a list of conversation starters for brainstorm sessions.