What we’re talking about
Leading an idea session involves getting a group together, typically early on in a project, to generate initial ideas at speed. Maybe you need to solve a problem; maybe you’re keen to innovate in a specific area; maybe you need to respond to a brief you’ve been set by a client. Within the session, your team will have the opportunity to think innovatively, present ideas and riff off one another. It’s about volume and creativity, rather than the nitty-gritty practicalities of how you’ll make it happen. Be it designing a new product, prepping for a fundraising campaign or developing a marketing strategy, the foundations all lay in this session.
Why it’s important
Creative group work is key for businesses of all shapes and sizes. A study from collaboration software company PGI suggests workplace collaboration can increase successful innovation by around 15%; another from Deloitte says businesses that prioritize teamwork are twice as likely to grow their profits. Idea sessions offer a chance to hear the perspectives of numerous team members – all with different backgrounds and skill sets – as employees are forced to take time out from their day-to-day responsibilities for pure creative thinking. They’ll hear opposing viewpoints, build on and collaborate over each other’s ideas, and come up with better ideas accordingly.
But you won’t be reaping any benefits if you don’t plan group idea sessions properly. Prep, structure, rules and strong leadership are non-negotiables. This is about being intentional about how you design the session, and being enthusiastic and responsive as it unfolds. Keep things moving and prevent any disputes and you’ll end up with unexpected solutions and a more cohesive, involved and satisfied team.
Things to note
Manage the personality types. In a badly organized session, you hear those who talk the loudest rather than those with the best ideas. Make sure you understand the personalities and working habits of each participant in your idea session – and alter the format to suit the combination. That might look like enforcing idea sharing from everyone in the first 10 minutes, or devoting a larger chunk of time to group conversation. You’ll also want to adjust your responses to domineering voices, critical voices and interrupters based on group dynamics.
Consider what you’ll do about bad ideas. Idea sessions have tended to hinge on the principle of there being ‘no bad ideas’, but the efficacy of this is now under scrutiny. It can be OK to say ‘no’ to things that are way too expensive, logistically impossible, or against company values so you avoid wasting valuable time. You do want to give employees a sense of psychological safety and creative freedom, however. Ideas that are uninspiring but realistic can always be modified later on, so keep a broad focus on quantity over quality.
Don’t forget the visuals. An idea session should involve more than just talking. Drawing and writing are essential for remembering things and building on them; mapping progression through concepts; documenting ideas for posterity; and building an environment that’s conducive to creativity. Some people also think more clearly when writing or drawing than when speaking. You could keep it old school with whiteboards, Post-its and notebooks – or use software, as well as photo and video mood-boarding.
Understand the nuances of doing it remotely. Online or hybrid idea sessions are more prevalent than ever. You’ll need a different toolkit, and an understanding of the weaknesses of brainstorming online. If you’re using Zoom, for example, make use of polls and breakout rooms. Having mics turned off – and participants worried about speaking over each other – presents a barrier to spontaneous flow; you’ll need to really inhabit your facilitator role and bring people in directly. Collaborative tech is your friend when it comes to remote brainstorming. That could be anything from a Google Doc that everyone has access to, to a sophisticated online whiteboard program. Miro, for example, offers 120 pre-made templates for ideation.
How to lead an idea session
1. Get clear on your objectives – and the questions you need to answer. Set a narrow and succinctly defined aim. For example, something broad like ‘innovating our product’ might instead be ‘refining our product so we reach X amount of new customers over the next year’. Then list 10 or so questions whose answers will help you get there, like: where are our competitors doing better? What are people’s reasons for not converting? Or what resources are we not making use of?
2. Set measurable goals. Answering at least five of these questions could be one. Alternatives might be coming up with 20 ideas, three genuinely viable solutions, or 10 paths to pursue.
3. Gather the right people. Your team might not be huge, but the optimum number is around four to 10 attendees. Consider who you need to answer your list of questions – you may benefit from a diverse mix of perspectives, expertise and objectivity. You’ll also need to think about diversity of background, how personality types mix, how senior or junior each attendee is, and how much the problem matters to them.
4. Think about timings. Before the session starts, be clear on how long it’ll run for. Thirty to 60 minutes is usually optimal – you can always schedule a few smaller follow-up meetings afterwards to keep the conversation going. If you’re really in the flow or if it’s a very complex, urgent or important issue, it might go on longer – but remember to schedule in breaks.
5. Tell everyone to come prepared. Arguably the most important step in an idea session happens before it even starts. Coming up with ideas takes time and deep concentration, so you won’t see good results if people just pitch up cold at a 30-minute session. Send attendees the overall goal and list of questions at least a couple of days before so they can start mulling things over and arrive with some initial ideas. You might, for instance, ask people to contribute a certain number of points to a shared doc beforehand.
6. Open with ground rules. Confirm goals, timings and meeting structure right at the start and clarify your expectations. Discourage interruptions and harsh judgments; encourage participation and active listening from everyone. Define the kinds of ideas that will receive an automatic ‘no’, or emphasize that nothing is off-limits. Reiterate that you’re here to discuss one thing only – and people shouldn’t go off on tangents.
7. Get into splinter groups. If you’re a large group meeting IRL, you might split into smaller groups. This gives people a chance to build on their ideas before getting squashed by the wider group dynamics. To keep track of all the discussions happening, tell people to start building a visual display of the ideas being discussed and refined.
8. Let the conversation commence. This is the main focus of the idea session, which you’ll direct. This could either be a free-flowing discussion, or more structured – using ‘templates’ like round robins, brainwriting, mind mapping or reverse brainstorming (where you start with defining problems and barriers and then work backwards to solutions).
9. Wrap up. Hopefully you’ll have generated a fair few ideas. Make a record of the results so everyone can refer back to it, and conclude by refining the longlist down to a handful of avenues to explore. You might take a group poll on what ideas excite people the most, or which they think are most effective.
10. Follow up. Just as individual work is crucial before the session starts, it’s vital afterwards, too. Ride on the momentum of the meeting and send a follow-up email to everyone within a day or two, clarifying next steps and encouraging people to get in touch with any further thoughts they’ve had. Often the time after an ideas session is when the best ideas really crystallize.
• An idea session should never be a long, aimless conversation. Planning, structure and facilitation are key.
• Use your time together as a group to build on and modify ideas your team members have come up with individually beforehand. Collaboration is how the best ideas come about.
• Brainstorming is an essential early stage of decision-making. Have a plan for what you’ll do afterwards so the ideas that were generated don’t slip through the cracks.
Perspective. For the Harvard Business Review, MIT’s Hal Gregersen outlines the brainstorming methodology he’s developed through working with hundreds of organizations.
Example. Via Shay Namdarian on Medium, check out this video of a productive idea session – spent coming up with bath toy concepts – by the IDEO Toy Lab.
Tool. Here are some idea session formats to try in person and remotely.