How to brainstorm and workshop your ideas in business

Developing ideas as a group is one of the most challenging but rewarding events for any small business

This editorially independent article was made possible by HP thanks HP!

Along the path of every small business, there will be moments when you need to gather together your team and develop ideas. This process of brainstorming and workshopping together isn't as easy as it sounds. It's all too easy for a workshop to degenerate into a one-person presentation, or simply to be unfocused and ineffective.

So how do you keep things on track and make the most of a workshop or brainstorm?

1. Have a moderator

Workshops are collaborative, but that doesn't mean they're unstructured. The most important thing you can do to make workshops focused is to have a single moderator for the whole session.

What does the moderator do? The most important role of the moderator is to keep things focused. That means reeling the group in when it goes off on a tangent, as all groups will do from time to time. Quite often, the moderator will also be responsible for making sure the environment is right for the workshop, providing plenty of materials. Most importantly, they need to be a "people" person someone good at providing direction without being authoritarian.

2. Know what you intend to get out of the meeting

Part of the role of the moderator is to keep things on track but on track towards what? Always have a clear idea of the goal of the workshop, what you intend to get out of it. However, make sure that the goal of the meeting is achievable in the time available. Don't expect to develop a complete, ready-to-pitch business plan in an hour!

3. Avoid computers use paper

Computers are brilliant tools, but they're often terrible for brainstorming. Why? Because they encourage you to delete and edit what you're working on. For a brainstorm, paper is the best tool for the job: pads of paper, Post-it notes or whiteboard space. If part of the brainstorm requires work on a computer, make sure it's printed out and put up on a board rather than lurking in a file. The physicality of paper makes a huge difference to idea generation.

4. No idea is a bad idea (at least at first)

It's a bit of a clich, but it's true: in a brainstorm, no idea is a bad idea  at least at first. Remember that the point of a brainstorm is to generate ideas and then develop them, but if you get into whether an idea is good or bad immediately after writing it down, you'll get stuck critiquing that idea, rather than generating more.

But surely you have to weigh up the ideas at some point? Of course but quite often you'll find that a mediocre or impossible idea sparks other, better ideas as you go along. If you stop and evaluate every idea as it's thought up, that "sparking" process won't happen.

5. Start general, but drill down

However, once you have a good pool of broad ideas to work with, it's time to drill down into them and develop them further. This is where a great moderator comes in handy, because knowing the right time to start working through your ideas requires good "people" skills. You need to know when the well of ideas is starting to run dry, but also keep timekeeping on track even when things are still "sparking". Now's the time to start getting rid of ideas that won't make the grade, but be careful that you don't succumb to "group-think" and immediately dismiss what might be great concepts. Instead, evaluate each idea on its merits, and develop it further, asking plenty more questions to build it into something more solid.

Image by Kevin Dooley, used under creative commons license.

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