Some people call them brainstorms. Some call them ‘Ideation sessions’. Still others call them “a complete waste of time”. Whatever you call it, the act of getting two or more people together in a room to think on the outside of their heads is almost certainly going to happen to you.
So you might as well set it up for success by following these 5 simple rules I was lucky enough to learn from the SXSW panel “Turning a blank page into a great idea”:
1. Get the numbers right.
You often can’t control how many people are going to be in a session, but if you can, keep it around the dozen mark – then plus or minus one. Odd numbers create a more natural sense of dynamism, which is crucial if you want progress. Dealing with large numbers? Break the room up into ‘cafe groups’. Y’know, a natural number of people you might see around one table in a cafe.
2. Get your timing right.
Below two hours is rarely enough time to establish group dynamics, wade through all the obvious ‘first idea’ responses and start generating fresh thinking – maybe even with some consensus. Beyond three hours, people get bored and, even worse, distracted by FOMO*.
3. Do your homework.
Group idea sessions don’t (generally) occur for no reason. There should be research, background material, competitive analysis** and, if you’re really lucky, a brief. Read them all. Understand them. Then, summarise everything you’ve learned (plus some of your own research) to a series of sketches (not slides) and have them on the wall before you start.
4. Start as you mean to continue.
Don’t wander through introductions or meander through the brief, kick the session off with a short, impactful and creative intro. It could be as simple as a clip from YouTube or a quick game or quiz – but make sure it is at least tangentially related to the topic at hand. Put some thought and effort into your opener and you’ll communicate your expectations: thought and effort from your participants.
5. Pass the mic (or the marker).
Ask your participants to describe their idea, or problem or example (or whatever they are trying to express) as a sketch, without words. You’ll force them to think clearly about what they are trying to express, because they’ll want to boil it down to a simple a picture as possible. It’s also a good leveler: seniority and politics get replaced by drawing skill.
These 5 tips were distilled from the SXSW Panel: “Turning a blank page into a great idea”, presented by Edelman Strategist and Ideator JB Hopkins along with New Yorker cartoonist Matt Diffee, who also revealed his 5 simple ways to improve an idea.
* Fear Of Missing Out. It’s why you check your mobile phone Every. Thirty. Goddamn. Seconds.
** I was once handed a folder marked “Competitive Anal”. It might have been an abbreviation, but I didn’t want to risk it, so I left it unopened.
About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+
About the images: all photographs used with the permission of Martin Ollman Photography. Contact Martin directly for rights and commissions.