There are a lot of bad meetings out there. A project status meeting when a person reads updates off a shared tracker. Async, anyone? A team meeting when the leader talks the entire time with little engagement from individual contributors. Snooze.
Perhaps my least favorite bad meeting is an inspiration-less brainstorming session. You know the type: A prompt is shared and then unstructured idea-sharing ensues. You may hear crickets. Or you may hear the same loud voice over and over and over again.
But a structured intervention can help boost your team’s brainstorm. The next time you’re leading a session, try these exercises to supercharge your team’s creative thinking—and distill the best ideas to move forward.
100 Ways to Use a Paperclip
I often start off a brainstorming session with the 100 Ways to Use a Paperclip exercise to get the team warmed up.
The prompt is simple: List all the ways you might use a paper clip. Hold a bag of chips together? Pick a locked door? Mark a page in a book? Anything goes.
The exercise is designed to challenge team members to explore new and lateral ideas, approaches, and perspectives. It’s a sneaky (and fun!) way to shift everyone into a growth mindset before heading into the brainstorm at hand.
You can also try this exercise individually if you find yourself up against a creative block.
Once the team is warmed up, my Disruptive Brainstorming play is one of my favorite methods for team brainstorming. Here’s how you run this 60-minute play.
For distributed teams (some will be remote and some will be together in-person), create a collaboration document. Check out these templates for a Trello board or Confluence page. Have the Disrupt cards ready to screen share. For in-person teams, find a whiteboard or large paper and set out sticky notes and markers in a meeting room. Print out the Disrupt cards and bring them with you.
Define a clear topic for brainstorming. Then create a document with all the relevant research and background on your theme. Share it with the team a couple days in advance so they can start thinking about the topic.
Brainstorm (Round 1)
Break the team into two groups to do several rounds of brainstorming. If this is a distributed team, use the video conferencing software’s breakout rooms functionality. Set a timer for 10 minutes and start the brainstorm, coming up with as many ideas as possible in the allotted time. Nothing is off the table.
Have team members add ideas one at a time to the template, whiteboard, or sticky notes. Discuss the idea with the group as it’s being added to see if anyone on the team has anything to add or refine.
Cut (Round 1)
Bring the groups back together. In silence, have teams remove ideas from the opposite team’s board. These are any ideas that don’t seem achievable, supportable, or that don’t relate to the brainstorming objective. Generous trimming of ideas is important to make room for new ones.
Have one teammate from each group switch teams to shake up the team’s thinking. Then have teams pick a number at random from 1-33. This number will correspond to a Disrupt card. Some examples of Disrupt card prompts include:
- Appropriate challenges: We delight in challenges, especially ones that strike a balance between overwhelming and boring.
- Limited access: We naturally desire things that are perceived as exclusive or belonging to a select few.
- Humor effect: Funny items are more easily remembered—and enjoyed!
Brainstorm (Round 2)
With the new team member and Disrupt card, set a timer for 10 minutes and begin a new round of brainstorming. The ideas should relate to the concept on the Disrupt card.
Cut (Round 2)
Once again, remove ideas from the opposite team’s brainstorm list. Do so quietly and without discussion.
Have a different person from each team switch teams. Add a new Disrupt card at random. Set a timer for 10 minutes and go for one final brainstorming round.
Make this one the biggest cut yet, even if (or especially if) it means only 1-2 ideas are left per team. The team intends to commit to these ideas, so make sure they’re worth pursuing. Then commit to them.
A brainstorm is supposed to be a time for fun and inspiration. If you find them boring, awkward, or unproductive, give one or both of these exercises a try, and see how you boost them.
Mark Cruth is Atlassian’s resident Modern Work Expert. Focused on practice over theory, Mark spends his days coaching both Atlassian and customer teams on new ways of working, then sharing what he’s learned at events around the world.