A Strategy Brainstorming Checklist
I’ve been part of a lot of strategy brainstorming sessions. I’ve been a minor player, observing the session or documenting decisions reached. I’ve been an active participant, working with others to develop solutions to problems or identify/exploit new opportunities. And, I’ve been a facilitator, striving to keep the discussion running smoothly and participants focused on achieving the best possible outcome from the session.
Anybody who has acted as a facilitator can confirm, it isn’t easy. I’ve developed an approach that isn’t guaranteed fool-proof (because fools are incredibly creative at disrupting brainstorming sessions), but it does work … most of the time.
1. Strive to have the right participants in the session
The chances of a successful brainstorming session are significantly increased if you’ve got the right people in the room
Unfortunately, this may be obvious, but isn’t as easy as it sounds. It helps to think of participants in terms of key roles that they will play in the session:
It’s worth noting that the roles aren’t exclusive, and don’t have to be played by different people. Quite often, key individuals can play multiple roles. It’s especially common to find blurred lines between (especially talented) catalysts, visioneers and constructors. In many high-growth SMB organisations, it’s common to find just two people coming together in successful brainstorming sessions - with all roles admirably represented.
2. Create the right environment
Brainstorming works best when all participants are comfortable and have necessary materials easily to hand
Creating the right environment is increasingly challenging, especially when brainstorming sessions frequently include remote participants via telephone, video or online chat. The key is to find a way to bring people together in the most optimal way possible. There are four basic considerations:
Although it’s a mistake to underestimate the importance of the environment, don’t abandon a brainstorming session because it isn’t perfect. Although you want to optimise the environment, if all you have is a Google Hangouts connection capable of conducting a conference call with key participants, or a few seats in a coffee shop, that’s better than nothing.
3. Manage the invitation process
Early contact maximizes participant attendance
Asking an entrepreneur or a key business professional for 15 minutes of their time “sometime next week” is probably not going to work. Most high-value people are very busy and social/business calendars are packed. People often have predefined commitments stretching out weeks, months and (sometimes) years into the future. But, there are three steps that will maximize the chance that you’ll get the right people to show up at a strategy brainstorming session:
It may seem that the amount of 1-on-1 interaction necessary to ensure that participants turn up at a group session is self-defeating. After all, if you have to spend time talking about the session with each participant, why have the session at all? But, the value of bringing people together as a group is the collective, rather than individual participation. The best ideas frequently emerge from group debate rather than individual or 1-on-1 discussions.
4. Provide a reasonable amount of pre-work
Establish knowledge and understanding of the topic before the session.
It’s tempting to send out vast quantities of pre-work before a brainstorming session. The logic is to get everybody up-to-speed on the topic prior to the event so that they can be much more productive together. But, how often have you been in any kind of meeting where everybody has reviewed the pre-read materials beforehand? The fact is, people rarely spend the time to go through pre-session materials and the first time they start even thinking about the topic is when they walk through the door (either physical or virtual) of the room.
With this in mind, think carefully about what material you want people to review prior to the session. Send only the most essential and ideally, send none at all. Instead, spend the first part of the session bringing everybody up-to-speed as rapidly as possible. This is often what happens anyway. The difference is if you sent out pre-session materials and still do an up-front review, you’ll irritate the few participants that DID review the materials before walking in the room.
5. Develop a session plan
Create a framework for discussion and debate.
Strategy brainstorming sessions rarely go exactly to plan. By their very nature, they are fluid meetings, with discussions flowing in unforeseen directions. But this is all the more reason for a session plan. The longer and more involved the topic, the greater the need for a plan, but even 10-minute strategy sessions need a framework. The key elements of a session plan are:
As a template for a brainstorming session, I generally start with the following outline, and then adjust and refine dependent on the topic, the participants, and the purpose of the session.
It’s worth placing extra emphasis on ‘3’, especially in situations where the session is focused on finding a solution to a problem — and the best solution is the ‘least worst’. In those instances, it’s especially important to think about pitfalls and mitigate them as much as possible.
6. Document the session
Ensure that what was discussed and decided isn’t forgotten
Typically, as soon as a strategy brainstorming session ends, participants disperse and move on to the next item on their task list. Discussion points, ideas, action-items, and core decisions are forgotten as other priorities take over. This is why it’s essential to document the session.
Some strategy brainstorming sessions are confidential or conducted under (for example) Chatham House rules. If this is the case, documentation should be carefully controlled in line with agreed principles for the session. However, in most instances, documentation of the session should be completed as soon as possible.
In an ideal world, the entire session will be recorded — video or audio. That means that you can go back and review the session with 100% clarity. If this isn’t possible, minutes should be taken by somebody assigned the administrative task of ‘scribe’, preferably augmented with relevant pictures and charts. It’s worth noting that ‘graphical recording’ (notes in the form of pictures) is a popular way of capturing the essence of a meeting, but is unlikely to capture all of the nuances of detailed discussions and should be augmented with text notes.
Although, as the facilitator you want the most detailed possible record of the session, ‘less is more’ is the mantra for the materials to be distributed to participants. A complete set of minutes is unlikely to be read and the same goes for an audio/video recording. Instead, a relevant précis should be distributed, covering:
Just as invitations should be followed up with 1-on-1 interactions, the same is true for session review documents. Face-to-face, telephone, chat or (as a last resort) email conversations should be used to connect with session participants. Ask if they have had any additional thoughts since the session, if they have had any post-session ideas, and if they are clear on any outstanding tasks to which they have been assigned.
This approach isn’t a one-size-fits-all and as mentioned up-front, it isn’t guaranteed to work. A quick ‘idea generation’ session requires less preparation than a multi-day strategic planning exercise. But, after many hundreds of hours facilitating different types of strategy brainstorming sessions, I can confidently say that working through these six steps will improve the chances of a successful brainstorming session.